If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)


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D: Barry Jenkins / 119m

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Bryan Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Finn Wittrock, Dave Franco, Pedro Pascal, Emily Rios

Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (James) are childhood friends who have grown up and fallen in love. But building a life together has become something of a challenge: Fonny’s mother (Ellis) doesn’t like her, and finding a place where they can live together is hampered by most New York landlords’ reluctance to rent to black couples. Eventually finding a place through a Jewish landlord (Franco), the pair are shopping nearby one evening when Tish is accosted by a stranger. Fonny sees him off, but not before a passing policeman, Officer Bell (Skrein), gets involved and tries to arrest Fonny. The store owner intervenes, but Fonny’s card is marked. Some time later, Fonny is arrested by the same officer for the rape of a woman (Rios) who lives in another district; Bell states he saw Fonny running from the scene and the woman picks him out of a lineup. Fonny has an alibi, though, but with the police and prosecutors dismissing it, Tish and her family set out to prove Fonny’s innocence…

Told in non-linear fashion, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, begins with the revelation that Tish is pregnant. Fonny is already behind bars, awaiting trial, and Jenkins depicts the scene where Tish informs both families. It’s a good scene, and gives Ellis a chance to shine as Fonny’s mother, a religious zealot with a vicious streak a mile wide. And yet, though it is a good scene, it also provides the first indication that Jenkins’ adaptation might not prove as rewarding a movie overall as his previous feature, Moonlight (2016). For all the drama and outbursts of physical and verbal violence, the scene is overwritten, and filled with the kind of structured dialogue that only occurs in the movies, or on stage. And despite the best efforts of a very talented cast, this leads to the scene having only a certain amount of energy and power. As the movie progresses, there are many more scenes that reflect this problem with the screenplay, including an extended scene between Fonny and his friend, Daniel (Henry), and the moment when Tish’s mother (King) meets the woman Fonny is supposed to have raped. Many of these scenes have an unfortunate tendency to drag, or feel under-developed, and the movie suffers as a result.

The overall feeling is that Jenkins is being too respectful of the source material, and in attempting to remain faithful to Baldwin’s work, has done so at the expense of making it a truly cinematic experience. There is emotion here, and much of it is expressed through the love that Tish and Fonny have for each other, but it doesn’t resonate or linger from scene to scene, and in the end it doesn’t matter how many affecting close ups of Layne and James are used, they’re unable to improve on the minimal impact that’s present throughout. Though it’s an intelligent, perceptive movie when it comes to racial matters and the details of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, and Jenkins places the action in an ersatz combination of the Seventies and modern day that is oddly effective, even James Laxton’s excellent cinematography and Nicholas Britell’s Seventies-influenced score can’t overcome the deficits inherent in the material. Layne and James make for a sweetly likeable couple, and there’s terrific support from King, Henry, and the aforementioned Ellis, but there are times when the use of some cast members is a distraction of the “oh look, it’s…” variety (Pascal, Franco). Somewhere in If Beale Street Could Talk there’s a definitive version of Baldwin’s novel trying to break out, but thanks to Jenkins’ inconsistent efforts, it never gets the chance to show itself.

Rating: 7/10 – with enough about it to justify the good reviews it’s getting elsewhere, in truth If Beale Street Could Talk looks and sounds like a movie that doesn’t know how to connect with its audience; technically well made, and with a number of relevant things to say about the nature of love and commitment, it’s ultimately a movie that’s difficult to engage with, and not as powerful as it could have been.

Minding the Gap (2018)


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D: Bing Liu / 93m

With: Zack Mulligan, Keire Johnson, Bing Liu, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Mengyue Bolen, Roberta Moore

in the city of Rockford, Illinois, three friends have grown up with a love of skateboarding that has kept them united in the face of personal tragedies, mutual family dysfunctions, and the trials of becoming adults along with all the expectations that come with that. Zack works as a roofer. He drinks a lot, spends as much time skateboarding as he can, and work aside, shows no sign of adopting any other responsibilities. That all changes when his girlfriend, Nina, becomes pregnant and they have a baby, Elliot. Keire is quieter, still living with his mother, Roberta, while trying to decide what he’s going to do with his life. He finds a job as a dish washer in a restaurant, but only seems truly happy when he’s skateboarding. Bing is a would-be movie maker, always filming his friends, and as time goes on, he begins to explore how they all feel about becoming “men”, while also examining what it means in today’s terms. Over the passage of time, Bing also learns that all three of them have been affected by events in their childhood, events that it appears none of them have fully, or even partly, dealt with…

If you’re thinking, “gee, skateboard movies seem to be all the rage these days”, what with this and Skate Kitchen and Mid90s (both 2018, and both worth watching) out there, then you’d only be half right, as the beauty of Bing Liu’s impressive documentary debut is that skateboarding is just the launching point for an extraordinarily perceptive, and moving, examination of issues such as domestic abuse, casual racism, and social and economic deprivation. Made over a period of twelve years, Liu captures those painful moments when he and his friends come face to face with the realisation that they have to step up and become the men they’re expected to be, but without any male guidance in each of their lives to help them. As the movie unfolds, Liu reveals that each of them have had to endure emotional and physical abuse as children, and all from their fathers or stepfathers. This has left each of them with issues that they are struggling to overcome, and Liu shows how well or how badly they cope with those issues, from the deterioration of Zack and Nina’s relationship and their eventual separation, to how the absence of Keire’s father from his life (he died when he was young) has left a void in Keire’s life, to how Bing’s mother, Mengyue, was (possibly) oblivious to the physical abuse that Bing suffered at the hands of her second husband.

Thanks to the closeness and the bonds shared by the three friends, Liu is able to get a number of candid admissions, and confessions, from Zack and Keire that might not have been possible if the movie had been made by an “outsider”. From these admissions and confessions, Liu is able to paint a subtly devastating portrait of compromised and misunderstood notions of manhood, as well as the social and familial backdrop that promotes these notions. As he delves deeper and deeper into this, he reveals how domestic abuse is something that one of his friends feels can be justified, while the other views the discipline he received when he was young in this offhand manner: “Well, they call it child abuse now, but…” (nothing further is said, there’s just a shrug). Violence is another recurring theme in the movie, and Liu expertly ties all these strands together to make a movie that is astonishing for its awareness of the depth of the problems it’s exploring, and the heartfelt sincerity with which the camera stays focused on the bad moments just as much as the good ones. For a first movie, this is powerful, enlightening, and disturbing at times, but always astonishing for the way in which Liu dissects such complex topics with precision and grace, and recognises that there aren’t any easy answers to the questions he raises.

Rating: 9/10 – there are a slew of tremendously good documentaries out there right now – Free Solo, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Three Identical Strangers (all 2018) to name but a few – but Minding the Gap is a seriously great documentary that stands in a league of its own; insightful and intimate on so many levels, and holding up a less than flattering mirror to the tattered social fabric of the American working class, Liu has crafted a moving and substantial movie that continues to resonate long after it’s over.

Border (2018)


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Original title: Gräns

D: Ali Abbasi / 105m

Cast: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren, Kjell Wilhelmsen, Rakel Wärmländer

Tina (Melander) is a Swedish customs agent who has a very special gift: she can literally smell people’s guilt. One day, she stops a man whose phone (it’s later revealed) contains child pornography. She explains her gift to her boss (Petrén), and she’s asked to help with the investigation into who filmed the images on the man’s phone. At around the same time, she encounters a man (Milonoff) who has similar facial features to her own, and it turns out, a scar in the same place where she has one. His name is Vore, and he tells her he will be staying at a local hostel. Puzzled by the number of things that they appear to have in common, Tina visits Vore, where she finds him eating maggots off a tree. Despite this strange behaviour, Tina invites Vore to stay in her guest house. Her partner, Roland (Thorsson), is unhappy about this, but as she gets to know him better, much of Vore’s approach to life begins to make sense to her, including his disdain for other people. However, it’s not until a fateful walk in the nearby woods that Tina’s life is turned completely, and unexpectedly, upside down…

What if you felt completely different from all the other people around you – including your parents – but you could never work out why? And what if that sense of being different kept you apart from everyone? How would you react if you met someone who could answer those questions for you, and put your feelings into perspective? Would you embrace wholeheartedly what you’re told, or would you be frightened by what it all means? And how would you feel if the truth was darker, much darker, than you could ever have expected? Those questions and more are at the centre of Border, an adaptation of the short story by John Avjide Lindqvist. And the answers take Ali Abbasi’s second feature into uncomfortable territory indeed, a fantasy world where Tina’s life and sense of reality are challenged at every step. For some viewers, it may prove to be too much of a challenge as well, because where the narrative takes us is somewhere so strange and so off-kilter that it almost dares us to look away. It’s a twilight world of unspeakable horror, with character motives that are both unjustifiable and strangely appropriate at the same time. Watching as this dynamic unfolds, the movie exerts a terrible grip that keeps us watching even though we might not want to.

Giving away too much of the plot and storyline would be to spoil what happens once Tina and Vore take that fateful walk in the woods. Suffice it to say, there’s not another movie like it, and it’s as grim and unrelenting as possible, with malevolent undercurrents that make for a chilling, uneasy, and yet unforgettable experience. Featuring sombre, melancholy visuals courtesy of DoP Nadim Carlsen, Border is strong on atmosphere, and also features several moments where it projects an eerie, oppressive nature that is both unnerving and compelling. It also has two equally compelling performances from Melander and Milonoff as the outsiders who have a common origin, and who might share a common destiny. Both buried under layers of prosthetic makeup, the pair still manage to explore and reflect their characters’ emotions and their desires, and though the expression of some of those desires may not be entirely palatable, there is a sincerity to both portrayals that is affecting (albeit for different reasons). Working with Lindqvist and Isabella Eklöf – whose own disturbing look at a dysfunctional relationship, Holiday, was released in 2018 – Abbasi has fashioned a grim fantasy for our times that speaks to the darkest impulses of human behaviour but which still offers us hope from the unlikeliest of sources.

Rating: 9/10 – with a sex scene that ranks as a first in cinema history, and a number of moments of true, visceral horror, Border begins as a dark, brooding thriller before morphing into something that’s darker and more sinister than could ever be expected from its low-key opening; not for all tastes, and unwilling to compromise in telling its story, it’s a movie that unsettles as much as it fascinates, but it’s a rewarding experience nevertheless.

Viper Club (2018)


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D: Maryam Keshavarz / 109m

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Edie Falco, Matt Bomer, Lola Kirke, Julian Morris, Sheila Vand, Adepero Oduye, Patrick Breen, Amir Malaklou, Damian Young

Helen Sterling (Sarandon) is an ER nurse whose son, Andrew (Morris), is a journalist who covers war zones. When he’s kidnapped by terrorists, Helen approaches the FBI for help, but their lack of urgency in dealing with Andrew’s abduction causes Helen to become frustrated and angry at how long it’s taking to get him back. A fleeting visit from a friend of Andrew’s, Sheila (Vand), prompts Helen into exploring different options than the ones “official channels” want her to pursue. She is given the number of Charlotte (Falco), someone else whose son was abducted, and who got him back with the help of the Viper Club. Helen learns that the Viper Club lobbies individuals to help with ransom payments, and has a network of contacts that can allow those payments to reach the right destinations (Helen has been repeatedly advised that paying terrorists, under any circumstances, is a criminal offence). When she receives a message from the terrorists asking for $20 million for Andrew’s safe return, and both the FBI and the State Department show no further sense of urgency, Helen decides to ask the Viper Club for their help…

A straightforward “issue” movie that tries to deal sincerely with the efforts of one lone mother to have her kidnapped son returned to her safely and well, Viper Club wears its sincerity and seriousness like a badge of honour, and though it tries hard – sometimes too hard – it often finds itself mired under a welter of good intentions. At its heart is another tremendous performance from Sarandon (who seems drawn to these kinds of roles and stories), but although her portrayal of Helen is nuanced and intelligently handled, and passionate too, it’s in service to a screenplay by director Keshavarz and Jonathan Mastro that doesn’t live up to its star’s efforts. Instead of this being a movie about the determination of a mother to rescue her son no matter what, there are too many stretches in the movie where that story is held up while the narrative explores Helen’s work life, and in particular, the case of a young car accident victim who’s in a coma, and the victim’s mother (Kirke). This leads the overall story nowhere (except occasionally into soap opera land), and though it highlights Helen’s compassionate nature and willingness to bend the rules, we already know this through the main thrust of the material.

Away from the ER, the movie is on firmer ground, but there are still problems to be overcome. It’s no surprise to find the FBI and the State Department represented as bureaucratic suits who believe there should be only one way of dealing with kidnappings by terrorists: their way. And Helen is kept in the dark about a lot of things that the Viper Club are doing on her behalf, more so for dramatic purposes than for any logical reasons (she’s treated quite patronisingly when there’s no need for it). Secondary characters such as Falco’s facilitator, and Bomer’s journalist-cum-Viper Club liaison officer, Sam, have a place in the narrative but it’s largely expositional, while flashbacks to when Andrew was last home and when he was a child are meant to be poignant, but only achieve this on a superficial level. Making only her second feature, Keshavarz has aimed high with her story and been blessed by obtaining Sarandon’s services, but there’s a pervading sense that she hasn’t worked out fully what she’s trying to say – or if she has, then she hasn’t worked out the best way of getting that message across. Some individual scenes work well in themselves and there’s a spirited energy to others that also helps, but this is a patchwork movie that doesn’t do itself – or its main character – the justice it needs.

Rating: 5/10 – anchored and improved by a powerful performance by Sarandon, Viper Club is another movie where the sum of its parts adds up to less than what was needed; well intentioned, and with a pertinent story to tell in today’s troubled times, it’s a shame that the focus shifts so often, and in ways that makes it very diffcult for the movie to make up all the ground that it loses by doing so.

10 Reasons to Remember Bruno Ganz (1941-2019)


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Bruno Ganz (22 March 1941 – 15 February 2019)

Although he made his start in a variety of German movies and stage productions, where he made his reputation, Bruno Ganz was actually Swiss by birth, having been born in Zurich. He knew he wanted to be an actor quite early on, and his initial attraction was to the theatre. He made his screen debut though in 1960, and his theatre debut the following year, and switched between the two over the course of the Sixties, but had more success on the stage. In the early Seventies he co-founded the Berliner Schaubühne ensemble, and was given the Actor of the Year award by Theater heute in 1973. In a few short years though it was to be a collaboration with Wim Wenders that would bring him to international attention, as the terminally ill picture framer, Jonathan Zimmerman, who is coerced into becoming an assassin in Wenders’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. With his screen reputation now firmly established, Ganz was able to move back and forth between screen and stage with even greater confidence.

During the Eighties, Ganz worked solidly in a variety of movies and genres, always giving good performances, even if the majority of them were in productions that were barely seen outside their countries of origin, or were included only as part of the festival circuit. In 1987 he made the first of three screen appearances as Damiel the angel in another Wim Wenders movie; the role became so iconic that some people in real life actually regarded him as a guardian angel. He continued to work mostly in European productions, and began playing people such as Ezra Pound and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but it was his second iconic role, as Adolf Hitler for director Oliver Hirschbiegel, that truly cemented his position as one of the greatest actors, both in the German language, and of his generation. He made more English language movies from then on, but often in supporting roles that didn’t allow him to do more than make a minor impression before his character was sidelined. Still, he remained a pleasure to watch, and he continued to make interesting choices.

Indeed, it’s not until you take a closer look at the movies Ganz has made that you begin to realise just how many quality directors he worked with. Wim Wenders aside, Ganz made movies with Barbet Schroeder, Francis Ford Coppola, Werner Herzog, Franklin J. Schaffner, Éric Rohmer, Theo Angelopoulos, Volker Schlöndorff, Stephen Daldry, Ridley Scott, Lars von Trier, Gillian Armstrong, Jonathan Demme, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Jeanne Moreau. He was a subtle actor, always looking for the truth in the characters he played – even Hitler – and his performances reflected the capable, methodical manner in which he explored each role’s vulnerabilities and strengths. A persuasive presence whether on stage or on screen, he has left us with a number of indelibe performances, and the hope that his final role in Terrence Malick’s Radegund won’t end up on the cutting room floor.

1 – The American Friend (1977)

2 – Knife in the Head (1978)

3 – Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

4 – Circle of Deceit (1981)

5 – Wings of Desire (1987)

6 – The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992)

7 – Downfall (2004)

8 – Youth Without Youth (2007)

9 – The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

10 – The Party (2017)

Journey’s End (2017)


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D: Saul Dibb / 107m

Cast: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge, Robert Glenister, Miles Jupp, Rupert Wickham

March 1918, Northern France. With rumours growing of a German push to break the deadlock that currently exists, the British have decided that each company should spend six days of every month on the Front Line. On the eighteenth it’s the turn of Company C, led by Captain Stanhope (Claflin). Once at the trenches, Stanhope and his second in command, Lieutenant Osborne (Betttany), discover that they are low on weapons, and even lower on supplies. The arrival of Second Lieutenant Ralegh (Butterfield), who was at school with Stanhope (albeit three years below him), doesn’t aid matters as Stanhope has taken to heavy drinking as a way of dealing with the stress of being in command, and he doesn’t want Ralegh writing home about him (Stanhope is in a relationship with Ralegh’s sister, Margaret). This causes a rift between them that is further abrogated when a raid is required and Ralegh returns alive, though others don’t. With the German offensive revealed to be taking place on the twenty-first, and Company C being tasked with holding the line, Stanhope and his men prepare themselves for the worst…

The fifth screen adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s play of the same name, Journey’s End relies heavily on its creator’s theatrical inspirations and presents much of the action as if this was a filmed stage production. This isn’t a bad thing on the whole, as it keeps the material confined in physical terms, making any escape from the officer’s quarters (where most of the movie takes place) or the front line trenches, entirely welcome, even though it’s likely to be fleeting. Focusing instead on the psychological damage suffered by Captain Stanhope and its effects on the officers around him, their quarters are another battleground for the group to navigate. Osborne, known as “Uncle” to the other men, is forbearing and supportive, but not so forgiving when Stanhope acts in bad faith, as when he plans to read, and censor if necessary, Ralegh’s letters home. Trotter (Graham) is the brunt of Stanhope’s unkind jokes but seems inured to them, while Hibbert (Sturridge) has his own struggles, and tries to avoid fighting by claiming an illness. Ralegh has a bad case of hero worship, and has a hard time getting to grips with a much different Stanhope than the one he knew in school.  As the fateful day approaches, Stanhope’s anger and self-loathing at the man he’s become is displayed in markedly different ways, and with markedly different results.

By retaining the close quarters and intense emotional outbursts that Stanhope has no choice but to express, Simon Reade’s anxiety-inducing screenplay and Saul Dibb’s assured direction maintain a tight grip on the narrative, and make this adaptation genuinely affecting. Any melodramatics are kept to a minimum, and the claustrophobic setting adds its own power to the mix, but its the performances that elevate the familiarity of the material and make it impactful. Claflin takes Stanhope’s self-hatred and sense of duty and makes them two sides of a divided character whose commitment is never in doubt even as he spirals ever further towards self-destruction. Butterfield as Ralegh is the perfect embodiment of innocence informed by inexperience and boyish exuberance, while Bettany is quiet and contemplative, yet just as aware that a soldier can only count on so much luck to survive the absurdities thrown up by war (and so it proves). Even down to the supporting roles, the movie is perfectly cast (Jones is particularly memorable as the dyspeptic cook, Mason), so that when the raid, and then the offensive, actually put them at risk, the movie has succeeded in making the viewer care about them. The story may not be new any more, but this is one version that succeeds by acknowledging this and relying on Sherriff’s original themes to get its message across – and it does so with passion and conviction.

Rating: 8/10 – with a necessarily gloomy visual style to support the gravity of the characters’ situation, Journey’s End isn’t interested in the politics of the era, or the stupidity of the military top brass (though these are accepted), but in the hopes and fears, and the camaraderie, of the men who fought so bravely; fatalistic and yet strangely optimistic as well, this is affecting and sincere, and a powerful reminder – if it were needed – that in war the idea of “winners” is patently, and utterly absurd.

Black Tide (2018)


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Original title: Fleuve noir

D: Erick Zonca / 113m

Cast: Vincent Cassel, Romain Duris, Sandrine Kiberlain, Élodie Bouchez, Charles Berling, Hafsia Herzi, Jérôme Pouly, Félix Back, Lauréna Thellier

When a teenage boy disappears, it looks at first as though he’s run away. But as police commander François Visconti (Cassel) begins his investigation, an encounter with one of the boy’s neighbours, Yan Bellaile (Duris), causes him to wonder if this is actually a murder case. Bellaile reveals he tutored the boy the previous summer, and his opinion is that the boy’s disappearance is due to his need to rebel against his parents. Something about Bellaile’s attitude rings alarm bells for Visconti, and he begins to investigate the man. Meanwhile, Visconti begins to find himself falling for the boy’s mother, Solange (Kiberlain). An anonymous tip off leads to a search of the nearby woods, and Bellaile’s presence there – plus his use of a phrase used in the tip off – causes Visconti to become certain that the teacher has killed the boy and hidden his body. As the investigation continues, Visconti becomes more involved with Solange, and his suspicions about Bellaile grow ever stronger. And then the boy’s parents receive a letter from him…

Adapted from the novel Disappearing Disappearance by Dror Mishani, Erick Zonca’s first big screen movie since Julia (2008) is a dark, brooding and unrelentingly grim trawl through the darker side of human nature that offers no absolution for the majority of its characters, or imbues them with any sense of remorse (or even understanding of the term). From the start, with Cassel’s magnificently monstrous Visconti bellowing and swearing at his son (Back) who’s been caught dealing drugs (in a subplot that seems like it should be the focus of another movie altogether), Zonca invites us to enter a world where moral ambiguity butts up against compromised morality so much that the two have become indistinguishable from each other. Visconti drinks on the job, thinks nothing of having sex with prostitutes, and bullies his way through the rest of his life as if it’s of no consequence. He is good at his job, though, the one thing that goes some way to excusing his behaviour, but as the movie progresses and more and more secrets are revealed, Visconti doesn’t even have the luxury of being regarded as an anti-hero. And like Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, he doesn’t even solve the case; circumstances gift him the solution, and even then he’s still wrong about what happened.

Cassel is on blistering form as Visconti, but he’s matched for intensity – though in quieter, more self-contained fashion – by Duris’ turn as Bellaile. Their game of cat and mouse drives the middle section of the movie, and it’s fascinating to see how Duris’ performance sparks and spars with Cassel’s, the two men circling each other like prize fighters looking to land that one knockout punch that will end the fight. Bellaile is an unsettling character, one who has a hollow centre where his conscience should be, but it’s the manner of his duplicity that is truly shocking, along with the pride he feels. And then there’s Solange, a femme fatale in any other version of this tale, but here a numb, almost dumbstruck presence whose grief at the loss of her son hides a terrible complicity. Zonca ensures that the viewer is unable to trust anyone, even Visconti, and the resulting nihilistic miasma that the narrative unfolds under is deliberately oppressive. Aided by some impressive framing by DoP Paolo Carnera that corrals and contains the characters in any given scene, and Philippe Kotlarski’s skillful editing, Zonca and co-screenwriter Lou de Fanget Signolet have created a disturbing, yet compelling movie that doesn’t shy away from exposing the worst ways in which human nature can exploit and justify itself in equal measure.

Rating: 8/10 – a movie that is deliberately bleak and uncompromising, Black Tide offers a twisting, off-kilter narrative that doesn’t always go where you think it’s going, and which doesn’t believe in happy endings for the sake of them; a modern-day noir thriller that plays by its own rules, Zonca’s latest is a potent reminder of the director’s abilities, and is also a movie that gets under the viewer’s skin – and nestles there uncomfortably.

Untogether (2018)


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D: Emma Forrest / 99m

Cast: Jamie Dornan, Lola Kirke, Jemima Kirke, Ben Mendelsohn, Billy Crystal, Alice Eve, Jennifer Grey, Scott Caan

Andrea (Jemima Kirke) is a recovering heroin addict (straight for a year now) who wrote a successful literary novel when she was twenty-one, but who hasn’t written a word since. She has a one night stand with a doctor, Nick (Dornan), who has had recent literary success himself with a memoir of his time in a war zone. For the first time since her recovery, she feels a connection to Nick and finds herself pursuing a relationship with him. Meanwhile, her younger sister, Tara (Lola Kirke), is in a relationship with Martin (Mendelsohn), a former musician who’s much older than she is. When she meets a rabbi, David (Crystal), and he offers to help her reconnect with her faith, Tara finds herself smitten by him, and unsure suddenly about her feelings for Martin. Both sisters find themselves dealing with their own insecurities as they navigate these new relationships, and having to also deal with the fallout of the decisions they’ve made. Things are made even more difficult when Tara doesn’t attend a comeback gig that Martin has arranged, and an unexpected truth about Nick’s memoir is revealed…

The feature debut of English writer/director Emma Forrest, Untogether is another of those LA fables that revel in presenting a handful of characters with a surfeit of insecurities, and traits that keep them from ever being happy, no matter how hard they try. Your patience for this sort of thing will be dependent on how many similar movies you’ve seen already, because although there’s no shortage of pointed humour and affecting drama in Forrest’s debut, ultimately the problems and the issues her characters face aren’t all that original. Andrea is another in the long line of movie novelists who struggle to find that elusive second book, and detest the negative attention that comes with it. Nick isn’t a writer, and his easy success rankles with her, and it’s this and her own doubts as to whether she’ll ever write again that causes Andrea to do what she can to sabotage her relationship with Nick, and take steps toward self-harming. However, a lot of this perceived angst is just that, perceived, as Forrest’s script never takes Andrea to a dark enough place to make her as sympathetic as she should be. You just want her to get over herself and stop brooding about what she hasn’t got, and to focus instead on what she has got.

Unfortunately, the same is true of Tara. While we can assume that she likes older men given her relationship with Martin, her sudden attraction for David is never convincingly portrayed, despite good work from the ever reliable Kirke, and Crystal in a serio-comic role that carries a lot of warmth. This leaves the relationship between Tara and Martin to founder more and more as the movie goes on, becoming less and less interesting as Forrest moves her characters from Point A to Point B by way of convenience instead of natural progression. As for Nick, Dornan is stuck with a role that has no arc, and makes little impact, leaving Andrea’s infatuation for him something that comes across as more curious than plausible. Though her script struggles to avoid the clichés inherent in such intertwined stories, Forrest has better luck in the director’s chair, and keeps the viewer involved thanks to a combination of placing the emotion in a scene front and centre, and a cast that enters into the spirit of things with a commitment and gusto that smooths over the screenplay’s rougher patches. By the end, you may be glad that it’s all over, and that the journey wasn’t worth the time and the effort, but there are enough good moments along the way to make sticking with it a reward in itself.

Rating: 6/10 – another tale of lost souls in LA (just how many can there be?), Untogether sees its characters tasked with taking risks in their lives, but having no idea what to do, or being too afraid to do so in the first place; frustrating for its lack of a coherent message, but worth it for the performances (Mendelsohn is particularly effective), perhaps it’s an indication that Forrest should focus on directing instead of writing.

The Golem (2018)


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D: Yoav Paz, Doron Paz / 95m

Cast: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Kirill Cernyakov, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravich, Alexey Tritenko, Adi Kvetner, Mariya Khomutova, Veronika Shostak, Konstantin Anikienko

Lithuania, 1763. In a small isolated village made up of an entirely Jewish community, Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) and Benjamin (Golan), are a couple who are struggling to have a second child following the death of their first born, Joseph, seven years before. Their marriage seems mired in the expectations of the village elders, one of whom suggests Benjamin should renounce Hanna and take another wife. However, these considerations take a backseat with the arrival of Vladimir (Tritenko). Vladimir has come from a nearby, plague-ravaged village and his eldest daughter is dying, while no one in Hanna’s community is affected. Threatening to kill everyone and burn their village to the ground unless his daughter is saved, the task is taken up by the village’s healer, Perla (Brynie Furstenberg). But Hanna bristles under Vladimir’s threats, and challenges the elders to create a Golem, an ancient creature out of Jewish myth that could defend them. When they refuse, Hanna takes matters into her own hands, and brings the creature to life herself. What she doesn’t expect is the form the Golem takes: that of a young boy who reminds her too much of her lost son…

Taking some of its inspiration from The Witch (2015), the latest outing from the Paz brothers – fans of Jeruzalem (2015) will be pleased to know there’s a sequel in the works – is a sterling effort that does its best to explore the myth of the Golem, while placing the creature within a convincing setting. Though it doesn’t explain why Jewish lore would have such an acknowledged demon at its (potential) disposal, Ariel Cohen’s screenplay does highlight the circumstances under which it might be called upon, and then mixes those circumstances with the grief and sadness felt by Hanna over the death of her son. Though Hanna does come across as something of a modern day heroine, and her challenges to the orthodoxy of her community go unpunished, her motives are predominantly maternal; she’s being protective, albeit in a way that may prove more dangerous to the community than Vladimir’s murderous intentions. Her motives devolve with the Golem’s arrival, and the bond they share reawakens the feelings she had when Joseph was alive. And through all of this, there’s a palpable sense of threat from the Golem, its blank stare hiding much darker intentions than those it has been brought to life for.

Hanna’s maternal instincts inevitably lead to tragedy, and thanks to a first-rate performance from Hani Furstenberg, there’s an emotive undercurrent to events that lifts the material and makes it more than just a period horror movie with a generous sampling of gore effects. The Paz brothers also know when to focus on character over action, and the opening scenes establish both the sense of a tight-knit community, and a number of the stories that exist within that community, from the neighbouring widow who may be the second wife Benjamin needs, to Hanna’s sister who is on the verge of getting married. Vladimir’s arrival allows the movie to add a layer of historical persecution to the mix (his threats amount to a promise of a pogrom), and to highlight the elders’ belief in the power of prayer, but without forgetting that sometimes violence has to be met with violence. That these elements are present is a tribute to the density and complexity of Cohen’s screenplay, and the Paz brothers’ approach to the material, making the movie as a whole more involving and more effective as a result. With bleak, shadowy cinematography by Rotem Yaron, and  a pervading sense of menace throughout, this is necessarily grim stuff, and all the better for it.

Rating: 8/10 – it’s not often that a horror movie takes the time to explore the nature of evil, but it’s one of many surprises that The Golem has to offer, along with a lead female character who drives the story forward, and an ending that is both poignant and bittersweet; though there are moments where the dialogue sounds altogether too modern, and Hanna’s actions appear to be in defiance of historical accuracy, this is still an impressive outing from the Paz brothers, and one that augurs well for their future projects.

The Bookshop (2017)


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D: Isabel Coixet / 113m

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, James Lance, Honor Kneafsey, Charlotte Vega, Reg Wilson, Jorge Suquet, Frances Barber, Lucy Tillett, Michael Fitzgerald, Hunter Tremayne

In 1959, in the Suffolk coastal town of Hardborough, Florence Green (Mortimer) decides to open a bookshop on the site of a rundown property called the Old House. The Old House needs more than a lick of paint to make it look presentable, but with the help of a group of local sea scouts, the bookshop is soon open and prospering. Soon, Florence needs the help of an assistant, and duly hires young Christine Gipping (Kneafsey), who proves to be a conscientious worker, and good company as well. Florence’s efforts attract the attention of local recluse, Edmund Brundish (Nighy), and he soon becomes her best customer, despite rarely leaving his home due to his perceived misanthropic behaviour. However, Florence’s efforts also attract the less supportive attention of Violet Gamart (Clarkson), the wife of a local bigwig who has her own plans for the Old House, and who isn’t about to let Florence stop her from getting what she wants. It’s not long before Florence is encountering problems to do with her bookshop, problems that can all be traced back to the interfering Violet Gamart…

Narrated by an uncredited Julie Christie, and adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel of the same name, The Bookshop is a subdued, and somewhat musty, tale that is often too polite for its own good. Its easy-going style, and restrained dramatics, make for a gentle, nostalgic trip down memory lane – Llorenç Miquel’s production design and Marc Pou’s art direction put the viewer squarely back in the late Fifties – but also one that is in danger of leaving the same viewer wondering if the movie is ever going to get started. There’s no shortage of incident, but it’s all presented in such a low-key, genial fashion that even when it looks inevitable that Florence will lose the bookshop, the tone and the pace remain the same: even-handed and slow. This may be an attempt at reflecting the time and place in which the movie is set, but if it is, it makes for a disappointing experience. Florence is a forbearing soul, thoughtful, kind and considerate, but it’s a measure of Coixet’s screenplay that on the one occasion she does express the pain and anger she’s feeling, it’s not for herself, and it’s directed at the wrong character. On its own it’s a good scene, but taken as part of the whole, it sticks out by being too melodramatic (though it is also a welcome relief from the blandness of the rest of the material).

Coixet also has a problem with the story’s “bad guys”, the pompous, acidly arrogant Violet Gamart, and her easily manipulated stooge, Milo North (Lance). Violet’s idea for the Old House is to have an arts centre, but the why of such an idea is never fully explained, and her motives remain as shrouded in mystery as the motives for Milo’s duplicitous behaviour late on in the movie. Clarkson and Lance are good in their roles, but they also seem unable to do more with them than is in the script. This may have something to do with Coixet’s direction, which focuses for the most part on Florence’s efforts to introduce modern literature to Hardborough (including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita no less), while also accepting the need to include Violet’s behind-the-scenes scheming. The two story strands never really gel together, even when Nighy’s melancholic recluse tries to intervene on Florence’s behalf and takes the (up til then muted) fight to Violet at her home. Keen observers of foreshadowing in the movies will be able to work out the ending long before we get there, but when it does happen, where there should be a sense of irony – or even poignancy – it’s lost in the perfunctory nature of it all. Inevitably then, this is one occasion where the book is much, much better than the movie.

Rating: 5/10 – despite good performances from Mortimer and Nighy, The Bookshop is a sluggish adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, and spends too much time being respectful, when it really should have been all the more dramatic; the beautiful Irish locations are a plus, but when the backgrounds are more interesting than the “action” in the foreground, then you know there’s a problem.

All Is True (2018)


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D: Kenneth Branagh / 101m

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Hadley Fraser, Ian McKellen, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Sam Ellis, Gerard Horan

In 1613, following the destruction of the Globe theatre by fire, William Shakespeare (Branagh), having been away from his family for most of the last thirty years, decides to return to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and there live out the rest of his life. His arrival isn’t as well received as he would like: his wife, Anne (Dench), treats him as a guest, while his daughter, Judith (Wilder), is angry at his presumption that he can just come home and nothing should be said about it. Shakespeare finds himself finally mourning the death of his son Hamnet seventeen years before, but this brings out an unexpected animosity from Judith (who was Hamnet’s twin). Meanwhile, his eldest daughter, Susanna (Wilson), is trapped in a loveless marriage to Puritan doctor John Hall (Fraser). She has an affair that nearly leads to public ruin, while after several disagreements with her father over what a woman is for, Judith pursues a relationship with local wine merchant, Tom Quiney (Hirst). There is scandal in their relationship as well, but before it can threaten to ruin Judith’s standing in the local community, a revelation about Hamnet causes Shakespeare’s memory of his son to be changed forever…

In using the alternative title for The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth, All Is True opens itself up for close inspection of its claim, and inevitably, is found wanting. As much as any historical biography can be “true”, Branagh’s take on Shakespeare’s final years (from a script by Ben Elton), labours under the necessity of finding enough material to fill in the blanks of what we know already – which isn’t that much. And so, we have a movie that makes a handful of educated guesses as to the events surrounding Shakespeare’s self-imposed retirement, but can’t quite come up with a reason for it. For the most part, the script is more concerned with the problems affecting his daughters, while the great man himself is reduced to being a secondary character, one seen creating a garden to honour his son’s memory, or indulging in melancholy conversations with the likes of visiting guests the Earl of Southampton (McKellen), and Ben Jonson (Horan). They’re odd scenes to have, as both see Shakespeare downplaying his genius while his visitors do their best to boost him up. And the scene with Southampton is there simply to support the theory that his sonnets were the product of a homosexual infatuation; all very possible but at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie.

Indeed, the overall tone is one of overwhelming grief and sadness as Shakespeare attempts to deal with the loss of Hamnet. Whether seen in moments of contemplation, or through the verses he wrote before his death, Hamnet is the ghost that haunts everyone, and Shakespeare’s grief is tainted by the false recollections he has of him. This allows Branagh the director plenty of opportunities to let Branagh the actor look sad and distant, though mostly it makes him look as if he’s spotted something far off in the distance but can’t quite work out what it is. Still, it’s a good performance from Branagh, and he’s given able support from Dench and the rest of the cast, but in the end, Elton’s script rambles too often from subplot to subplot without ever connecting them in a cohesive, organic fashion. And Shakespeare himself, as a character, is only saved from being a complete dullard by virtue of Branagh’s efforts in front of the camera; there’s more fire and intensity from Wilder’s defiant Judith. A curious mix then of the effective and the banal, and tinged with soap opera moments that are out of place, it’s bolstered by Zac Nicholson’s naturalistic cinematography (all the night-time interiors used candlelight only), and James Merifield’s expressive production design.

Rating: 6/10 – not as definitive as it might have wanted to be, nor as engrossing as the subject matter should have merited, All Is True stumbles too often in its efforts to be intriguing, and features a seemingly endless array of establishing shots that seem designed to pad out the running time for no other reason than that they look pretty; anyone looking for an introduction to Shakespeare the man should look elsewhere, while those who are curious about his later years would do well to treat the movie as an interpretation of events rather than a retelling of them.

Then Came You (2018)


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D: Peter Hutchings / 97m

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Maisie Williams,Nina Dobrev, Ken Jeong, Tyler Hoechlin, David Koechner, Peyton List, Tituss Burgess, Sonya Walger, Colin Moss

(And the award for worst movie poster of 2018 goes to…)

Calvin (Butterfield) is nineteen and a committed hypochondriac: he keeps a journal of his symptoms, and is a regular at his long-suffering doctor’s. When his doctor sends him to a cancer support group in the hopes that it will put Calvin’s “problems” into perspective, he meets Skye (Williams), a sixteen year old whose condition is terminal. Skye latches on to Calvin, and browbeats him into helping her tick off the items on her bucket list. As they get to know each other better, and Calvin sees how Skye copes with her illness (and her impending demise), his own fears and worries begin to fall away, and he even entertains the idea of talking to the woman of his dreams, an air stewardess called Izzy (Dobrov) (Calvin works as a baggage handler at the local airport). With Skye and Calvin’s friendship helping both of them to recognise what’s important in their lives, a reticence on Calvin’s part threatens his budding relationship with Izzy, while Skye comes to realise that the items on her bucket list aren’t as important as she first thought…

And we’re back… in that strange realm where teenagers are saddled with the kind of emotional baggage that can only come from having back stories forged in the mind of a cruel screenwriter (here the wonderfully named Fergal Rock). Calvin’s hypochondria is the by-product of the guilt he feels for surviving the car accident that killed his twin sister when they were eight. Skye’s devil-may-care attitude hides her genuine fear of dying before she’s had a chance to really experience life. And in true movie fashion, their friendship allows them both to shrug off the emotional chains that they’ve allowed themselves to carry around (like teenage versions of Jacob Marley’s ghost), and to become better people as a result. All of which begs the question, just why is teenage suffering so widely explored in the movies? And why is it so often explored in such a lightweight, overly familiar, and generally superficial manner as it is here? Even if you had never seen this kind of movie before, you’d still be able to work out its dynamic and where it’s headed, and pretty quickly too. It’s a strange conundrum – why keep combining a coming of age drama with a tragic, illness of the week scenario?

In the hands of Rock and director Peter Hutchings, Then Came You lacks surprises, depth, and any appreciable consistency in the tone of the material, preferring instead to make an amiable comedy out of dying, and to use one character’s terminal illness to make another character feel better about themselves. If this leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, it’s as nothing to the scene where Calvin takes Skye to visit his sister’s grave, and explains how she died. It’s such a monumentally insensitive thing for Calvin to do, and yet you can tell this is meant to be one of those “important” moments that speaks to the pain he’s been suffering (poor thing!). Badly thought out as it is, it could have been a whole lot worse, but thanks to the combined efforts of Butterfield and Williams, scenes such as this one, and many others, look and sound better than they would do under closer inspection. Their performances (and Dobrov’s) are enjoyable, and their efforts allow Calvin and Skye’s relationship to appear more credible than it has any right to be. And this all speaks to the overall problem that the movie struggles to overcome: it never feels real and it never feels as if you could ever meet the likes of Calvin and Skye in real life.

Rating: 4/10 – with its central message – if you’re feeling bad about yourself, go find someone who’s worse off than you – Then Came You is a romantic comedy drama that plays derivatively as a romance, uneasily as a comedy, and disastrously as a drama; its attempts at being quirky fall flat, and without its talented cast to prop it up, it would all collapse like a poorly cooked soufflé, an analogy that is entirely apt once you realise just how little this movie has to say about death, love, and finding happiness.

10 Reasons to Remember Albert Finney (1936-2019)


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Albert Finney (9 May 1936 – 7 February 2019)

You could argue that Albert Finney was destined for acting greatness by the company he kept in his first outings on the stage. Fresh from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), one of Finney’s earliest roles was alongside Charles Laughton in The Face of Love, and later he replaced an unwell Laurence Olivier in a production of Coriolanus. He made his first appearance on the big screen, and this time with Olivier, in The Entertainer (1960), but his breakthrough role came in the same year, as the disaffected factory worker, Arthur Seaton, in Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It was a blistering, angry performance, and one that put him in the running to play T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). But at the point of being offered the part, he baulked at the idea of being signed to a multi-year contract, and returned to the stage until another screen role came along that did change his life: that of the lust-driven rogue Tom Jones.

Established internationally as a major star, Finney eschewed the limelight for further returns to the stage, and throughout the Sixties he would alternate between treading the boards and appearing on the silver screen. His body of work during this period – and on into the Seventies – was astonishing for the breadth of the roles he took on, and the consistent high quality of his acting. Finney became dependable in a way that few stars would ever match in their careers, turning his hand equally well to dramas, comedies, and musicals. He was versatile, and unafraid to take risks, though his role as Hercule Poirot in the star-studded Murder on the Orient Express nearly typecast him with audiences for years. In the early Eighties he had a string of roles that cemented his position as one of the leading actors of his generation, and even though the projects he chose from the middle of the decade onwards weren’t as successful as his previous choices, Finney always gave his best, and in the case of movies such as Orphans (1987), was often the best thing about them.

The Nineties saw Finney continue to work steadily across all media, and on television he made memorable contributions to a couple of plays by Dennis Potter, even appearing in one of them, Cold Lazarus (1996), as a disembodied head. He had something of a banner year in 2000, thanks to a wonderfully expressive performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, and by refusing a knighthood from the Queen because he felt the UK honours system “perpetuated snobbery” (though he did accept a BAFTA Fellowship in 2001). The rest of the decade again saw Finney working steadily, and continuing to pick up awards for his work, and maintaining a level of quality in his work that was always hugely impressive (and which over time was heavily rewarded, though he never won an Oscar, despite being nominated five times). He was always a challenging, instinctive actor, true to the characters he played, and no stranger to versatility. Like many of his peers – he was at RADA with Peter O’Toole, and he was born on the same day as Glenda Jackson – Finney came to prominence at a time when cinema and the theatre were pushing at the boundaries of what both disciplines could achieve, and to his credit, he continued to do the same for the rest of his career.

1 – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

2 – Tom Jones (1963)

3 – Two for the Road (1967)

4 – Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

5 – Shoot the Moon (1982)

6 – The Dresser (1983)

7 – Under the Volcano (1984)

8 – Miller’s Crossing (1990)

9 – Erin Brockovich (2000)

10 – The Gathering Storm (2002)

Holiday (2018)


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D: Isabella Eklöf / 90m

Cast: Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer, Yuval Segal, Bo Brønnum, Adam lid Rohweder, Morten Hemmingson, Mill Jober, Laura Kjær, Stanislav Sevcik, Saxe Rankenberg Frey, Michiel de Jong

Sascha (Sonne) is the girlfriend of “businessman” Michael (Yde). Together with some of Michael’s associates and their partners, the pair are on holiday in Bodrum in Turkey. They’re a tight-knit group, but Sascha sees no problem in engaging with other tourists and holiday makers, including Thomas (Römer), whom she meets in an ice cream shop. Though Michael is attentive, when he becomes aware that Sascha and Thomas have met and are friendly towards each other, his affections begin to wane. When Sascha spends time with Thomas on his boat, tension develops between Sascha and Michael, and it leads to a violent incident between them. An invitation to join them one evening, sees Michael prove to Thomas that there can’t be any relationship between him and Sascha because of the influence and the power Michael has over her. But driven by a compulsion that even she doesn’t fully understand, Sascha goes to Thomas’s boat to see if she can salvage their friendship. What follows is further violence, and further proof of how just how much Sascha needs Michael in her life – and despite his treatment of her…

The debut feature of Danish writer-director Isabella Eklöf, Holiday is a simmering exploration of pent up emotions and the violent outbursts that ensue when those emotions can’t be contained any longer. It’s also about power and control, and dominance and submission, and the numbness that comes with constant exposure to a world where weakness is inexcusable, and is punished severely. And more appropriately, how these conflicting aspects can co-exist with each other in order for one person to survive. There’s a cost, of course, for all this, and through Sascha we see the effects of living in such a way, as the screenplay (by Eklöf and Johanne Algren) slowly strips away Sascha’s happy, carefree nature to reveal someone whose sense of freedom is amorphous, and whose character and personality has been compromised by the abusive relationship that she has become inured to. The “violent incident” mentioned above occurs at a point in the movie where there are enough suspicions as to the true nature of Sascha and Michael’s relationship that when it happens, it’s shocking as much for what happens, as for Sascha’s reaction to it. It’s a scene that will no doubt offend many for its graphic nature, but it serves a valid purpose in revealing just how damaged Sascha has become, something that’s borne out by subsequent events.

As the movie heads into thriller territory in its final twenty minutes, Eklöf and Algren shift the dynamic in such a way that the line between controller and controlled becomes blurred, and the level of co-dependence between Sascha and Michael is brought into question. It’s not an entirely successful shift, designed more to provide the movie with a dramatic ending that would otherwise seem unlikely, and the psychological motivations at play have a loose conviction that don’t bear up under closer scrutiny. But it’s a bold, uncompromising approach, and one that Eklöf and cinematographer Nadim Carlsen ensure has plenty of visual impact thanks to the decision to have much of the action take place against the sun-drenched backdrop of Bodrum and the surrounding Turkish Riviera. Ugliness and beauty are juxtaposed to good effect, and the central performances by Sonne and Yde dovetail and meld to equally good effect, their characters steeped in conflicting shades of light and dark. A disquieting sojourn into a world of conspicuous wealth and ever lurking violence, Holiday is visceral, unnerving, and uncompromising, and a movie that is likely to divide audiences as to its merits (or lack of them).

Rating: 7/10 – with a slow, measured build up that introduces us to too many characters who fall away as the movie progresses, Holiday isn’t for all tastes thanks to the harshness of its narrative, and the treatment of its main character; those willing to give it a chance will find a movie that lingers uncomfortably in the memory – though only the individual can decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.

Dogman (2018)


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D: Matteo Garrone / 103m

Cast: Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Nunzia Schiano, Adamo Dionisi, Francesco Acquaroli, Gianluca Gobbi, Alida Baldari Calabria, Laura Pizzirani, Giancarlo Porcacchia, Aniello Arena

In a rundown seaside resort during a miserable winter, Marcello (Fonte) makes a living as the local dog groomer. Operating out of a small shop that’s part of a small parade of other businesses, Marcello is a quiet, inoffensive man whose marriage has broken down, but who has a daughter, Alida (Calabria), who dotes on him. They go on expensive holidays together, which Marcello pays for by dealing cocaine on the side to his friends at the parade. But one local individual, Simone (Pesce), an intimidating and thuggish former boxer, takes advantage of Marcello’s timidity and never pays for his cocaine when he wants it. Marcello is further taken advantage of when Simone “persuades” him to be the getaway driver in a house robbery. Later still, Simone bullies Marcello into letting him have the keys to his shop so that Simone can break through the adjoining wall of the jewellers next door, and rob the place. Marcello is compromised by the robbery, and is arrested and then jailed when he says nothing about Simone’s involvement. But when he comes out, he goes looking for reparation…

As much a delicate character study as it is a bruising drama, Dogman is many things, but each aspect has been carefully melded to ensure that the whole is entirely effective, and the viewer is left with the sense that this is an entirely credible slice of life. Dealing with ideas related to loneliness, bullying, moral lethargy, and the modest aspirations of its main character, Garrone’s follow up to Tale of Tales (2015) is like gaining access to a world that we’ve heard about but never seen before, a world where a combination of weakness and strength is a vital component in the struggle to survive. Marcello is always deferring to others, even amongst the other shop owners who are ostensibly his friends, and outside of his relationship with Alida, he’s a loner who struggles to make himself stand out. His need for acceptance leads him to spend time with Simone, as if the two of them were friends, but so desperate is Marcello’s need to be included he allows himself to be patronised and exploited in equal measure. When he’s released from prison, there’s the initial impression that he’s toughened up, and to a degree he has, but as his pursuit of Simone and the restitution he feels is owing to him unfolds, it becomes clear that much of this change is only on the surface – and this leads to an uncomfortable, bittersweet ending.

Garrone has fashioned a tense, often unnerving movie that doesn’t shy away from portraying Marcello’s struggles against the backdrop of a demoralised seaside resort that has seen better days, and having the resort mirror the continual setbacks that Marcello endures. The only relief there is comes from beautifully lit underwater scenes where Marcello and Alida scuba dive on their holidays, a respite for both of them from the tawdry gloom of their home town. Garrone places these scenes carefully throughout the movie, but not to offer hope; instead they’re an acknowledgement of just how far Marcello is from those wondrous experiences. Fonte gives a subdued yet expressive performance, always apologetic, always nervous, never feeling at ease, and ready to excuse any inconvenience. It’s a subtle exercise in character building, with Fonte working from the inside out, and showing how Marcello’s innate passivity has fostered a kind of perverse self-preservation. As the hulking brute, Simone, Pesce is all blunt force and deliberate condescension, and he brings a cruel menace to his scenes with Fonte; you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do, but you do know that it won’t be pleasant. The relationship between Simone and Marcello is the unlikely focus of a movie that doesn’t believe in happy endings, and by showing how happy Marcello can be in this relationship, Garrone makes Marcello’s predicament a thing of undiluted tragedy.

Rating: 9/10 – sombre and unhesitatingly harsh, Dogman paints a bleak yet compelling portrait of moral and emotional ambiguity, and what some people will do to feel included; a standout performance from Fonte anchors a menacing script by Garrone and co-screenwriters Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, and the whole thing benefits from superb work by DoP Nicolai Brüel that matches the darkness inherent both in the material, and the souls of its two main characters.

The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940)


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D: Bernard Vorhaus / 67m

Cast: Jean Hersholt, Dorothy Lovett, Robert Baldwin, Tom Neal, Maude Eburne, Vera Lewis, George Meader, Bobby Larson, Bobette Bentley

Outside of the small town of River’s End, lies an area of hardship and poverty called Squatters Town. With its people ignored by their more affluent neighbours, it’s only kindly local doctor, Paul Christian (Hersholt), who has any time for them. A visit to a sick girl at the site leads to Christian taking in a young man, Dave Williams (Neal), while his younger brother and sister (Larson, Bentley) are looked after by town matriarch, Norma Stewart (Lewis). Norma has a vacant lot in the centre of town that Christian thinks would be ideal as a new housing development for the people of Squatters Town to move into. He secures the deed to the land – at a personal price – but soon faces opposition from local businessman, Harry Johnson (Meader), and the town council. Dave takes matters into his own hands and gets everyone from Squatters Town to move onto the vacant lot. Johnson and his cronies on the council invoke a little known by-law, and arrange for the police to have everyone dispersed. But just as a violent confrontation seems inevitable, Dr Christian realises that the sick girl he treated before has spinal meningitis – and it’s highly contagious…

One of the benefits of watching old black and white movies from the Thirties and Forties, is the number of pleasant surprises you’re likely to come across, and often in the unlikeliest of places. Between 1939 and 1941, RKO made six movies based around the radio character, Dr Paul Christian. They were family friendly dramas with a recurrent streak of obvious, gentle humour, made quickly and cheaply, and featured Hersholt in the role he’d become famous for over the airwaves. The Courageous Dr. Christian was the second in the series, and is remarkable for the quality of its screenplay, which was written by Ring Lardner Jr and Ian McLellan Hunter. An original story, its depiction of the social and class divisions between the people of River’s End and Squatters Town, and the inequalities experienced by the latter (along with prejudice and blatant xenophobia), mark out the movie as something of a departure from the standard small town fables that the likes of Andy Hardy were focused on. Here the movie has a clear message about tolerance and the true meaning of community spirit. There are differences on either side – Dave is just as contemptuous of the people in River’s End, as George Johnson is of Dave and his fellow Squatters Town inhabitants. How then to bring them all together?

An outbreak of spinal meningitis might not be the most obvious motivator for public and personal contrition, and Lardner Jr and Hunter aren’t about to lather on the altruism (one couple decide to donate their blankets – because they need new ones anyway), but their screenplay is sharper than this kind of movie usually deserves, and the characters all appear to have inner lives, something that is also unusual. Even the likes of Roy (Baldwin), drug store owner and the series’ romantic stooge, comes across as more rounded and capable of surprising the viewer than he does in all the other entries. With the cast given more to bite into, and the humour (a necessary component of the material) arising from the drama instead of sitting alongside it, the movie exerts a more compelling interest than expected, and offers director Bernard Vorhaus a chance to show just why he was a mentor to David Lean; his approach to the material is intelligent, sincere, and unforgiving of the prejudice shown by both sides. There’s good camera work by John Alton, and a score by William Lava that knows when to throw off the small town whimsy, and engage in more serious motifs. Hersholt impresses as always in the role he’d made his own (and which has never been played by anyone else), and there’s sterling support from Lewis and Meader, stalwarts at this kind of thing, and exactly the kind of familiar faces that you know will do the whole thing the justice it deserves.

Rating: 8/10 – an above average entry in a series that never again attained the heights it does here, The Courageous Dr. Christian is proof positive that “old, low budget, and black and white” doesn’t have to mean a poor quality experience; entertaining and thoughtful at the same time, it’s well worth seeking out as a simpler and more effective alternative to what passes for small town drama in the 21st century.

NOTE: It may not come as a surprise, but there’s no available trailer for The Courageous Dr. Christian.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)


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D: Marielle Heller / 106m

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella, Christian Navarro, Anna Deveare Smith

New York, 1991. Author Lee Israel (McCarthy) is struggling with a combination of writer’s block, alcoholism, and financial troubles. Her last book wasn’t well received, and her agent (Curtin) is unable to get her an advance for her latest project, a biography of Fanny Brice. In order to make ends meet, Lee sells a letter she received from Katharine Hepburn to a local bookseller, Anna (Wells). Anna’s chance remark that she would have paid more for “better content”, allied with the discovery of a letter by Brice while doing research, leads Lee to forging and selling letters by well known literary figures. She’s successful at first, but in time suspicions are raised, and Lee is blacklisted. To combat this, Lee enlists the aid of her friend, Jack Hock (Grant), an aging British actor who is as much down on his luck as she is. But though he too is initially successful at selling Lee’s forgeries, it’s not long before she becomes aware that the FBI is involved, and actively talking to the people she’s sold to. And then Jack is arrested…

What would you do to maintain your fame and (minor) fortune? How far would you go to retain the idea that your work is still relevant when the evidence points otherwise? And how would you go about it without jeopardising what little respect you still have amongst your peers? These are all questions asked by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a sobering yet archly humorous exploration of the ways in which bitterness and a misplaced sense of entitlement can lead someone to abandon their principles in pretty much a heartbeat. What makes Lee’s fall from grace so ironic is that she was arguably more successful as a forger than she was as a legitimate writer. It’s another aspect of the cautionary tale that made up most of Lee’s later life that the screenplay – by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty – correctly focuses on. With its bittersweet coda, that sees one of Lee’s forgeries regarded as real (and priced accordingly), there’s an argument that what she did was her best work of all, and she herself would have probably agreed (at her trial, she relays the fact that her time spent forging literary letters was the best time of her life). Was she aware of this while she wrote them? It’s possible, and if she did, it goes some way to answering a good number of the questions the movie raises about her.

In raising these kinds of questions, the movie is helped immensely by the performance of Melissa McCarthy. An actress who is in many ways hampered by her comedy persona, McCarthy is a revelation here, unlikeable yet likeably tenacious, arrogant yet without cause, and undermined by her own insecurities. It’s a tremendous portrayal that allows Lee to appear vulnerable, and unerringly caustic at the same time, while giving McCarthy her best role so far (and one that enables us to forget her other two movies of 2018, Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders). Partnered with an equally unforgettable performance from Richard E. Grant – the relish with which he tackles his role is infectious; no wonder he’s already won eighteen awards – McCarthy channels unexpected depths as Lee, and makes her more than just a hack with a drink problem and a (deliberate) shortage of friends. If the movie does Lee any kind of injustice, it’s in distancing itself from her being a lesbian, something that’s awkwardly, and unconvincingly, addressed through a tentative friendship with Anna. Otherwise, this is a tremendously unfashionable biopic about an unhappy, disreputable woman (and her equally disreputable sidekick) who seek to repair their fragile egos through lying to others, and themselves.

Rating: 8/10 – with a transformative performance from McCarthy, and astute, carefully layered direction from first-timer Heller, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a dark comedy that touches on some very serious topics while daring the viewer to like its main character; fascinating and smartly handled, it’s a movie you feel the real Lee Israel would have been happy with, as long as she got the right credit.

Under the Tree (2017)


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Original title: Undir Trénu

D: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson / 89m

Cast: Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Selma Björnsdóttir, Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, Dóra Jóhannsdóttir, Sigrídur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving

Inga (Björgvinsdóttir) and Baldvin (Sigurjónsson) are an elderly couple who live next door to Konrad (Bachmann) and his second wife, Eybjorg (Björnsdóttir). The two couples get on for the most part, but there is a large tree in Inga and Baldvin’s garden that blocks out much of the light when Eybjorg uses their sun deck. This bone of contention has been raised once or twice, but Inga is determined that the tree will remain as it is. Meanwhile, her son Atli (Steinþórsson), has been kicked out by his wife, Agnes (Jónsdóttir), and has come back home while he tries to put things right between them. When all the tires of Baldvin’s car are slashed, and then Inga’s cat goes missing, these events trigger a further string of occurrences that threaten to – and then do – spiral out of control. Atli goes about reconnecting with Agnes in ways that serve only to antagonise her further, and which also have an effect on their young daughter, Asa (Scheving), and relations between the two sets of neighbours deteriorates to the point where tragedy and violence ensues…

In this pitch black comedy from Iceland, the opening scenes set the tone for the rest of the movie, with Atli caught masturbating to a sex tape he made with someone he knew before meeting Agnes. As awkward moments go, it’s pretty awkward, and there are many more to enjoy as the movie progresses, with each character either the victim of something horrible, or being the catalyst or instigator of something horrible. What’s clever though about the set up by writer/director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson is the way in which he escalates matters between the two sets of neighbours, but without showing us if any of them really are responsible for, say, four slashed tyres, or the disappearance of a cat. This ambiguity hints at the possibility of a third party being involved, but again, Sigurðsson offers no clues as to this third party’s identity, and so the cycle of revenge plays out with a high degree of angry absurdity, as each couple blames the other for their woes. Tit for tat gives way to targeted, violent (even criminal) behaviour, until tragedy is compounded by further tragedy, and the original disagreement seems petty and inconsequential. Sigurðsson acknowledges what we all know to be true: all’s fair in hate and war.

Sigurðsson also isn’t afraid to make some of his characters unlikeable, or in Inga’s case, downright horrid. With a caustic tongue and a mind that’s been warped by grief – her other son, Uggi, has disappeared and is presumed dead, though no body has been found – Inga is played with angry gusto by Björgvinsdöttir, and it’s she who provides the movie with its most awful moment as the disappearance of her cat causes her to do something so terrible you can’t stop thinking about it after the movie has ended. That it also sets up one of the funniest moments in the movie is a tribute to the care with which Sigurðsson has crafted his narrative. But though the humour is as dark as it can be, this is ultimately a movie about loss, and the things people will do to avoid dealing with it. Inga hasn’t dealt with the loss of her son (Baldvin states at one point that it perhaps would have been better if Uggi had died in front of her), while Atli is struggling to come to terms with losing his family through his own stupidity, and Eybjorg is scared of losing altogether the chance of becoming a mother. Driven by these fears, and the grief that comes with them, each character fights their own corner, but without the understanding that their feelings aren’t exclusive, or that by concentrating only on themselves, that the tragedy stalking all of them will happen all the sooner.

Rating: 8/10 – with terrific performances from all concerned, and a grim, relentless intensity to the material, Under the Tree is impressively detailed when it comes to the various ways in which people rush to ensure that revenge can be eagerly justified – if only to themselves; unsparing and cruel in places, but fiercely intelligent and with a small measure of optimism to cling on to, it’s a movie that doesn’t pander to its audience, or offer them an easy way out from all the suffering of its characters.

Free Solo (2018)


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D: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin / 100m

With Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Sanni McCandless, Jimmy Chin, Mikey Schaefer

Climbing, whether it involves mountains, cliff faces, escarpments, or domes, is always a risky, sometimes highly dangerous endeavour, even for the professionals. Imagine though, if you took away any ropes or pitons or other safety equipment, and you attemptd to climb, say, a sheer cliff face using only your hands and feet to get to the top, how much more risky, or highly dangerous do you think that would be? If you’re not sure, then Free Solo is the movie that will provide a definitive answer (as if anyone really needs convincing). It introduces us to Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber who has become famous for his free solo ascents of sites such as Northern Ireland’s Fair Head, Mexico’s El Sendero Luminoso, and the Yosemite Triple Crown – Mt Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome. For most people, these sites will mean nothing at all, but they are all genuinely challenging climbs that Alex Honnold has completed on his own, and without any equipment to help him. But there has always been one ascent that Honnold has always dreamed of conquering as a free solo climber: the 2,900 ft Freerider route of El Capitan. And on 3 June 2017, he set out to make his dream come true…

There are several moments in Free Solo where the camera adopts a vertiginous angle, and we look down on Alex Honnold as he carefully navigates his way across and over rock surfaces that look almost smooth and lacking in finger and toe holds. But while Honnold effectively clings to those rock surfaces, the image – whether it’s courtesy of a drone or one of the team of climber photographers organised by co-director Jimmy Chan – nearly always keeps his position in context with the wider surroundings. And that context is scary. If you suffer from vertigo, or have even the slightest fear of heights, then this movie is not for you. What Honnold does, and the danger that he puts himself in, is nothing short of both courageous, and insane. And yet, Honnold is a genial individual, likeable and passionate about what he does, and quite open about his feelings on a range of matters from his own shortcomings to when it might be time to call it quits. And even if he also appears to be someone who enjoys behaving like an outsider (he lives in a van and feels more comfortable there than in a plush hotel room), his personality is endearing, and he comes across as the nerdy kid at school who grew up to do something incredibly cool. It’s no surprise to learn that he has few friends outside of the climbing community, and it’s equally unsurprising that those he does have are fiercely supportive of him.

As to why Honnold is able to do what he does, there’s a fascinating segment where he undergoes an fMRI, and the results reveal that his amygdala, which governs our responses to fear and anxiety, isn’t entirely active. Honnold takes it all in his stride, and moves on to the next stage of his preparations to climb El Capitan. His focus is incredible, but more incredible still is the actual climb. As a feat of physical endurance, it’s unparalleled. As the cameras follow him through each of El Capitan’s treacherous sections, there are moments where it seems impossible that Honnold will be able to continue, and the viewer is likely to find themselves holding their breath in anticipation of the worst happening. This sense of dreadful anticipation is amplified by Marco Beltrami’s urgent score, and Bob Eisenhardt’s precision-tooled editing. And yet, Honnold makes it look easy, smiling at times with the enjoyment of it all, and rarely looking perturbed. The movie also takes time to explore Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, and how both deal with the potential for harm in what Honnold does. Inevitably, when he sprains his ankle during his preparations, they react in different ways, he by carrying on regardless, she more quietly and with forbearance. It’s unexpectedly bittersweet moments such as these that help to make the non-climbing sequences as involving as the various ascents we witness.

Rating: 9/10 – with its breathtaking, awe-inspiring visuals and jaw-dropping imagery – there are several moments where it just seems impossible that Honnold has found a toehold or a rock to grip onto – Free Solo is the kind of documentary that impresses and impresses and impresses, and then impresses some more; a perfect blend of biography matched to a tribute to human endeavour, this is best watched on the biggest screen possible so that the impact of Honnold’s achievements can be appreciated all the more.

The Mule (2018)


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D: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, Ignacio Serricchio, Andy Garcia, Taissa Farmiga, Alison Eastwood, Eugene Cordero, Clifton Collins Jr

In 2005, Earl Stone (Eastwood) is a thriving and award-winning horticulturalist whose commitment to his work life has left him estranged from his family. Twelve years later, Earl’s business has failed, his home is on the verge of being repossessed, and his appearance at the engagement party of his granddaughter, Ginny (Farmiga), leaves him in no doubt that he still has a long way to go in making amends. But a surprise suggestion by one of the guests at the party – that he accept a job just “driving” for some people the guest knows – leads Earl to working for a group of Mexicans who he comes to realise are part of a drugs cartel. His job is to transport cocaine across country, and he’s well paid for his time and effort. Earl uses the money to help his local community, and his family, while becoming the most successful drug mule in the cartel’s history. But the DEA, in the form of agent Colin Bates (Cooper), soon learns of Earl’s existence, and they become determined to catch him. With the cartel shadowing him on one side, and the DEA chasing him on the other, Earl finds himself in an untenable position…

Making his first appearance in front of the camera since Trouble With the Curve (2012), here Clint Eastwood reminds us that when you need a grizzled old-timer who has to be both charming and stubborn – fractious, if you like – then there’s no better choice than the former Man With No Name. Based on the real life story of octogenarian Leo Sharp, who eluded capture by the authorities for over ten years, The Mule is an enjoyable, if rickety, drama that relies heavily on Eastwood’s presence, and which treats its subject matter with a lightness of touch that should feel alarming. But thanks to Eastwood’s performance, and a great deal of goodwill garnered by his direction of Nick Schenk’s uneven screenplay, the movie plays like a strange wish fulfillment fantasy where someone can be part of a drugs cartel and still be considered a “good guy”. The script has Earl behaving like Robin Hood, using his new-found wealth to help others, while avoiding any suggestion that his impaired morality is in any way wrong. And yet, when you have your main character flying down to Mexico to meet his employer (Garcia), and embracing the lifestyle (and the women; this sees Eastwood get more “action” than in all his other movies combined), it’s hard to accept the movie’s own compromised attitude.

It’s this inability to make a firm decision about Earl’s status – is he an anti-hero or not? – that stops the movie from plumbing any depths that can’t be called superficial. There’s no sense of threat here either, with Earl ignoring repeated instructions and threats from the cartel and being let off the hook time and time again. And inevitably, Earl reunites with his family as a reward for his criminal endeavours. Through it all, Eastwood gives one of his best performances, elevating the material and showing the likes of Cooper (all starch and buttoned-down restraint) and Peña (in another sidekick role) how to maximise an under-written character to good effect. On the plus side, Yves Bélanger’s romanticised cinematography adds a layer of nostalgia to proceedings, harking back to a time when the likes of Earl were straightforward heroes (he’s a Korean War veteran), and running drugs would have been impossible to even imagine. And though the humour can sometimes be misplaced or inappropriate – Earl’s casual racism is awkwardly handled throughout – there are laughs to be had, and the movie’s genial attitude is appealing. It’s not a  bad movie per se, and Eastwood is the reason why, but it’s not quite so good that it deserves anything more than average praise.

Rating: 6/10 – whimsical and unpretentious, The Mule is a lightweight offering from the veteran actor/director that lacks some much needed grit, and which opts for enforced poignancy as a substitute; the supporting cast aren’t allowed to do much, and there are stretches where the movie coasts along happily, but to no great effect, all of which adds up to a pleasant but unremarkable experience that fails to make a lasting impact.

At Eternity’s Gate (2018)


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D: Julian Schnabel / 111m

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Neils Arestrup, Anne Consigny, Amira Casar, Vincent Perez

In 1888, and with his work not gaining the attention he feels it deserves, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (Dafoe) decides to leave Paris for the rural town of Arles, where he can sketch and paint without all the distractions of city life to hinder him. Backed by his brother, Theo (Friend), Vincent lives in the Yellow House, and soon begins producing a prodigious amount of work. An extended stay by Paul Gauguin (Isaac) is, at first, welcomed by Vincent, but it soon becomes clear that the two men have very different ideas about art, and that the friendship Vincent is looking for – along with Gauguin’s respect – isn’t going to develop. Eventually, Gauguin leaves, and in a fugue state, Vincent severs his left ear. Now more isolated than ever, Vincent spends time being assessed as to the suitability of his being released from hospital, and though his behaviour, and the possibility of more manic episodes can’t be dismissed, he appears rational enough to return to Arles. But Vincent is still plagued by doubts and worries, and he eventually moves to Auvers-sur-Oise, where a tragic fate awaits him…

Covering the last two years of van Gogh’s life, At Eternity’s Gate (the title is taken from a painting the artist made during his last year) is not your average portrait of a suffering, unappreciated artist. Instead it’s a movie that does its best to make the viewer understand the depth of van Gogh’s passion for painting, and which does so thanks to a combination of Benoît Delhomme’s glorious cinematography, and director (and co-screenwriter with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg) Julian Schnabel’s own artistic sensibilities. Here, the viewer is allowed to immserse themselves in the details of van Gogh’s paintings and sketches, and to gain a sense of the passion that drove van Gogh to create such a unique body of work. Whether it’s a still life, or a landscape, van Gogh’s commitment and drive is readily apparent, and Schnabel uses a number of visual and aural tricks to help us get inside the head of a man who wasn’t always comfortable with his own thoughts. This makes our engagement with van Gogh a little intrusive but also highly instructive: he’s a man tormented by his personal demons, but also an artistic genius because of them.

Van Gogh is played with a masterly brio by Dafoe, the actor displaying a rare skill in inhabiting the character, and in doing so, bringing him to life in ways that are surprising and profound. It’s as if Dafoe has found a way of channelling van Gogh’s own spirit and energy (and his mania), and as a result, it’s a performance that is often mesmerising for its empathy and understanding of just how tortured and driven van Gogh was. Dafoe is ably supported by Friend and Isaac, and there’s a tremendous supporting turn from Mikkelsen as the priest who gets to decide if van Gogh can be released from hospital (their one scene together is the movie’s highlight), but even with all these pin sharp interpretations, it’s Schnabel’s distinctive handling of the material that stands out the most. This is Schnabel’s own idea as to how van Gogh existed in the last two years of his life, and though it’s based on fact, the movie remains an imagining, an artistic depiction of how Schnabel views the van Gogh of that period – just as van Gogh depicted what he saw and made it his own. Often very, very beautiful to watch, and with much to say about the nature of art and its relation to us as individuals, this is easily Schnabel’s best movie since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and a fitting tribute to van Gogh and his work.

Rating: 9/10 – with a peerless performance from Dafoe, and Schnabel providing a masterclass in how to depict artistic expression on film, At Eternity’s Gate is a small miracle of arthouse movie making; moving and sincere, it’s the kind of endeavour that will always struggle to reach a wider audience, but for those who are willing to give it a try, it’s one of the most rewarding movies of 2018.

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)


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D: Josie Rourke / 124m

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Guy Pearce, Adrian Lester, Martin Compston, Ian Hart, James McArdle, David Tennant, Gemma Chan, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brendan Coyle

Scotland, 1561. Following the death of her French husband, Mary Stuart (Ronan) returns to take up her rightful place as Queen. Her return is viewed with dismay and suspicion by the English court, as Mary has a claim to the English throne should Elizabeth I (Robbie) die without issue. Elizabeth suggests that Mary wed an Englishman, Robert Dudley (Alwyn), and despite Dudley being her lover. Aware that this is a ploy designed to weaken her claim, Mary agrees on one condition: that she be named heir to the throne. With Elizabeth unwilling to consent to this, she sends Henry Darnley (Lowden) to infiltrate Mary’s court, but Mary and Henry fall in love and marry. In time, Mary gives birth to a son, James, but political intrigue sees her own half-brother, the earl of Moray (McArdle) mount an insurgency against her. She quashes this, but further unrest is whipped up by militant preacher John Knox (Tennant), and Mary finds herself being forced to abdicate when James is taken from her by her former protector, Lord Bothwell (Compston). She flees to England, where she seeks help from Elizabeth…

If you have a keen interest in Scottish history, and in Mary Stuart in particular, you might be perplexed by some of the “revelations” that Mary Queen of Scots includes as part of its adaptation of the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. For instance, who knew that Henry Darnley and David Rizzio (Cordova), Mary’s “gay friend” (in reality her private secretary) slept together shortly after Mary and Henry were married? (That’s a rhetorical question.) It’s one of many historical inaccuracies and inventions that the movie comes up with to heighten the drama, as if the real story wasn’t exciting or dramatic enough. Also, the action takes place over twenty-six years, from Mary’s return to Scotland, to her execution in 1887. Not that you’d necessarily realise this as the movie appears to take place in a timeless period where no one ages, and plot developments come so thick and fast, that by the time you’ve absorbed one, two more have already gone by. With so much to cram in in two hours, Beau Willimon’s screenplay can only act as a yardstick for excessive historical exposition. But conversely, the movie is strangely reticent when it really matters, such as when Mary pardons Moray and others for their part in the insurgency, leaving the viewer to wonder if they really have missed something.

As the movie progresses, it becomes less and less involving, and less and less impactful, as all efforts to make Mary’s plight appear tragic slowly evaporate, and the narrative trundles on from one historical action point to the next with all the energy of someone trudging through treacle. First time director Josie Rourke, whose background is in theatre, does elicit two compelling performances from Ronan and Robbie, but hasn’t adapted her talents to meet the needs of her movie, and the result is a patchwork of disparate scenes that don’t always allow for a consistent narrative, or characterisations (Bothwell’s change of conscience is particularly troubling). But this is first and foremost a movie that affords Ronan and Robbie the opportunity to reveal just why they are two of the best actresses working today. Ronan is appropriately fiery as Mary, passionate and determined, but unable to combat the forces that lead her to tragedy. Good as Ronan is, though, Robbie is superb as Elizabeth, making her a tragic figure who knows what must be done to protect her kingdom, but whose conscience leaves her feeling sad and isolated. There’s good support too from Pearce and McArdle, and the sets and costumes are a highlight, but ultimately, this is a movie for those who don’t mind if their history lessons are compromised from start to finish.

Rating: 5/10 – coming away from Mary Queen of Scots, the realisation soon sinks in that as a retelling of tumultous events and times in Scotland’s history, it’s not as robust as it needs to be, or as insightful; inevitably, it’s the modernism that lets it down, with Willimon’s script making a bad hash of trying to make the movie feel relevant to today’s feminist outlook, but worse than that, it just doesn’t hold the interest in a way that would make it more compelling.

Jonathan (2018)


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aka Duplicate

D: Bill Oliver / 101m

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Suki Waterhouse, Patricia Clarkson, Douglas Hodge, Matt Bomer, Souleymane Sy Savane, Shunori Ramanathan, Joe Egender, Ian Unterman

For Jonathan (Elgort), life is lived in just twelve hours every day, from 7am to 7pm. During that time he works and sleeps and and exercises and takes care of his apartment, the one he shares with his brother, John (Elgort). John’s life unfolds between 7pm and 7am, and he has a similar routine. But their relationship isn’t exactly like that of other brothers, because Jonathan and John inhabit the same body. They are two distinct personalities, able to live their separate lives thanks to the intervention when they were children, of Dr Mina Nariman (Clarkson). Using technology to keep both identities in their own daily “time zones”, the pair communicate through video messages, thus ensuring that their lives don’t overlap. But when Jonathan starts to notice a difference in John’s behaviour, he becomes curious and hires a private detective (Unterman) to check on John’s movements. Jonathan discovers that John has a girlfriend, Elena (Waterhouse), a relationship that both have agreed not to have because of the difficulties involved. When Jonathan’s involvement causes the relationship to end, John refuses to communicate with him, which leads Jonathan into doing two things he’s never done before: explaining their condition to Elena, and falling in love with her…

How well do we know our siblings? How confidently can we say that we know what they would do or how they would react in any given situation? And how much more difficult would that be to judge if you’ve never met that sibling in person? In Bill Oliver’s debut feature, questions of identity are clearly to the fore, but more than whether you can truly know someone through the medium of video messages takes a back seat to the question of how well you can know yourself in those circumstances. It’s an intriguing idea, and Oliver, along with co-screenwriters Peter Nickowitz and Gregory Davis, spends much of Jonathan‘s running time exploring the tilte character’s personality and how it responds when the ordered world it exists in is threatened. Jonathan’s life is governed by rules and responsibility, and his lifestyle is one that he has embraced wholeheartedly because it keeps him safe. John is more outgoing, more likely to indulge himself or be spontaneous, things that Jonathan would never dream of doing. So when John’s relationship with Elena is revealed, it sends Jonathan into a tailspin that, ironically, has him behaving in similar ways to his brother. And in exactly the same way that John kept Elena’s existence a secret from Jonathan, so too does Jonathan keep his relationship with her secret from John.

All of this has inevitable consequences, and as the movie plays out, Oliver adds a fine layer of foreboding to the narrative, as Jonathan becomes ever more confused and afraid of where his new-found feelings will take him. In the title role (and the supporting one), Elgort gives perhaps his best performance so far, tightly wound as Jonathan and unravelling faster and faster as the movie goes on, his initially placid features and economy of movement giving way to expressions of muted horror and staccato bursts of physical energy. There’s also an emotional depth to Elgort’s portrayal that highlights Jonathan’s dependence on his brother, and which is allowed more and more expression as he struggles to understand what’s happening to him. Oliver keeps the sci-fi elements deliberately low-key, preferring instead to focus on the brothers’ relationship, while also affording time to explore Elena’s reaction to her involvement in a unique ménage à trois, and the motherly affections and attentions of Dr Nariman. As the latter, Clarkson brings further gravitas to the material, while Waterhouse brings a much needed looseness to her character that offsets the serious nature of the other performances. With Oliver opting for a restrained, observational feel to much of the material, it’s not entirely engaging, and there is the sense that we’re looking at a lab rat navigating a maze that doesn’t have an exit, but when Elgort is struggling for a clarity that he just can’t grasp, the movie becomes poignant and more than a little bittersweet.

Rating: 8/10 – a polished, thought-provoking drama with an impressive central performance from Ansel Elgort, Jonathan is a low budget indie movie with lofty ambitions that it can’t always attain, but which has a sense of purpose about it that helps it through some of the rougher parts of the script; a neat idea that could have been expanded further, it succeeds thanks to the wise decision not to Hollywood-ise either its romantic elements, or the dramatic nature of Jonathan’s emotional turmoil.

Destroyer (2018)


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D: Karyn Kusama / 121m

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, James Jordan, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn, Shamier Anderson, Zach Villa

Seventeen years after an undercover operation in which she was involved went badly wrong, leaving her partner, Chris (Stan), dead, and the head of the gang they’d infiltrated, Silas (Kebbell), vanished along with most of the rest of his gang, LAPD detective Erin Bell (Kidman) learns that Silas is back. She receives a dye-stained $100 bill in the mail that can only have come from Silas, and which relates to the bank robbery that his gang carried out, and which saw Chris killed. Determined to make up for not being able to save her partner, Erin decides to track down the other members of Silas’s enclave, beginning with Toby (Jordan), who leads her to Arturo (Villa), who in turn leads her to a shady lawyer called DiFranco (Whitford). After some “persuasion”, DiFranco confirms that he makes monthly payments to Silas via Silas’ girlfriend, Petra (Maslany). At the next drop off, Erin follows Petra to her home. The next morning, Petra meets up with five men, one of whom could be Silas. But there’s a snag: when Erin sees them meet up, it’s just before they attempt to carry out another bank robbery…

A tense, riveting thriller, Destroyer is also a tough, uncompromising, and visceral crime drama, where almost all of its characters exhibit shifting moral perspectives, and notions of right and wrong are deliberately occluded. It’s hard to think of a recent movie that has been as deliberately and purposefully gruelling as this one, and it’s hard to think of another recent movie that has painted such a bleak portrait of human behaviour. This is not a movie where good fights evil and emerges triumphant. Instead, good takes an early retirement, and bad flourishes in its place. The nominal heroine, Erin is so plagued and consumed by her demons that even when she tries to do the right thing, it’s no good because she’s fatally compromised from the word go. Her motive for catching Silas – Chris’s death – may be the nearest thing to pure that the movie can come up with, but even that reason is revealed to be dubious at best and self-serving at worst. Erin is damaged in ways that even she doesn’t fully comprehend, and she moves forward like a shark, refusing to let anyone stop her. She avoids her colleagues and her superiors, bullies, threatens and cajoles (and in one scene, gives a handjob to) Silas’s accomplices, and retaliates in kind when she’s violently assaulted. It’s tempting to nickname Erin Dirty Harriet, but even that wouldn’t cover the psychological damage that she has failed to deal with over the past seventeen years.

Of course, all this is brought to vivid and impressive life thanks to an incredible peformance from Kidman. With her blank stare and ravaged, withdrawal-like features, she’s impossible to look away from. A physical and emotional mess, it’s only Erin’s recollections of the undercover operation that allow us to see her when she had ambition and hope for the future. As these recollections unfold we see the circumstances that have led her to her current situation: alone, unhappy, and at odds with her teenage daughter, Shelby (Pettyjohn). Spiralling ever further down the rabbit hole, Erin looks to make amends for her past, but she’s a doomed soul, and redemption is frustratingly out of reach. Kusama, making only her fifth feature in eighteen years – we can forget Æon Flux (2005) now, okay? – is on dazzling form, tightly controlling the narrative and doling out pieces of the larger puzzle like all good film noirs, modern or otherwise. However, she’s unable to breathe convincing life into the subplot involving Shelby and her much older boyfriend (Knapp), or make Silas into the badass bogeyman he’s painted as. These issues, and a couple of times when the script connects the dots a little too conveniently, stop the movie from being as all round devastating as it should have been, but this is still a strong, intelligent and bold movie that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

Rating: 8/10 – some may complain that the pace lags at times, but Destroyer‘s narrative allows for a slow build up of details that makes the ending all the more effective for making you question everything you’ve seen already; the rest of the cast trail (understandably) in Kidman’s majestic wake, but Julie Kirkwood’s exemplary cinematography paints Los Angeles in gritty, washed out colours tthat make LA seem at times like an alien landscape.

The Merger (2018)


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D: Mark Grentell / 103m

Cast: Damian Callinan, Kate Mulvany, John Howard, Rafferty Grierson, Fayssal Bazzi, Nick Cody, Josh McConville, Penny Cook, Angus McLaren, Stephen Hunter, Ben Knight, Sahil Saluja, Zenia Starr, Francis Kamara, Harry Tseng, Aaron Gocs

In the small town of Bodgy Creek, the local Aussie Rules footy team is in trouble. Without a coach, or even a full squad of players, and a clubhouse that has been condemned due to asbestos, the Roosters need a miracle – or a merger with another team. Town patriarch and team overseer Bull Barlow (Howard) is lost for answers, so when his daughter-in-law, Angie (Mulvany), suggests they ask local outcast and ex-professional footy player Troy Carrington (Callinan) to coach the team and find more players, he’s less than enthusiastic. An encounter with a Syrian refugee, Sayyid (Bazzi), gives Troy an unusual idea: to re-populate the Roosters with Sayyid and some of the other refugees that the town is supporting. As well as the expected resistance from Bull, some of the existing players are upset by Troy’s approach, but as they begin to learn about their new team mates and the often harrowing experiences they’ve had in their home countries, bonds develop between them, bonds that enable the Roosters to begin winning games, and restore the town’s lost pride…

Adapted from Callinan’s one-man stage show of the same name, The Merger is a timely comedy that looks at the refugee crisis, and Australia’s response to it through the use of Bodgy Creek’s tight-knit community. The movie has a serious streak to it, but this is first and foremost a light-hearted, very funny feature that serves as a reminder that when the Aussies make movies that focus on small town foibles and posturings, the end results are always entertaining – even when there’s a message in there too. Such is the case here, with Cullinan’s show being expanded to meet the demands of its new medium, and thanks to director Mark Grentell’s smart handling of the material, the comedy and the drama mix in such a way that neither overshadows the other. This makes for a light-hearted yet sincere movie that is as comfortable exploring topics such as xenophobia as it is in exploiting the ignorance of its characters, including bar owner Porterhouse (“Well done!”) (Gocs) and his attempts at fusion cuisine. There’s an endearing mix of humorous dialogue (“A hermit going to a stranger’s funeral is just weird”) and running gags (School Shoes’ injuries), and wry observations on a number of topics from small town politics to cultural differences.

Humour aside, the movie is also well crafted in terms of its drama. Troy befriends a ten year old boy called Neil (Grierson), whose father, Angie’s husband, has died a year ago in a motorbike accident. Getting to know him by making a documentary about Troy, Neil helps bring Troy out of his “hermit” shell, and by doing so, finds he has a new father figure in his life. Inevitably, Troy and Angie begin to develop their own relationship, and while this is entirely predictable, it’s handled with deft assurance by Grentell, and Callinan ensures there’s a minimum of sentimentality involved. More successful still is the focus on what it means to be a refugee, and the toll it takes when loved ones have been left behind. Less satisfying though is Bull’s blatant prejudice, an aspect of the movie that comes across as forced rather than credible, and which is resolved too easily thanks to an unlikely intervention by Sayyid. The performances are solid, with Mulvany and Callinan sharing an easy chemistry, while Grierson is terrific as a ten year old with way too many questions (the follow on question to “What’s a monologue?” is priceless), and a neat line in honest put-downs. Each character gets their moment in the spotlight (even Stan, the team’s oldest “player”), and each actor responds accordingly. It’s also given an extra shot of vim and vigour thanks to Tony Luu’s vibrant cinematography, and its willingness to embrace (and address) the vicissitudes of small town life, all of which adds up to a movie that has much to say but which does so without being pedantic or judgmental.

Rating: 8/10 – hugely enjoyable, and with moments of poignancy and heartbreak, The Merger is a wonderful reminder that when it comes to movies like these, the Aussies know exactly what they’re doing; charming and sincere in equal measure, its message of tolerance and inclusivity is welcome in the current international and political climate, and its positive attitude makes it exactly the kind of feelgood movie we can all do with right now.

Soni (2018)


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D: Ivan Ayr / 97m

Cast: Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Saloni Batra, Mohinder Gujral, Mohit Chauhan, Vikas Shukla, Gauri Chakraborty, Simrat Kaur, Dimple Kaur, Dalip Kumar Gulati, Prateek Pachori, Upasya Goswami

Soni (Ohlyan) is an inspector working for the New Delhi police force. Based in the team that deals with crimes against women, Soni works the night shift, placing herself in dangerous situations in order to arrest men who attack or harass lone women. When Soni beats a man who tries to assault her, it highlights her own propensity for violence, and the anger she keeps pent up inside her. As well as causing problems for Soni, it also makes life difficult for her boss, Kalpana (Batra), who recognises Soni’s worth as an officer, but has to keep persuading her superiors that Soni is more of an asset than a liability. A further violent incident involving a drunken naval officer sees an investigation opened into Soni’s behaviour. At the same time, Soni’s estranged husband, Naveen (Shukla), attempts to reconcile with her, while Kalpana’s own marriage becomes strained because her husband, Sandeep (Chauhan), a senior officer at the same station, believes she’s too soft on Soni. Torn between defending Soni and acting appropriately as her superior, a further violent incident puts Kalpana in an awkward position and threatens Soni’s future with the police…

From its opening scene, which sees its lead character called a “dirty c*nt” before she viciously pummels her would-be attacker, it’s clear that Soni isn’t going to be your standard run-of-the-mill police-based drama. Although first-time feature director Ivan Ayr is interested in exploring the effects of violence on women working as police officers, his movie is also keen to examine the motivations that have prompted them to join in the first place, and what keeps them in the job. To do this, Ayr paints two very different portraits. Soni is a loner, her marriage having fallen apart due to events that we remain ignorant of until late on, and with few friends both within the force and outside. She’s deliberately isolated herself, and Ayr shows the extent of her isolation in the various ways she avoids being helped by others. She’s punishing herself, even at work where she feels most comfortable; such is the depth of her self-imposed misery. Kalpana is her polar opposite, a career policewoman with a stable marriage and brighter prospects. But even Kalpana has a number of problems to face, from the chiding attitude of her husband, to the awkward position she finds herself in through defending Soni.

For both women, being a part of the police force in New Delhi is an important part of who they are, and Ayr further explores the gender politics and endemic sexism that surrounds them. He does so with a quiet assurance and empathy that is evidenced by terrific performances from newcomers Ohlyan and Batra. They ensure Soni and Kalpana remain believable at all times, with the developing bond between the two women played sincerely and honestly, and their restrained, sincere portrayals prove as gripping for their emotional acuity as they are for the way they conduct themselves physically, with Ohlyan moving purposefully and with a minimum of effort, and Batra appearing as if she’s hemmed in by the demands of Kalpana’s uniform. Shot on a small budget – Ayr is also co-screenwriter and editor – the movie belies this thanks to impressive camera work from DoP David Bolen, and Ayr’s decision to shoot in long takes that lend an unexpected and nuanced immediacy to the action. The lack of a score or soundtrack is fortuitous too, allowing the viewer to concentrate on the material without the distraction of musical cues to take them by the hand and guide them towards the emotion of a scene. All in all, it’s remarkable debut, and one that lifts the lid on an aspect of Indian gender politics that cinema depicts all too rarely.

Rating: 9/10 – shot through with a mournful pessimism but still allowing a modicum of hope for both its main characters, Soni is a terrific example of an Indian indie movie; authoritative without being forthright, bold without being melodramatic, and insightful of its characters internal lives, it’s a movie that is both subtle and precise, and which exerts a powerful grip from beginning to end.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)


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D: Morgan Neville / 94m

With: Fred Rogers (archive footage), Joanne Rogers, John Rogers, Jim Rogers, Tom Junod, Junlei Li, Joe Negri, David Newell, François Clemmons, Nick Tallo, Yo-Yo Ma, Margaret Whitmer

For someone whose primary career was in television, Fred Rogers wasn’t its biggest fan when he first encountered it at his parents’ home in 1951. Originally planning to enter the seminary – he was eventually ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963 – Rogers took up the challenge of television because he felt it could be a useful educational tool for children. After a stint in New York, Rogers went to work at Pittsburgh’s public television station, WQED. Soon he had co-created The Children’s Corner, an elaborate (for its time) puppet show that introduced many characters that would stay with him for the rest of his career. In 1963 he was contracted to work on a new show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called Misterogers; it was the first time Rogers appeared on camera, something that would prove to be a wise decision on CBC’s part. The show ran until 1967, at which point Rogers returned to Pittsburgh and began to develop Misterogers into a new programme for the National Education Television network. And that show was eventually called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

One of the most amazing moments in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? occurs in the wake of a brief archive clip of Robert F. Kennedy. We next see one of Rogers’ puppet characters, King Friday XIII, ask what the word “assassination” means. It’s a tribute to Rogers’ skill as a children’s educator that he could raise such a topic on his show and discuss it in such a way that it became accessible to his young audience, and in a way that they could understand. Rogers would introduce other serious topics over the years, but as Morgan Neville’s heartfelt documentary explains, it was all in the context of helping children make sense of the world around them. Rogers was unique in this, and he was doing so at a time when children’s television was becoming overloaded with fast-paced cartoons and wacky character-based shows such as The Banana Splits. Intent on doing his own thing in his own time, Rogers wasn’t afraid to break the rules by being reflective or pensive, or even plain silent. And he did it all in a friendly, low-key manner that was also sincere, honest, and considering his religious background, refreshingly free of references to faith or spiritual matters. He was a remarkable man, and he had a remarkable effect on everyone around him, including (in another amazing moment) Senator John Pastore.

In exploring the life and work of Fred Rogers, Morgan Neville has made a documentary that not only celebrates the man and his influence on millions of children, but places him in a very important historical context. The late Sixties and early Seventies were a tumultuous period in US history, and through the reminiscences of his wife Joanne, and others who worked with him at the time, Rogers’ determination not to leave children out of what was happening in the world is brought sincerely and honestly to the forefront. His shows were educational and entertaining, and enchanting too, their stripped-back simplicity still unequalled to this day. What also comes across is just how likeable he was, and how some of his own fears and concerns were expressed through his puppet characters, a way for the man himself to make sense of the world. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a potent, enervating documentary that packs several emotional wallops during a run time that doesn’t feel rushed (like Rogers’s shows), and which ends on a perfect grace note. In honouring the man, Neville’s movie, like Rogers himself, also honours all those children he had such a profound effect on. And that’s an amazing achievement…

Rating: 9/10 – one of the best movies of 2018, and in any category, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a beautifully observant and wonderfully poignant look at a man whose impact on children and their emotional welfare and development can’t be underestimated; snubbed by this year’s Academy Awards – what is wrong with them? – this is genuinely moving in places, and a fitting tribute to Fred Rogers, the zip-up sweater man.

Colette (2018)


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D: Wash Westmoreland / 111m

Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Julian Wadham, Shannon Tarbet, Aiysha Hart, Jake Graf, Robert Pugh

In France in 1892, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, “Gabri” (Knightley), is a young woman whose father (Pugh) served in the army with renowned playwright and author “Willy”. Living in the quiet village of Saint Serveur, Gabri has led a sheltered life, so when she and Willy marry and she moves to Paris, the life he leads and his social circle prove something of a disappointment; it’s not the life she expected. Also unexpected is Willy’s carefree way with money – they’re always broke – and his fondness for other women. But being in Paris has awakened Gabri’s gift for writing, and though Willy is initially critical of her work, when bailiffs start calling and it looks as if they have no other choice, he convinces her to write a novel based on her school days. Published under his name, the novel is a runaway success, and is soon followed by two more, both equally as successful. But while Willy is happy to reap the fame and fortune, and keep Gabri’s talent hidden from everyone else, it’s not long before Gabri – now calling herself Colette – decides that remaining anonymous isn’t what she wants – or deserves…

A heritage picture through and through, Colette gives Keira Knightley yet another opportunity to prove that when it comes to costume dramas, there’s something about them that brings out the best in her. Beginning the movie in long pigtails and with a gauche demeanour that highlights Gabri’s inexperience of the world, Knightley continually adds layers to the character that allow her to grow in front of the viewer, and to stake a place in our hearts. It’s not a flamboyant performance, and it’s not designed to overwhelm the other actors or the material. Instead, Knightley shows the quiet determination and increasingly fierce will that Gabri develops as she transitions from average country girl to gifted literary icon. As she battles her husband’s prideful arrogance and sexist beliefs, Colette emerges as the woman Gabri was meant to be, and seeing Knightley navigate the narrow social and emotional pathways of the time highlights again her strengths as an actress. There’s an intuitiveness to her portrayal that’s impressive in the way that it allows her to shade her performance, and to make it subtler than the usual requirements of a costume drama. Quite rightly, she dominates the movie from start to finish.

Which is good news for the movie as a whole, as otherwise this is a period piece that adheres to the standard template of period pieces everywhere, and which does its best not to rock the boat in terms of visual flair, dramatic emphasis, the other performances, Westmoreland’s attentive yet straightforward direction, and Thomas Adès’ stalwart score. It’s not quite a pedestrian movie, but in terms of its structure, and its approach to the details of Colette’s life (and lifestyle), it’s very much a “safe” movie. Colette’s attraction to other women is played matter-of-factly, but the decision to do so, and for Willy to be unconcerned about it, robs the movie of any impact that these scenes could have generated. And many of the confrontations between Colette and Willy, though played in earnest and providing Knightley and West with moments to shine, are still part and parcel of what we’ve come to expect from a movie such as this one. It’s all handsomely mounted, with terrific attention to period detail, but it’s also too clean and sanitary, as if the characters’ prosaic surroundings had to match their constrained emotional outbursts. And for all the sense that the world Colette inhabited was on the cusp of change, here that change remains frustratingly under-developed, leaving the movie to make only a modest impact over all.

Rating: 7/10 – a first-rate performance from Keira Knightley helps Colette overcome a number of unfortunate production decisions that hamper the movie from achieving its full potential; still likeable, and with flashes of mordaunt wit that are deftly handled, it’s a movie that could have been richer and deeper and more layered, but which settles for telling a by-now quite standard tale of female empowerment.

A (Not So) Brief Word About the Oscars 2019


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There are dozens, nay hundreds of movie awards ceremonies that take place every year, but there’s only one that sucks the air out of the room and leaves everyone dizzy with anticipation and excitement. The Oscars occupy their own rarefied atmosphere, the awards ceremony that demands more attention than any other, and which is seen as the pinnacle of any winner’s career. In recent years it’s been dogged by controversy, from accusations of racial inequality in its membership, to the mix up over the Best Film winner (Moonlight? La La Land?), and this year, whether Kevin Hart should or shouldn’t be the host (when the better question was, aside from Ellen DeGeneres, was anyone really excited when his name came up?). This year’s crop of nominees was announced today, and looking through the main categories, it’s hard not to wonder if the Oscars pre-eminence in the world of awards-giving is entirely deserved. Perhaps this year’s social media trend should be, #OscarsTooSafe.

The Best Film – sorry, Motion Picture of the Year (how grand!) – category is particularly dismaying. Can anyone really say that Bohemian Rhapsody or Vice deserve to be there when the likes of First Reformed, Leave No Trace, and Eighth Grade were also released in 2018? How can the Academy justify such safe choices when up to ten movies can be nominated? There’s not even a dark horse to make it look even halfway interesting (how cool would it have been to have seen Mission: Impossible – Fallout make the list, a movie that critics and audiences both agreed was one of the very best movies of 2018). And don’t get me wrong, but good as Black Panther was, Avengers: Infinity War was easily the better movie. So why isn’t that nominated instead if it’s time to be acknowledging superhero movies?

The acting categories also reflect the Academy’s inability to sort the wheat ffrom the chaff, with the same names showing up for tuxedo/gown duty like regulars at an all you can eat buffet. Good as he was in Vice, Christian Bale has given better performances in other movies, while Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate is one of the Academy’s usual attempts at highlighting a performance hardly anyone has seen. You want to applaud this, but the likelihood of Dafoe winning on the night seems as likely as Kevin Spacey turning up as a surprise presenter. On the distaff side, it’s hard not to be cynical over the choices of Lady Gaga (nominated for playing herself), and Melissa McCarthy (nominated for being serious), while anyone who has seen The Favourite is probably wondering why Olivia Colman isn’t the only actress to be nominated (she’s that good). Oh, and if you were Nicole Kidman, you might also be wondering what you had to do to get noticed.

If the Oscars are truly about recognising the best that 2018 had to offer (or any year for that matter), then they desperately need a major overhaul. With all the talk of inclusivity over the last few years, let’s jettison ideas such as needing to separate animated and foreign language movies into their own categories; why can’t they be Best Motion Pictures too? (And can anyone explain how Roma can be up for Best Motion Picture and Best Foreign Language Film this year?) Conversely though, can we please stop pitting black and white movies against their colour counterparts in the Best Achievement in Cinematography category; these are two entirely different disciplines – and besides, black and white should win hands down every time. And lastly, whoever does host the show, is it too much to ask that they actually be funny for a change? (Silly question; of course it is.)

10 Reasons to Remember Andrew G. Vajna (1944-2019)


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Andrew G. Vajna (1 August 1944 – 20 January 2019)

For someone who became internationally famous through making movies, it’s perhaps something of a puzzle as to why Andrew G. Vajna’s own childhood never became the subject of a movie. At the age of twelve and supported by the Red Cross, Vajna travelled from his home in Budapest to Canada, He made the trip alone, and arrived with no friends to meet him, and unable to speak a word of English. Despite this, Vajna flourished, and later on he was studying cinematography at the University of California, before he joined the university’s Educational Motion Picture Department. A brief stint running his own photo studio was curtailed by a ski accident, and from there Vajna became a hairdresser. Eventually he teamed with an old friend, Gábor Koltai, and they founded a successful high quality wig company. Vajna moved to Hong Kong and ran his own wig company there before selling it in 1973 for a handsome profit.

Following a brief period as a cinema owner and distributor in the Far East, Vajna met Mario Kassar at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, and together the pair formed distribution company, Carolco. In less than three years, Carolco had become one of the top three foreign sales organisations worldwide, with movies such as Futureworld (1976), The Eagle Has Landed (1977), and Winter Kills (1979) being distributed under the Carolco banner. But it wasn’t until 1982, when Vajna and Kassar took a risk in acquiring the rights to David Morrell’s novel, First Blood, that Carolco became a production company as well as a distributor. First Blood‘s success prompted Vajna and Kassar to expand their empire, and further Rambo sequels, along with a wide range of other projects, saw the company continue to build on its successes. But differences between the two men saw Vajna sell his stake in Carolco, and in 1989, he formed Cinergi Productions, Inc. Vajna continued to make successful movies until the mid-90’s when a string of box office flops caused Cinergi to fold.

Despite the high level of success he experienced as a producer/distributor, Vajna never forgot his Hungarian roots, and he did a lot to support the Hungarian movie industry, from arranging for productions such as Evita (1996) to be shot there, to founding DIGIC Pictures, an animation studio. In 2011 he took his support a step further by creating the Hungarian National Film Fund, an organisation dedicated to providing financial and practical support to Hungarian movie projects. The most successful recipient of support from the fund was Son of Saul (2015); without the fund’s backing it’s unlikely László Nemes’ movie would have been made. And in recent years, Vajna expanded his influence by venturing into telecommunications. A man who proved successful in almost everything he turned his hand to, Vajna was also a true enthusiast in everything he did. His influence stretched beyond the boundaries of being a distributor or producer, and without him, Hungary’s reputation as a source of artistically and financially successful movies would certainly not be as healthy as it is today.

1 – First Blood (1982)

2 – Angel Heart (1987)

3 – Music Box (1989)

4 – Total Recall (1990)

5 – Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

6 – Tombstone (1993)

7 – Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)

8 – Nixon (1995)

9 – Evita (1996)

10 – Freedom’s Fury (2006)

The Wife (2017)


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D: Björn L. Runge / 100m

Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, Elizabeth McGovern

Connecticut, 1992. Joseph Castleman (Pryce) is an esteemed American author who is woken early one morning to learn that he is being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s over the moon, and so is his wife, Joan (Close), but there is tension from their son, David (Irons), who has written his first short story and is waiting for his father to offer his opinion, something Joseph seems reluctant to do. The three travel to Stockholm for the prize giving ceremony, and discover on their flight the presence of another writer, Nathaniel Bone (Slater), who has made a career out of scandalous biographies, and who has chosen Joseph as his next subject. Joseph and Joan want nothing to do with him, but once in Stockholm, and with Joan displaying a degree of unhappiness that Bone spots, she and Bone spend time talking over drinks. Bone has a theory about Joseph’s work that Joan rebuffs, but it’s one that he also repeats to David. As the ceremony nears, Joan’s unhappiness begins to express itself more and more, and David decides to challenge them both over Bone’s theory…

Adapted from the 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer, The Wife provides Glenn Close with her best role in years, and provides us with her best performance in years. As the long-suffering wife of acclaimed author Joseph, Close’s Joan is a model of reticence and humility, refusing to share in her husband’s limelight, but happy for the recognition it affords them as a couple. But beneath Joan’s placid, almost stoic exterior, their marriage, and an arrangement between them that they’ve kept a secret for decades, is beginning to take its toll and Joan is struggling to maintain the façade she’s held in place for so long. Astute viewers will quickly work out just what that secret is, and combined with Bone’s suspicions and flashbacks to when Joseph and Joan met, even less astute viewers will be able to piece together the cause of Joan’s unhappiness. But with that comes a question that the movie can’t quite answer: why has it taken all this time – over thirty years – for her sorrow to manifest itself – and so abruptly? There’s an inevitable confrontation between Joan and Joseph, but though there are accusations and remonstrations aplenty, that unanswered question remains. And as well constructed as it is (the story is told in non-linear fashion), this leaves the movie with a great big hole in it.

But while the narrative stumbles at times, and David is depicted as something of an insecure brat, Björn L. Runge’s direction compensates for all this by taking Jane Anderson’s screenplay and making it into an austere, emotionally repressed drama where the power struggle within a marriage is displayed almost forensically, from Joseph’s constant reminders that Joan doesn’t write (even though we know she does), to the subtle ways in which Runge has Joseph keep Joan behind him, or just off to the side while praising her at the same time. Runge and his DoP, Ulf Brantås, use the bright airy spaces within the Castelemans’ hotel room, and the claustrophobic interiors of the ceremony events to highlight just how hemmed in Joan has become, that it doesn’t matter what her environment is, she’s still uncomfortable. Allied to Close’s stellar performance, this allows the audience to witness the slow, uncomfortable realisation to dawn for Joan that she can’t continue as she has been. And when Close invites us to witness this, that realisation is all the more powerful for the quiet way that she expresses it. It’s an emotional movie that hits hard on a number of occasions, but only in regard to Joan; Joseph isn’t as multi-faceted as he sounds, David is a drain on the narrative, and it’s unlikely that Bone would be tolerated so easily in real life. But the main reason for being here is Close, and though the movie loses traction when she’s not on screen, when she is, she – and the movie – are magnificent.

Rating: 7/10 – one of those occasions where a performance is so good that it offsets much that doesn’t work elsewhere, The Wife is certainly intriguing, but alas not as complex as it may seem; Close is superb, and the movie is mesmerising when she’s on screen, but though Runge tries hard to make the rest of the movie just as involving, it’s those devastating close ups of Joan as she copes with each new betrayal that have the most impact.

Keep an Eye Out (2018)


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Original title: Au poste!

D: Quentin Dupieux / 73m

Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde, Grégoire Ludig, Marc Fraize, Anaïs Demoustier, Philippe Duquesne, Jacky Lambert, Orelsan, Jeanne Rosa, Vincent Grass

Late one night, the man who’s found a dead body outside his apartment block and reported it to the police, Fugain (Ludig), finds himself being interrogated by Superintendent Buron (Poelvoorde). Buron asks Fugain to repeat his previous statement, and to go into further detail by explaining his actions leading up to the discovery of the body. Fugain begins doing so, but has to leave the room for a while to meet his son (Orelsan). Buron leaves another officer, Philippe (Fraize), in charge, but when their conversation turns to homicidal matters that don’t relate to Fugain’s discovery, it leads to an unfortunate accident that Fugain needs to hide from Buron when he returns. Fugain continues to recount the events preceding his discovery of the body, most of which are prosaic and dull, something Buron is quick to point out. As the interrogation continues, Fugain becomes less and less of a suspect in Buron’s eyes, but when Buron’s boss, Champonin (Duquesne), pays him an unexpected visit, a chance discovery leads to Fugain being put on the spot, but not before something completely bizarre happens…

If you’re familiar with the work of Quentin Dupieux, then you’ll probably be thinking that whatever happens in Keep an Eye Out, it won’t be ordinary or commonplace. And you’d be right. But it takes a while for Dupieux for reveal just how quirky and unpredictable his latest movie is going to be. Throughout the opening sequence, which sees Buron taking time out from interrogating Fugain in order to arrange a get-together with one of his friends (and which is humorous enough by itself), we can see another man with his back to the camera. Buron gains his attention and the man turns in his chair to reveal his has no left eye. This is Philippe, and it’s in that moment that you know that whatever Dupieux has up his sleeve isn’t going to be like any other French comedy you’ve seen recently. From then on, the movie steps up a notch and Fugain’s increasingly uncomfortable situation becomes the stuff of quietly controlled farce. Badgered by Buron’s insistence on breaking down his whereabouts before discovering the body into minute, but boring detail, Fugain can only sit and wait for his ordeal to be over. As he keeps saying, he’s innocent. But events have superseded all this, and like all good farceurs, Dupieux delights in putting Fugain in more and more trouble.

As well as having some very witty and very sharp dialogue, the movie also trades on some visual tricks and anomalies that add to the proceedings, and which act as clues for the observant viewer that not everything is as it seems. And so it proves. At the point where Fugain seems finally in the clear, Dupieux delights in pulling the rug out under from under him, and then in a startling move that defies expectations, from under the viewer as well. It’s a moment of sheer audacity that only someone like Dupieux could pull off (or even think of). But it wouldn’t work half as well if it wasn’t for the characters, expertly devised and played by Dupieux’s talented cast. Poelvoorde is terrific as the deadpan, seemingly bored but dogged superintendent, while Ludig is a perfect foil as the upright man targeted because of a moment’s rash behaviour, but who becomes embroiled in something far worse. Fraize almost steals the show from both of them as Philippe, a recently appointed officer whose opinions about set squares have a particularly apt payoff. But to say more about this wonderfully droll movie and the odd tangents it takes us to would be to spoil things. Suffice it to say, it’s definitely one to watch.

Rating: 8/10 – another unconventional, but delightfully peculiar outing from the off-kilter imagination of Quentin Dupieux, Keep an Eye Out is funny, arresting, bizarre, and an absolute joy; more impactful as well due to its short running time, it’s a movie that’s so confidently assembled and handled that the fact that it’ll be difficult to see outside of its native France is a terrible state of affairs.

Close (2019)


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D: Vicky Jewson / 94m

Cast: Noomi Rapace, Sophie Nélisse, Indira Varma, Eoin Macken, George Georgiou, Christopher Sciueref, Akin Gazi, Kevin Shen

Sam Carter (Rapace) is one of the world’s foremost female bodyguards. Following a tough assignment, she’s enjoying some down time when she’s offered the job of protecting a mining heiress, Zoe Tanner (Nélisse), for twenty-four hours, including a trip from England to Morocco. Zoe’s father ran a company called Hassine that is now overseen by her stepmother, Rima (Varma). With an important deal looming, Zoe’s presence in Morocco is regarded as a stabilising factor due to pressure from a rival company, Sikong. When the safe house they are staying in is attacked, Sam and Zoe manage to escape but matters worsen when the police they believe are taking them to safety prove to be just as dangerous. They get away again, but not before Zoe shoots and kills one of the officers. On the run, and with Sam being disavowed by her bosses, the pair must contend with continued threats to their lives, while Rima fights to keep the deal from falling through. When an extraction plan goes badly wrong, and it looks as if Rima is responsible for Zoe being targeted, Sam must come up with a plan to save them both…

Somewhere, buried deep within its solid action movie credentials, Close contains the germ of an idea that relates to female empowerment. With Rapace’s character based on real life bodyguard Jacquie Davis, it’s an obvious approach, but in telling its awkward, badly constructed story, Close fumbles the central relationship between Sam and Zoe, and never comes near to making it feel like a natural consequence of being thrust into such a dangerous situation. Sure, there’s a mutual dependence that develops, and Zoe proves to be almost as resourceful as Sam, but as ever with relatively low budget thrillers, the characterisations take a back seat to the action, and any character beats prove both perfunctory and forgettable. It’s the one over-riding problem for anyone making an action movie: how to make the characters look and sound like recognisable human beings. So, often they’re given tragic pasts (here, Zoe is still struggling to cope with her mother’s suicide), or emotional baggage to carry around (here, Sam has a daughter that she had to give away at sixteen), but it’s rare that these attempts at adding depth complement or improve matters. And so it proves with Close.

But while the script – by Jewson and Rupert Whitaker – is less than convincing during its quieter moments, it’s much more successful when it’s putting Rapace through a succession of tough, physically demanding action scenes. One such scene, which finds Sam going one on one with a bad guy with her hands tied behind her back and relying on her wits and ingenuity is surprisingly impressive, even though the coverage could have benefitted from a few more medium shots at the right moments. One of the movie’s other pleasures is its rich, warm-hued cinematography. Courtesy of Malte Rosenfeld, this gives Close the sense of having a bigger budget and better resources than other movies of its ilk, and many of the Moroccan locations are rendered beautifully. Rapace is as reliable as ever, and convincing enough that you’d definitely want her on your side in a real fight, but Nélisse is all at sea in a role that has under-developed written all over it. But that’s as nothing to the trials Varma is put through as the movie’s notional villain, a role that sees her having to veer (unavoidably) between uncaring über-bitch and misunderstood stepmother, and often in the same scene.

Rating: 5/10 – though Jewson is clearly at home amidst all the bullets and bloodshed, Close suffers from a stodgy narrative, wince-inducing dialogue, and rudimentary character work that all combine to undermine the things it does get right; there’s ambition here, certainly, but somewhere along the way it was jettisoned in favour of making the same mistakes that so many other low budget action movies make.

Columbus (2017)


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D: Kogonada / 104m

Cast: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Michelle Forbes, Rory Culkin, Parker Posey

When his father, a renowned architecture scholar, becomes ill and lapses into a coma prior to a speaking engagement in Columbus, Indiana, his estranged son, Jin (Cho), travels there to be at his side. While Jin waits for his father to recover, he meets a young local woman, Casey (Richardson), who works in a library near the hospital. Her passion for architecture is at odds with his own disinterest, but they strike up a friendship as she shows him her favourite buildings in the city. Jin reveals the differences that have kept him and his father apart for so long, while Casey admits that her mother, Maria (Forbes), is a recovering drug addict. This is also the reason why she’s passed on opportunities to leave Columbus and make a career for herself as an architect. While wrestling with his own feelings about his father, Jin challenges Casey to make something of her life, but his advice isn’t well received. It’s not until Casey discovers that her mother isn’t always at the two jobs she has, and that she may have relapsed, that Jin’s advice starts to sink in…

Every once in a while a movie comes along that is so singularly expressive that it makes you wonder why no one else has made a movie like it before. Such a movie is Columbus, the creation of video essayist Kogonada. It’s a hugely impressive feature debut, a visual tone poem that combines stark, formal screen compositions with nuanced emotional content, and which allows both these aspects to complement each other naturally and without any sense that either have been forced together unnecessarily. There are many unique buildings in Columbus, Indiana, and Kogonada incorporates them as supporting characters, rigid backdrops that provide insights into the hopes and dreams that Casey feels she has to suppress, and which Jin has abandoned. Through the use of careful framing, and recurring visual motifs – many shots are of doorways and what’s beyond them – the movie paints a wonderfully distinctive, and unexpectedly immersive portrait of a friendship that’s increasingly defined by the characters’ relationship to the spaces around them at any given time. Whether it’s Casey dancing wildly outside the formidable façade of the school she attended, or Casey and Jin having an argument within the confines of a covered bridge, the choice of location always enhances the emotional requirements of the scene in question.

While the relationship between Jin and Casey remains the kind of friendship that only exists in the movies, the script doesn’t allow itself to fall into any of the usual traps where romance rears its inappropriate head, or misunderstandings cause a rift that’s resolved too easily in the final scene. Jin’s sobering sense of duty (Korean tradition has him waiting at his father’s bedside to ensure he doesn’t die alone), is at odds with his need to live his own life free from the parental and cultural constraints he’s broken away from. Meanwhile, Casey’s own sense of duty (how will her mother cope if she leaves?), keeps her from achieving her own escape. Their friendship allows both to learn some valuable lessons from each other, but this is done in such an organic, subtle way that it feels fresh, and the outcome less than predictable. Cho and Richardson are both excellent, each giving beautifully measured performances that bring their characters to life in ways that are entirely truthful and recognisable for their aspirations and vulnerabilities. The movie adopts a slow, stately pace that suits the material, and there are narrative gaps that add a sense of mystery and which keep the viewer “on their toes”. But all in all, this is a beautiful, fascinating, lustrous gem of a movie and one of the finest in recent years.

Rating: 9/10 – with its visually stunning look courtesy of writer/director/editor Kogonada and DoP Elisha Christian, and a poignant central relationship that’s expertly played by its leads, Columbus is an unexpectedly moving treatise on loss and love that rewards the viewer at every turn; not for everyone, but for those willing to give themselves over to it, this is an exceptional movie that mesmerises and fascinates, and which does so long after it’s over.

Vice (2018)


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D: Adam McKay / 132m

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Guirgis

In 1963, future vice president Dick Cheney (Bale) is working as a lineman because his alcoholism got him kicked out of Yale. Given an ultimatum by his wife, Lynne (Adams), to shape up and make something of his life, Cheney goes into politics, securing an internship at the White House during the Nixon administration. There he works for Nixon’s economic advisor Donald Rumsfeld (Carell). The two become friends (of a sort) and as the years pass, they both fall in and out of favour with the ruling elite, until during the Clinton era, Cheney becomes CEO of Halliburton, and Rumsfeld holds a variety of positions in the private sector. When he’s asked to be the running mate of George W. Bush (Rockwell) when Bush runs for president, Cheney sees an opportunity to occupy a unique position of power. But it’s in the wake of the terrorist attacks that occurred on 9/11 that Cheney sees his ambition begin to come to fruition. Without recourse to just cause, and ignoring his own intelligence agencies, Cheney orchestrates an unnecessary war in Iraq…

Although it’s perfectly well made, and intelligently constructed, Adam McKay’s foray into US politics lacks the urgency of his previous outing, The Big Short (2015), and the impact, with much of what we know about Cheney and his unrepentant manipulation of the facts post-9/11, still fresh in our memories. And it’s hard to be outraged by what Cheney did when the current incumbent of the White House abuses his position so appallingly (and deliberately), and on an almost daily basis. This leaves Vice at a bit of a disadvantage, with McKay’s screenplay laying it all out for us, but in a way that doesn’t feel fresh or surprising, but rather more like reportage. The facts are there, but the emotion isn’t, and this leaves the viewer in an awkward position: working out how to engage with a movie that should be hitting home quite forcefully, but which settles instead for telling its story too matter-of-factly for its own good (it doesn’t help that McKay lumbers his movie with having to stop and explain things such as the unitary executive theory… not the most exciting of topics). There’s also the hint of a longer movie as well, with incidents such as the Valerie Plame affair, and the accidental shooting of Harry Whittington, added to the narrative but ultimately carrying little or no dramatic weight.

And we never get to know Cheney the man, or his motives. Played with a marked reticence that makes Cheney look like a less amiable Chevy Chase, Bale is physically intimidating but often reduced to uttering grunts instead of sentences, and looking disinterested or dismissive. Cheney may have been a ruthless, calculating politician post-9/11, but a lot of the time he just looks like your average grumpy grandpa. Even the one good thing that Cheney did – retiring from public life in order to shield his daughter, Mary (Pill), from media scrutiny over being a lesbian – is tarnished by his later actions in supporting the political ambitions of his other daughter, Liz (Rabe). Rare moments such as these make Cheney appear more recognisably human, and not the unknowable cypher he is the rest of the time. All in all, it’s still a good performance from Bale, but it’s the likes of Adams and Plemons (as a fictional Iraq War veteran with an unlikely tie to Cheney) who make the material resonate more. Again, it’s intelligently constructed, and McKay sprinkles the narrative with some caustic humour to leaven the gloom, while DoP Greig Fraser ensures the sense of dirty deeds carried out behind closed doors is portrayed through tight close ups and the use of shadowy lighting. It’s a movie that speaks plainly about the issues it’s addressing, but sadly, a little too plainly to be effective.

Rating: 6/10 – dry and only fitfully engaging, Vice has the feel of a movie that’s telling its story as if everyone’s already been briefed and the movie itself is something of a formality; when a movie that seeks to recount seismic events in recent US history lacks immediacy and verve then something is very wrong indeed.

Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)


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D: Michael Moore / 128m

With: Michael Moore, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Katie Endicott, Ben Ferencz, Mona Hanna-Attisha, David Hogg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Richard Ojeda, Robert Pickell, John Podesta, Bernie Sanders, Nayyirah Shariff, Timothy Snyder, Rashida Tlaib

Where to start…? As well as being the beginning for this review, you can imagine that was also the quandary faced by Michael Moore when it came time to decide what to include in his latest documentary, a state of the nation address that shows the movie maker at his angriest and unhappiest. Moore has been chronicling the on-going downfall of America for over thirty years, and here his passion and talent for exposing the hypocrisy at the heart of American politics is firmly at the forefront of Fahrenheit 11/9‘s clarion call to the American people. The movie begins with the election of Donald Trump as President, and Moore asking the question, “How the fuck did this happen?” But if you think that’s something of a slap in the face, there’s more to come, as Moore examines the uncomfortable relationship between Trump and his daughter, Ivanka; explores the correlation between Trump’s racist comments and the increase in systemic racism; abjures the political system that encouages the complacency that allows Trump’s recidivism to go unchecked; and asserts that democracy – true democracy – is something that America has never experienced.

Away from Trump, Moore returns to his home town of Flint, Michigan, a once thriving town that is now a shadow of its former self. With the town struggling to keep itself going, in 2011 State Governor Rick Snyder backed a plan to replace the mains water pipeline that supplied clear water to Flint from Lake Huron. While the new pipeline was being built, Snyder also backed the decision to use the Flint River as the primary source of clean water for the town. But the river was toxic, and though officials repeatedly told residents it was safe to drink, soon people were getting sick. Lead levels in the water were found to be so high that the people of Flint, including between six and twelve thousand children, had been effectively poisoned. There was an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease that claimed the lives of ten people. And nothing was done about it until recently. Even a visit from Barack Obama failed to alleviate the issue – and all because he asked for a glass of water. And that’s without the military coming in and using abandoned buildings and deprived areas in Flint as a place to carry out their war games. How much worse can it get for Flint? Even Moore doesn’t know.

Moore also turns his attention to the West Virginia teachers’ strike in early 2018, and the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that took place around the same time. With both these events, Moore shows how a new generation of Americans such as Richard Ojeda are beginning to challenge the political status quo with shows of solidarity and national marches. Moore shows there is still hope for the future, and makes the point that perhaps the nation needs this period of social and political upheaval before it can move on more profitably as a democracy. But it all comes back to Trump, the master liar and manipulator who took advantage of a bankrupt political system and used it to his own ends. To get an idea of how much Moore detests the man, see how uncomfortable he looks when he and Trump appear together on The Roseanne Show (and he has to be nice to the future President), and then watch in astonishment as he presents us with footage of Adolf Hitler speaking with Trump’s voice. Heavy-handed? Most definitely. And what follows isn’t the most rigorous of historical analogies, either, but as a warning of what might be around the corner, it’s chilling. And who’s to say Moore is wrong? After all, he was one of the few people who predicted Trump would win the presidency…

Rating: 9/10 – fiercely argued, and presenting facts and figures that often get left out of the argument – 75% of Americans believe immigration is good for the US; Barack Obama took more money from Goldman Sachs than any other contributor – Fahrenheit 11/9 sees Michael Moore back to doing what he does best: holding up a mirror to the myriad failings of American politics; necessarily hard to watch if you have any empathy for a country that has no idea how to make itself great again (or even averagely successful), it’s a movie that takes no prisoners on either side, but which also manages to find grains of hope in amongst all the fiascos and disasters.

Nothing to Hide (2018)


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Original title: Le jeu

aka The Game

D: Fred Cavayé / 92m

Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Suzanne Clément, Stéphane De Groodt, Vincent Elbaz, Grégory Gadebois, Doria Tillier, Roschdy Zem, Fleur Fitoussi

Seven friends gather together for a dinner party, held at the home of cosmetic surgeon Vincent (De Groodt) and his wife, therapist Marie (Bejo). Joining them are newlyweds Thomas (Elbaz) and Léa (Tillier), who have decided to try for a baby; distant married couple Charlotte (Clément) and Marco (Zem); and single friend Ben (Gadebois), who should be bringing his new girlfriend for everyone to meet, but who turns up alone as she’s fallen ill. A discussion about mobile phones and the secrets they may contain leads to Marie suggesting they all play a game: if anyone receives a call, or a text, or an e-mail, that person has to answer the call (with the loudspeaker on), or read out their texts and e-mails for the whole group to hear. The “game” starts off innocently enough, but it’s not long before some of the calls prove uncomfortable for the people receiving them. As the evening continues, secrets are revealed and relationships find themselves under threat, as the seven friends begin to realise that perhaps they don’t know each other as well as they thought…

One of a staggering eight remakes of Perfect Strangers (2016) that have been made in the past two years (and soon to be joined by four more), Nothing to Hide cleaves faithfully to the original set up, both in the secrets it reveals and the physical layout of Vincent and Marie’s apartment; there’s even a balcony for the friends to gather on when it comes time to take a group selfie. And although imitation is apparently the sincerest form of flattery, what Cavayé does with his adaptation, which he also scripted, is to take the pressure cooker atmosphere of Paolo Genovese’s original and dial it down to make it more recognisably French. There are outbursts, there is anger, but these aspects are much more subdued, and Cavayé’s decision to apply a degree of subtlety to the material helps the movie achieve a different kind of impact, one that fits the minor changes made to the narrative, and the overall approach. Here, there are silences and periods where the characters are forced to examine their indiscretions and lies that offer painful reminders that we all keep secrets, even and sometimes especially, from our loved ones. But is the price we invitably pay, ever worth it?

As with the original, the movie retains the curveball that marred Genovese’s ending, but somehow Cavayé makes it work, and with a wistfulness that feels completely in keeping with what’s gone before. He’s also assembled a terrific ensemble cast, with each getting a chance to shine, and each getting the measure of their characters. This leads to insights and revelations about each of the friends that help add layers to the narrative and which also allows the viewer to feel a degree of sympathy for each one – but especially Marco, who acts bravely but misguidedly to protect one of the others. Bejo and De Groodt are a convincing couple, and as the duo least affected by the fallout from the game, act as our touchstones as things get worse; they’re also at the centre of the movie’s best scene, when Vincent has to deal with a difficult and emotive issue concerning their daughter, Margot (Fitoussi). Elsewhere, Denis Rouden’s deft camerawork and framing catches reactions and behavourial tics that might otherwise go unmissed, and Mickael Dumontier’s restrained yet intuitive editing style ensures Rouden’s efforts are maximised for the best impact. It’s a French take on a universal story, and infused with a great deal of charm and wit, and as a cautionary tale – be careful of the games you play – very enjoyable indeed.

Rating: 8/10 – a rare remake that improves on the original, Nothing to Hide is a dramedy that often hits close to home in the way that it exposes the lies we tell ourselves in order to keep secrets; unexpectedly sobering at times, and laugh out loud funny at others, it does flirt uncomfortably with homophobia at one point, but overall this is an intelligent, entertaining remake that has its own style and its own way of being relevant.

NOTE: Apologies for the dubbed and subtitled trailer – sometimes you just can’t win!

The Upside (2017)


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D: Neil Burger / 126m

Cast: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Aja Naomi King, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Golshifteh Farahani, Genevieve Angelson, Tate Donovan, Julianna Margulies

Parolee Dell Scott (Hart) is fresh out of prison and trying his best (which isn’t much) to avoid going straight back in. Tasked with finding a job as quickly as possible by his parole officer, Dell attends what he thinks is an interview for a cleaning job. The number of waiting applicants surprises him, but when time drags on and he’s in danger of not picking up his son, Anthony (Winston), from school on time, he crashes the interviews in order to get a signature to say that he’s attended. But the job proves to be a life auxiliary for ex-businessman Phillip Lacasse (Cranston), who is paralysed from the neck down. Against the better wishes of Phillip’s associate, Yvonne (Kidman), Phillip takes to Dell’s unconventional attitude, and decices to hire him. Unsure at first, Dell’s decision is made for him thanks to a row with his wife, Latrice (King), over his inability to properly provide for her and Anthony. Realising that being a carer for Phillip could solve a lot of his problems, Dell accepts the job, but soon finds that he’s not quite as prepared for it as he thought…

The third remake of the French movie Intouchables (2011), The Upside reaches us long after its first screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017. Caught up in the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein, the movie’s planned release in March 2018 was shelved until it was picked up for distribution by STX Entertainment and Lantern Entertainment (the successor to the Weinstein Company). Now the only question is: was it worth the wait? Sadly, the answer is, not really. This is a movie that is almost entirely depth-free, and dramatically inert. It’s a standard Hollywood interpretation of the kind of feelgood story that comes along every now and then and which, thanks to its sincerity and innate positivity, tugs at the heartstrings. But as usual in Hollywood, this kind of narrative can’t be allowed to exist in and of itself; it has to be treated with a level of over-simplification that five year olds would find frustrating, and slathered with enough gooey sentimentality to induce Type 2 diabetes in the unsuspecting viewer. There’s often a formula to these kinds of stories, but the best versions try their best to wrest something new from the material. Here the formula is embraced wholeheartedly… and then some.

This leaves the viewer with two choices: to either go with the flow and settle for spending an occasionally amusing, occasionally effective couple of hours that will leave them unmoved, or to rail against every predictable plot and story development for being so obvious. Either will involve a tremendous amount of effort on the viewer’s part, and neither will see them coming away singing the movie’s praises. For despite the chemistry between Hart and Cranston, and their performances – which at least stop the material from becoming too sappy – this is very much a movie that coasts for most of its running time, and which struggles to find anything to say. Burger does what he can, but someone really should have stepped in at the first draft stage and told screenwriter Jon Hartmere that a by-the-numbers approach wasn’t what was needed (though you do get the feeling that’s exactly what the producers wanted). Cranston is good value as always, and Hart, trying to broaden his range, is okay, but he doesn’t do anything to make us think that there’s a serious actor inside him who’s desperately seeking the dramatic limelight. And then there’s Kidman, on something of a role at the moment, but so under-utilised it’s hard to work out why she said yes. Like much about this movie, her presence begs a secondary question: was it worth the effort?

Rating: 5/10 – though its leads work well together, and there are some good comedic moments in amongst the otherwise routine material, The Upside is, unfortunately, a movie that doesn’t live up to its title; with issues around disability, class and race carefully ignored in favour of making this purely a feelgood movie, even the obligatory falling out between Dell and Phillip feels as manufactured as everything else.

The Front Runner (2018)


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D: Jason Reitman / 113m

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Bill Burr, Oliver Cooper, Chris Coy, Kaitlyn Dever, Molly Ephraim, Ari Graynor, Mike Judge, John Bedford Lloyd, Mark O’Brien, Sara Paxton, Kevin Pollak, Steve Zissis

1984. Senator Gary Hart (Jackman) of Colorado loses the Democratic presidential nomination to Walter Mondale. Four years later, Hart is the front runner in the race for the presidency, ahead in the polls against Republican candidate George H.W. Bush, and on course to put a Democrat back in the Oval Office after Ronald Reagan’s eight-year tenure. While campaigning in Florida, Hart attends a party held by a political associate of his, and there he meets Donna Rice (Paxton), a university graduate who is interested in working for Hart’s campaign as a fundraiser. Later, a reporter at the Miami Herald, Tom Fiedler (Zissis), receives an anonymous call informing him that Hart is meeting Rice at his home in Washington. Deciding to follow Rice to Washington, she is seen in Hart’s company at his home, and appears to have stayed there overnight. The Herald publishes an article exposing Hart’s “affair”, and in the ensuing days, the senator has to decide whether he should fight the accusation and continue with his campaign, or abandon his hopes of becoming President altogether…

Based on the book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai (who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Reitman and Jay Carson), The Front Runner is an odd mix of political drama, cautionary tale, and media morality discourse, but it’s also a mix that doesn’t entirely work because it doesn’t examine these aspects in any meaningful or deliberate way. It’s true, Hart targets the media as the authors of his downfall, and makes several pointed remarks about how intrusive they’ve become in order to break a story, but rather than providing a precise examination of the way in which newspaper reporting was beginning to morph into what we’re familiar with nowadays, the movie instead opts to have several reporters look sheepish when challenged, and bleating about the public’s right to know when polls clearly showed they weren’t that interested. The movie also has a problem with the nature of Hart’s relationship with Rice. As both parties stated then (and since) that they weren’t having an affair, and no conclusive proof was ever found, the whole issue is inferred in much the same way that the Miami Herald originally reported it. As a result, the movie has a gaping narrative hole in it, one that it never overcomes.

But with all this, what truly matters is whether or not Hart’s story is actually worth telling… and on this evidence, the answer has to be No. Despite an impressive performance from Jackman that paints Hart as a man whose surface charm hides an arrogant, self-righteous personality, the movie struggles to make his downfall anything like the tragedy it’s aiming for. When he’s not putting all the blame on the media, he’s pitiful and apologetic to his long-suffering wife, Lee (Farmiga), admitting his culpability to her but not to anyone else; this makes it hard to feel sympathy for someone whose sense of personal morality is so badly compromised. Elsewhere, the movie shifts and turns uneasily in its attempts to make itself politically and socially relevant to today’s climate (feminist issues form the basis for a subplot involving Rice’s treatment by Hart’s campaign team), and Reitman shapes too many scenes that are meant to be impactful, but which fall short because they lack the necessary energy or power. Judged against the current political climate in America, the “details” of Hart’s fall from grace seem almost whimsical now in their simplicity, and The Front Runner doesn’t offer the required insights to make it more compelling or effective.

Rating: 6/10 – to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the times they were a-changin'”, but though this is touched on in The Front Runner, like much else it touches on, the movie raises many more questions than it can answer, and often feels like a beginner’s guide to Eighties political naïvete; with a large supporting cast that’s given little to do that might improve matters – Athie and Ephraim are the exceptions – the movie casts a wide net but its catch isn’t as substantial as it should have been, and it’s only occasionally absorbing.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)


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Original title: Meari to majo no hana

D: Hiromasa Yonebayashi / 103m

Cast: Hana Sugisaki, Yūki Amami, Fumiyo Kohinata, Jiro Sato, Shinobu Otake, Hikari Mitsushima, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Eri Watanabe, Kenichi Endō

Mary Smith (Sugisaki) is a young girl spending the summer with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Otake) in the British countryside. A local youngster, Peter (Kamiki), teases her about her red hair (which she hates), but it’s his two cats, Tib and Gib, who lead her into finding some mysterious blue glowing flowers in the nearby woods. Said to contain magical powers, Mary learns the flowers are called “fly-by-night”, and when she later discovers an old broomstick in the woods and accidentally crushes one of the flowers against it, the broomstick comes to life and whisks Mary and Tib to a wondrous place hidden in the clouds called Endor College. Mistaken for a new trainee witch, Mary meets Madame Mumblechook (Amami), the headmistress, and Doctor Dee (Kohinata), the chemistry master. When Mary admits that the source of her magic is a fly-by-night, and that Tib isn’t her familiar, but Peter’s cat, she is allowed to leave. But the next day, and with the magic worn off, Mary receives a message from Madame Mumblechook telling her that unless Mary gives up the remaining flowers, Peter (who has been abducted) will never be seen again…

The first feature from Studio Ponoc, the company founded by ex-Studio Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an appealing, deftly handled movie that makes up for what it lacks in depth and narrative ambition, by creating a marvellously detailed and often beautiful fantasy world hidden above the clouds. Adapted from the children’s book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, the movie proper begins wistfully enough with nostalgic representations of the English countryside that have a timeless feel to them, and the kind of small village ambience that speaks of a bygone age. Yonebayashi, along with co-screenwriter Riko Sakaguchi, invests these early scenes with a bucolic nature that is attractive and reassuring, even as the script begins to introduce hints of the troubles to come. There’s an increasing sense of unease that develops, as Endor College gradually reveals its secrets, and the motives of Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee become more evident. But then the narrative, boxed in by the requirement that fly-by-night induced magic only lasts for twenty-four hours, becomes episodic, and loses some of the momentum it’s built up until then. Cue a handful of set pieces that feel isolated from each other, and  though the animation is often majestic, it’s in service to material that doesn’t entirely resonate.

That said, Mary is a likeable heroine, endearing in her clumsiness and brimming with increased confidence with every magical encounter. As she grows into the role of the world’s saviour, she tackles each obstacle with growing determination and acuity. She’s another in the long line of animated heroines that viewers can warm to from the start. Inevitably, there will be comparisons with the output of Studio Ghibli, and while some of those comparisons may be invidious – and rightly so, there’s still room for movies such as this one, that takes the ideals and the commitment to traditonal hand-drawn animation that epitomised Studio Ponoc’s predecessor and helps keep them alive. Though the storyline and the narrative may not be as sharp as they could be, the movie’s visual stylings are still a joy to explore and experience, and there’s an inventiveness that could only come from the unique mindset of Japanese animators. As a first feature, Studio Ponoc should be congratulated for trying to make movies that honour the spirit and adventurous nature of the Studio Ghibli output, and if they haven’t quite succeeded in their aim then, hopefully, there will be plenty of opportunities in the future to do so.

Rating: 7/10 – with exactly the kind of stunning animation that we’re used to seeing from movies such as this, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a visual treat: vibrant, colourful and just plain gorgeous to look at; the slightness of the story lets it down, as well as the stop-start approach in the latter half, but this is still exemplary stuff from a company that can only get better and better.

The Sisters Brothers (2018)


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D: Jacques Audiard / 122m

Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane

Oregon, 1851. The Sisters brothers, Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli (Reilly), work as assassins for a wealthy magnate known as the Commodore (Hauer). Tasked with killing a chemist called Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), the brothers are obliged to travel south to Jacksonville where they are due to rendezvous with another man in the Commodore’s employ, John Morris (Gyllenhaal), who has located Warm and befriended him. However, Warm discovers Morris’s true allegiance, and manages to persuade him into joining Warm on his journey to the California gold fields, where a formula he has created will allow them to locate gold located on any river bed. Charlie and Eli find themselves tracking two men instead of one, and follow them all the way to San Francisco. The brothers have a temporary falling out before discovering the location of Warm’s claim site. However, when they get there, Warm and Morris outwit them and the brothers are captured. Before they can decide what to do with them, though, they are attacked by mercenaries. Forced to free Charlie and Eli in order to overcome their attackers, what begins as a necessary truce later becomes something else entirely…

Westerns made by non-American directors usually have a distinct visual look to them, with the Old West looking as though it’s been filtered through an atypical perspective. Somehow the vistas look markedly different: less awe inspiring and more prosaic, and the overall mise-en-scene feels a little off, as if the locations were chosen as a last resort, the desired ones proving unavailable. Such is the case with Jacques Audiard’s first English language feature, the marvellously droll and appealing The Sisters Brothers. But while this may seem like a handicap – and elsewhere that’s entirely apt – here it suits the material, which is itself broadly interchangeable with the demands of a traditional Western and those of a Western that portrays events with a wry, modernist detachment. Though its story is slight – it’s basically that staple of the Western movie, the manhunt – it’s also a story that is allowed to go off at several tangents, and in doing so, it provides several unexpected delights, from Eli’s encounter with a prostitute (Tolman) who is unused to kindness, to Warm’s desire to create a Utopian society in (of all places) Dallas, Texas. Odd moments such as these, and more besides, add a richness to the material that makes the movie more engaging and more enjoyable in equal measure.

There’s also a melancholy undercurrent to the narrative, as evidenced by Eli’s wish to settle down and open a store and to put the brothers’ violent life and times behind them, while the progress seen in San Francisco – a hotel with indoor plumbing – acknowledges that times are changing, and progress is fast making the brothers’ role in the West obsolete (well, eventually it will). With all this going on in the background, Audiard is equally adept at littering the foreground with moments of rare inspiration and flashes of mordaunt humour. As the two brothers, often feuding but always there for each other, Reilly and Phoenix are a terrific duo, displaying a chemistry that makes you wish they could make further Sisters movies, while the same can be said for Gyllenhaal and Ahmed, another perfect pairing that improves the movie whenever they’re on screen. These are roles that include a great deal of subtlety, and Audiard never misses a trick in letting his very talented cast wring every last drop of emotion and misguided motivation out of their characters and their characters’ ambitions. The movie is ambitious as well, and succeeds more often than not in telling its story with wit and a clever use of atmosphere. And thanks to DoP Benoît Debie (who is Gaspar Noe’s cinematographer of choice), it all looks strangely beautiful and beautifully strange.

Rating: 8/10 – adapted from the novel by Patrick DeWitt, and pulling off a number of narrative tricks that enhance the material immensely, The Sisters Brothers is a refreshing take on the otherwise overworked Western, and a movie that offers genuine surprises along the way; it’s also very funny indeed, and Phoenix is the most relaxed he’s been for ages, another unexpected aspect in a movie that treats the unexpected as something of a challenge that’s been gladly accepted.

Anchor and Hope (2017)


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D: Carlos Marques-Marcet / 113m

Cast: Oona Chaplin, Natalia Tena, David Verdaguer, Geraldine Chaplin, Lara Rossi

Eva (Chaplin) and Kat (Tena) live a somewhat idyllic life on their canal boat, free to roam where they please and work how they wish. The death of their cat prompts Eva to raise the idea of their having a child, something that has been discussed previously but which Kat isn’t so keen on. The arrival of their friend, Roger (Verdaguer), for a short stay with them, prompts further fun times, until one night when all three of them are drunk and Eva suggests that Roger could be the sperm donor. David readily agrees, but Kat is less than enthusiastic, and though it goes against her better judgment, she allows herself to be persuaded to agree to the idea. The plan goes ahead, and despite a couple of hiccoughs along the way, Eva becomes pregnant. But while Eva and Roger – who is excited at the prospect of being a father, even though he won’t be fully involved in the child’s upbringing – bond over buying things for the baby, Kat becomes more and more distant from Eva. As their relationship becomes more and more strained, an unexpected turn of events pushes them further apart…

A Spanish production made in the UK, Anchor and Hope is an amusing, adroitly handled mix of comedy and drama that deals with the subject of same sex parenting, but in a way that doesn’t feel heavy handed or pedantic, and which also doesn’t exploit its potential as a LGBTQ+ movie with a pointed message. Based on the novel Maternidades subversivas by Maria Llopis, the movie treats Eva and Kat like any normal couple with a difficult decision to make (one that will mean a huge difference and change to their relationship), but does ensure that the relevant feelings on both sides are fully expressed and understood. What this reveals more than anything else is the ways in which two people sharing a life and a potential future, can still be acting out of selfish reasons that have nothing to do with the needs of the other. Kat is fearful of losing what she has with Eva (while behaving in a way that is likely to push Eva away completely), and Eva wants a child because of her own emotional needs. Of course there will be conflict between them, and of course their relationship will be tested, but Marques-Marcet and co-screenwriter Jules Nurrish avoid any unnecessary melodramatics and manage to keep things simple yet still largely effective.

By focusing on the characters, though, some of the wider issues – the rights of the donor father, how Eva and Kat will manage financially, how the child will be raised – are acknowledged but not explored, and Roger’s place in the narrative isn’t as fully developed as Eva and Kat’s. It’s fortunate then that Verdaguer provides Roger with a charming, care-free romanticism that provides much of the movie’s light relief. Tena and Chaplin are equally as good, shading their characters so that Eva and Kat’s motivations and behaviours are credible, and this even though the material flows toward the obvious on too many occasions. Marques-Marcet handles the dramatic highs and lows and comic flourishes with noticeable skill, and never once lacks for sincerity in his approach and commitment to the screenplay. With Dagmar Weaver-Madsen’s intimate cinematography catching all the nuances of the various performances, Anchor and Hope is perhaps more predictable than it needed to be, but though most viewers will see each plot development coming a mile off, spending time with the characters is rewarding enough, and the movie as a whole is surprisingly entertaining. And life on a canal boat has rarely looked so appealing…

Rating: 7/10 – Marques-Marcet’s first English language feature, Anchor and Hope is a quietly thoughtful, and emotionally honest movie that tells its story simply and with a great deal of probity; the obviousness of the situation, and the relationship between Eva and Kat, keeps the material from having more of an impact, but luckily this doesn’t detract from a movie that sometimes feels like it’s going to outstay its welcome, but which averts disaster by keeping things intriguing and realistic.

Nancy (2018)


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D: Christina Choe / 86m

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, J. Smith-Cameron, Steve Buscemi, Ann Dowd, John Leguizamo

Nancy Freeman (Riseborough) is a thirty-something woman who lives at home with her domineering mother, Betty (Dowd), and does agency work in various dental practices. She writes in her spare time but her work is continually rejected by publishers, and to compensate she also writes a blog offering support to people who have lost children in tragic circumstances. When her mother dies suddenly, Nancy finds herself a little adrift, but when she sees a news report about a couple whose daughter, Brooke, went missing thirty years before, and a picture of what the girl might look like today, Nancy comes to believe that she might be the missing girl. She has the barest of evidence to support any claim – a missing birth certificate is pretty much it – but it doesn’t stop her from contacting the couple, Ellen (Smith-Cameron) and Leo Lynch (Buscem i). Despite some initial misgivings, the couple invite Nancy to visit them. It’s an awkward first encounter, with Ellen clearly hoping that Nancy is her missing daughter, while Leo is more reserved and doubtful. Agreeing to a DNA test, Nancy finds herself staying longer than she planned, but as the time passes, whether or not she is the couple’s missing daughter becomes less and less important…

The debut feature of its writer/director, Nancy is a curious movie that has a clear central idea that is confidently established, but which unfortunately peters out the longer the movie continues. From the beginning it’s also clear that Nancy inhabits her own world, one in which she’s a good samaritan, kind and supportive in a way that her mother isn’t, and through her blog, someone with the best of intentions but the worst of motivations. She agrees to meet Jeb (Leguizamo), a man whose daughter died just hours after being born; Nancy meets him and pretends to be pregnant. Watching her do this, and hearing later how she justifies her behaviour adds a frisson of tension when she hears about the Lynches missing daughter. What lies will she tell? How much will she deliberately mislead them? And how will she justify her actions if the DNA test proves what the viewer – and Nancy – has known all along: that she isn’t the Lynches child? All these questions are answered by Choe as the movie progresses, but it’s still slightly chilling knowing the level of deception that this still grieivng couple are being exposed to.

And therein lies the movie’s central problem: the deception itself and the couple’s reactions to it. Ellen is understandably keen for Nancy to be the real thing, while Leo’s reluctance to believe implicitly in Nancy’s claim is the more rational, and self-protective approach. But this difference in belief never causes any anatagonism between them, and Choe sweeps away any chance that they’ll confront Nancy with their suspicions, preferring instead to present the narrative as a kind of reverse cuckoo-in-the-nest tale where the cuckoo is made completely welcome. This makes the scenes at the Lynches home feel under-developed, as if once Choe had got her characters together she wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Instead of upping the drama, Choe allows the plot and storyline to move pedantically forward, and the muted energy of the first half an hour gives way to a more stilted, less fluid approach that robs the movie of any impact in the final stretch. Smith-Cameron and Buscemi are entirely credible as the couple who keep finding new hope to alleviate their grief, while Riseborough is astounding as a woman who is unable to reconcile a strong desire to help others with a disturbing lack of empathy. But good though the performances are, they can’t stop the movie from becoming more and more dramatically moribund as time goes on.

Rating: 7/10 – a melancholy look at what can happen when someone who doesn’t understand affection finds herself finally receiving it, Nancy features a mesmerising performance from Riseborough (despite a very unconvincing wig), and impressive visuals courtesy of DoP Zoe White; in wanting to be a haunting tale of unconditional acceptance, the movie continually stumbles, but it finds firmer footing when Nancy is by herself, and the extent of her inability to connect appropriately with others can be fully gauged and understood.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009)


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Original title: San qiang pai an jing qi

aka The First Gun; A Simple Noodle StoryZhang Yimou’s Blood Simple

D: Zhang Yimou / 86m

Cast: Sun Honglei, Xiao Shenyang, Ni Yan, Ni Dahong, Cheng Ye, Mao Mao, Julien Gaudfroy, Zhao Benshan

Situated in a small desert town in China’s Gansu province, Wang’s Noodle Shop is overseen by its owner, Wang (Ni Dahong0, but managed and run by his wife (Ni Yan). Wang is cruel and abusive towards his wife, which has led her to contemplating having an affair with Li (Xiao), who works there along with Zhao (Cheng) and Chen (Mao). The arrival of a travelling Persian weapons salesman (Gaudfroy) gives Wang’s wife the opportunity to buy a gun with three bullets in it. Having it makes her feel safer, but when her husband is told that she’s actually having an affair with Li, he employs a local policeman, Zhang (Sun), to kill them both and dispose of the bodies. But Zhang has other ideas: he offers Wang manufactured evidence of their deaths, and then uses the gun Wang’s wife has bought to shoot Wang. What follows is a twisted and deadly game of cat and mouse between Zhang and Wang’s wife and Li, and between Zhang and Zhao and Chen, who are looking to get into Wang’s money-laden safe…

A remake of thw Coen brothers’ debut, Blood Simple (1984), Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop isn’t the kind of movie you’d expect from the director of such international arthouse successes as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). For though it may be as beautiful and visually striking as those movies, with its heavily stylised colour palette and bold desert landscapes, the movie is also a departure in that it wilfully embraces elements of slapstick humour and out and out screwball comedy (albeit in a Chinese fashion). Many of the movie’s early scenes showcase a lightness of touch and a comedic sensibility that Zhang has yet to revisit in his career, and the antics of would-be lovers Li and Wang’s wife, as well as the devious machinations of Zhao and Chen, allow the spirited cast a chance to overact wildly but to very funny effect (though bear in mind this is Chinese humour, and not always compatible with Western sensibilities; best just to go with it). As the misunderstandings and murderous plottings begin to accumulate, Zhang ensures that the humour remains a key ingredient in his adaptation, but as the movie becomes darker, so too does the comedy, until it’s as pitch black as Wang’s heart.

Fans of Blood Simple won’t be too surprised by this, as the screenplay – by Zu Zhengchao, Shi Jianquan and Zhou Xiaofeng – follows the Coens original story more closely as the story unfolds. Thanks to Zhang’s willingness to experiment with his own directing style, and to try something entirely different, the movie remains faithful while carving out its own unique approach, with its veteran director making terrific use of space and light, and editor Meng Peicong increasing the rhythm and pace as the movie progresses. It’s all anchored by a wonderfully deadpan performance from Sun, whose passive features still manage to express disdain, and boredom with events, as a matter of course. With all the crazy, buffoonish behaviour on display elsewhere, it’s Sun’s straight man who has the most impact, and he’s a pleasure to spend time with. As the would-be lovers, Xiao and Ni Yan bounce off each other with increasing delight, and there’s a terrific cameo from Zhao as a slightly cross-eyed police captain that is short but very entertaining. Zhang may not be delving into the motivations and desires of his characters as closely as he would normally, but then he’s wise enough to know that the material doesn’t require it, and by painting everyone with broad brush strokes, it helps the movie enormously.

Rating: 8/10 – not for all tastes, and certainly not the usual fare expected of Zhang Yimou, nevertheless A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is hugely entertaining, both on a comedic level, and thanks to Zhang’s skill with visual imagery; occasionally surreal, but always intriguing, it’s a movie that is handled with a deftness and a simplicity that many other movie makers would do well to emulate, and features a bravura noodle making scene that is even more impressive for giving the impression that it was all done in one take.

Skate Kitchen (2018)


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D: Crystal Moselle / 106m

Cast: Rachelle Vinberg, Ardelia Lovelace, Nina Moran, Jaden Smith, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Kabrina Adams, Ajani Russell, Jules Lorenzo, Tashiana Washington, Hisham Tawfiq

Camille (Vinberg) is an eighteen year old Long Islander who spends much of her free time on her skateboard, or watching skateboarding videos on her phone. When she suffers a nasty accident falling off her board, her mother (Rodriguez) makes Camille promise not to continue with it. But it’s not long before Camille goes against her mother’s wishes. Discovering that an all-female skateboard collective called Skate Kitchen meets up regularly in New York City, Camille decides to go. She’s welcomed by the group, and soon she’s spending as much time as she can with them, while lying to her mother about her whereabouts. When Camille’s deception is discovered, it causes a falling out between her and her mother, and Camille ends up staying with Janay (Lovelace), one of the Skate Kitchen crew. She gets a job in a store, and becomes friends with a male skateboarder, Devon (Smith). When Janay suffers an ankle injury and is laid up at home, Camille starts to hang out more and more with Devon, but as their friendship grows, Camille learns that Janay has feelings for Devon as well…

Expanded from the short That One Day (2016), which also featured Vinberg and the Skate Kitchen crew, this feature length look at skateboarding culture and what it means for a group of young women is a mesmerising, accomplished movie that leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the sense of camaraderie and friendship that being part of Skate Kitchen provides. Camille is looking for somewhere to belong. Her parents are divorced, and though she lives with her mother, their relationship is often a rocky one. Skateboarding, with its semi-underground status and its own code of conduct allows Camille to feel that she’s a part of something bigger than herself, something that as she herself puts it, stops her from feeling “alone”. But Camille is also an eighteen year old whose life experience is far behind the likes of Janay and Nina (Moran), and though she feels right at home in their company – and female solidarity is an important aspect of being in the group – the potential for a romantic relationship with Devon eventually causes a rift that has the further potential to see Camille alone again. It’s that old coming-of-age dilemma: whether to stick with your friends, or move on – while being aware of the consequences.

This is Moselle’s first feature – she also made the intriguing documentary The Wolfpack (2015) – and the connection she’s made with the Skate Kitchen crew allows for a movie that has a fictional storyline but which also has an air of verisimilitude that grounds the action in a much greater reality than would otherwise be expected. There’s a freedom in skateboarding that Moselle captures through expressive, almost rhythmical camerawork, as the girls weave along sidewalks and in and out of traffic, their confidence and the ebullience they exhibit highlighting the sheer pleasure they must be experiencing. And it’s clear from the amount of bruises and scrapes the crew all display throughout the movie that no one’s faking any of it (well, except for Smith, who needed a skateboarding double). Away from the various skate parks and improvised bouts of boardslides and kickflips, the narrative is kept fairly simple, as Camille learns from her friends about love and sex, and she gets into deep water because of her uncertain attraction to Devon. Vinberg is a convincing ingenue, and though the Skate Kitchen members are basically playing themselves, there’s a freshness and a spontaneity about all of them that wouldn’t have been captured if they’d been played by actresses. And again, it’s this verisimilitude that makes the movie feel honest and sincere in its approach, and which helps it feel more like a slice of life than something carefully orchestrated or put together.

Rating: 8/10 – a wonderfully bright and affirming look at a sub-culture most of us will be unfamiliar with, Skate Kitchen is short on plot but big on friendship and young women looking out for each other (sadly, most of the male skateboarders are prideful dicks); it’s exactly the kind of movie that will make you want to go out and grab a skateboard and try your own tricks, which makes it not only life affirming, but inspirational too.

Welcome to Marwen (2018)


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D: Robert Zemeckis / 116m

Cast: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Wever, Eiza González, Leslie Zemeckis, Stefanie von Pfetten, Neil Jackson, Falk Hentschel, Conrad Coates

Following a vicious beating by five white supremacists that robbed him of any personal memories he had before the attack, illustrator Mark Hogancamp (Carell) has managed to rebuild much of his life, but he’s no longer able to draw. Instead, he has created the fictional Belgian town of Marwen, a one-sixth scale model of which he’s built in his yard. Populated by dolls that represent some of the people who have been important to him since the attack, Mark has created a World War II storyline for the dolls of Marwen, and he takes photographs of them in carefully staged positions. These photographs have become regarded as art, and an exhibition of his work is due to take place in the near future. Also due to take place is the sentencing hearing of the men who attacked him, something that Mark’s lawyer (Coates) is pressing him to attend. But with Mark suffering from PTSD, and the Marwen stories occupying so much of his time, it’s only the sympathetic attention of a new neighbour, Nicol (Mann), that starts to bring Mark back to reality…

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s certainly the case with Mark Hogancamp, a man so violently assaulted that his attackers literally “kicked the memory” out of him. In creating the fictional village of Marwen, Hogancamp gave himself a way back to “normality”, even if it was through the use of an alternate, fantasy world populated by revamped Barbie dolls and Nazi soldiers who never die. It’s this aspect of the movie, with its model sets and plastic toy figures and props that makes the most impression, and Zemeckis – no stranger to giving life to CGI characters based on real people and performances – gives these scenes an urgency and a vibrancy that makes Marwen the kind of place we’d all like to visit (even if we’re likely to be shot at by marauding Nazis). With a great deal of charm, and visual wit, Zemeckis and co-scripter Caroline Thompson have created a cinematic variation of Hogancamp’s imagination and story-telling that is in its own way, brave and affecting, and which touches on more serious themes such as gender identity, persistent emotional trauma, drug addiction, and social isolation. There’s plenty of humour here too, but it’s more knowing than it is overt, and there’s a sadness behind it that make it all the more effective.

But while the scenes with Cap’n Hogie and his female coterie are the backbone of the movie and its MVP, the rest of the movie feels more fanciful and fictitious than the idea of dolls toting sub-machine guns and wearing stilettoes during wartime (look it up). Hogancamp is portrayed as a lovable yet tormented man who is personable yet reserved, and socially awkward, yet the introduction of Nicol, whose character feels like a stock idea lifted wholesale from Screenplay 101, grates with every scene she appears in (despite the best efforts of both Carell and Mann), while Hogancamp’s PTSD is laid on with the thickest of dramatic trowels. Carell at least has the measure of the character, but is hampered by the script’s insistence on making him depth-free, and something of a perennial man-child. Elsewhere in the “real world”, there are a number of stodgy contrivances – Nicol’s ex-boyfriend and nasty piece of work, Kurt (Jackson), exists only so he can double for the chief Nazi in Marwen, Nicol is completely unfazed and unconcerned by Hogancamp’s liking for wearing women’s shoes – and after a while any excuse to return to Marwen is likely to be gratefully accepted by the viewer, because that’s where the movie’s true heart and soul resides.

Rating: 6/10 – immensely enjoyable when the action is based in and around Marwen, but stilted and perfunctory when set away from there, Welcome to Marwen is a movie that struggles to balance both halves of its necessarily fractured narrative; Zemeckis directs with his usual flair and gift for visual flamboyance (and gets to include a clever nod to Back to the Future), but is let down by his own decision to make the real world look and sound like a bad soap opera, and by making the dolls more human than the humans.

The Favourite (2018)


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D: Yorgos Lanthimos / 119m

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Mark Gatiss, James Smith, Jenny Rainsford

England, 1708. Queen Anne (Colman) is on the throne, but the real power lies with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz), the Queen’s best friend, confidante, and lover. Sarah counsels the Queen on almost every matter that comes before her, and uses Anne’s malleability to promote her own political agenda. The arrival of a destitute cousin of Sarah’s, Abigail Hill (Stone), prompts the beginning of a power struggle between the two women, as they vie for the Queen’s attention, both in and out of the bed chamber. Sarah’s experience proves no match for Abigail’s determination to see her social status restored to her, and the on-going war with France that Sarah is supporting is undermined by Abigail’s mutually beneficial allegiance with politician Robert Harley (Hoult). With Anne’s health worsening due to gout, Abigail aims to supplant Sarah once and for all, and arranges for her to be missing from court. As Anne becomes more and more dependant on Abigail’s presence, and gives her blessing to an advantageous marriage to a courtier, Samuel Masham (Alwyn), Sarah returns to make one last effort to overturn Abigail’s influence, and restore her own position with the Queen…

For most people, The Favourite will be seen in 2019. There will be other historical movies that will carry over from 2018 and reach their intended audience, but it’s a sure bet that Yorgos Lanthimos’ ebullient follow up to The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) will be unlike any other. A riotous mix of scabrous comedy, intelligently handled drama, bawdy romance, political intrigue, and ferocious oneupmanship (oneupwomanship?), this plays fast and loose with historical accuracy (though the three-way affair depicted actually happened), and instead opts for being a rambunctious send up of both the times and the people who lived through them. Working from a glorious screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos has fashioned his most accessible movie to date, and one that offers a plethora of riches. First and foremost are the fierce, redoubtable performances of its trio of female leads, all of whom attack the material with undisguised relish, and all of whom give superb portrayals of women for whom men are either to be used, or ignored, or both. Harley is the principal male protagonist, and in any other movie he would emerge triumphant with all of his ambitions achieved, and stronger than ever. Here he achieves his ambitions, but the audience knows that it’s just a matter of time before his position will collapse into political and personal ruin.

With gender reversals of this type firmly on display (and encouraged), Lanthimos gives his cast full rein to inhabit their roles with gusto. Weisz is condescending and vampish as Sarah, a career manipulator who finds herself surprisingly ill-equipped to deal with Abigail’s more straightforward manoeuvrings. Stone is a revelation, portraying an historical character so far removed from her previous acting roles that her confidence is often astonishing; she embues Abigail with such a sweet-natured viciousness that you have no idea just what she’ll do next. And then there’s Colman, towering over both of them, her performance a thing of magnificent yet focused excess, railing against imagined injustices one moment, dew-eyed and poignant the next as Anne remembers her seventeen dead children. It all takes place against the sumptuous backdrop of Hatfield House, its rooms and corridors given tremendous presence in the movie thanks to the use of fisheye lenses and wide shots, making it another character altogether, one whose size helps to put the machinations of its human counterparts into stark relief for their transitory nature. But even with all this – and a terrific soundtrack as well – it’s the interlocking relationships between Anne, Sarah and Abigail, all counter turns and devious switches, that hold the attention and prove the most rewarding part of a movie that has so much to offer that it’s almost embarrassing.

Rating: 9/10 – Lanthimos’ auteur leanings are still on display, but here he’s at his most relaxed and amenable, and the result is that The Favourite is easily his best movie so far; a movie to wallow in over and over again, it is richly detailed, formidably acted, wickedly perverse, beautifully shot (by Robbie Ryan), and a pure delight from beginning to end.

In the Fade (2017)


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Original title: Aus dem Nichts

D: Fatih Akin / 106m

Cast: Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Henning Peker, Johannes Krisch, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Numan Acar, Hanna Hilsdorf, Ulrich Brandhoff, Ulrich Tukur, Yannis Economides, Rafael Santana

Katja (Kruger) is married to reformed Kurdish drug dealer Nuri (Acar), and they have a precocious six year old son, Rocco (Santana). Having put his criminal past behind him, Nuri runs a small travel agency in Hamburg. One day, Katja drops off Rocco at Nuri’s office and heads off to meet her best friend, Birgit (Chancrin). When she returns later to meet them, she finds that a nail bomb has gone off outside the office and Nuri and Rocco have both been killed. She identifies a woman (Hilsdorf) she saw earlier who left a bike outside the office, and eventually the woman is identified as a Neo-Nazi, and with her husband (Brandhoff), is arrested and charged with the bombing. A trial ensues, but despite the best efforts of Katja’s lawyer, Danilo (Moschitto), enough doubt is raised about the couple’s guilt that the court is forced to acquit them. Distraught by this unexpected decision, Katja retreats into despair, until an idea presents itself as to how she can avenge the deaths of her son and husband…

Taking the 2004 Cologne bombing as its inspiration, which also saw Neo-Nazis detonating a nail bomb in a busy commercial street, In the Fade is a stylish and fascinating thriller that is also a tough, uncompromising examination of one woman’s grief in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy. Featuring a superb performance from Kruger, the movie paints an uncomfortable picture of both the emotional despair that Katja feels and the physical impact it has on her as well. Katja’s bright, confident manner in the movie’s opening scenes is soon replaced by a withdrawn, cynical veneer that (barely) hides the pain that she’s feeling. Even the drugs she takes to help her cope (a decision that has dire consequences later on) aren’t enough to numb the sadness that she’s feeling. As the trial steers ever closer to its unhappy conclusion, Katja’s anger at the injustice that’s taking place builds and builds, and remains in waiting as she recovers from the court’s decision, until it can be refocused into a steely determination to take matters into her own hands. All of this is portrayed by Kruger in a career-best performance, as she plumbs the depths of Katja’s misery in a way that is both urgent and persuasive.

However, without Kruger’s passionate and powerful performance, In the Fade isn’t quite as well constructed or purposeful as it might seem. Akin is a fiercely political movie maker, and his movies are often full of political statements, but here the message isn’t as clear cut or as concisely made as they would be normally. True, he takes potshots at the perceived indolence of the German authorities in reining in the activities of Neo-Nazi groups in modern day Deutschland, and the endemic racism of a police force that would rather focus on the criminal past of a bombing victim than catching the actual bombers, but these don’t have the impact that would make viewers become as outraged as Katja does. The movie is at its best in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, when the only point it wants to make is about the unbearable weight that grief can impose on a person, and then during the courtroom scenes, the inexorable turning of the tide of guilt is played out with a grim fascination that is horrifying, albeit in a different way. But the post-trial scenes – set in Greece, and providing a beautiful contrast to the constantly overcast, rainy environs of Hamburg – prove to be something of a let-down, and the momentum the movie has built up until then is squandered by poor narrative choices and giving Katja unconvincing motivations for her actions. It’s another movie whose ending undermines the good work that’s gone before, and for some viewers, being denied their own catharsis may prove a deal breaker all by itself.

Rating: 7/10 – with an unsettling score courtesy of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, and good supporting turns from Krisch and Tukur (as the father of one of the bombers), In the Fade is an urgent, often uncompromising thriller that’s let down by some flaccid plotting and a final section that is more frustrating than rewarding; Kruger is excellent in only her first German-speaking lead role, and there’s a sparseness to the production design that plays well with the rigour of Kruger’s tightly wound presence, but all in all this doesn’t succeed as a whole but is instead an exercise in (unfulfilled) anticipation.

Beast (2017)


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D: Michael Pearce / 106m

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Trystan Gravelle, Geraldine James, Oliver Maltman, Charley Palmer Rothwell

On the island of Jersey, three young women have been murdered recently and the killer is still at large. Moll Huntington (Buckley) is a twenty-something tour guide who still lives at home with her parents. On the night of her birthday, she leaves the party her mother (James) has organised, and heads to a nightclub, where she meets a young man (Rothwell), who later tries to take advantage of her on their way home. She’s rescued by local poacher and odd job man Pascal (Flynn), and the pair strike up a tentative romance. That same night, a fourth girl is abducted and later found murdered. Suspicion points toward Pascal, who has a violent history, but Moll has become so infatuated with him that she lies to the police about being with him the whole time she was at the nightclub. However, doubts about his innocence begin to plague her, and when she learns about his past, this causes her to doubt him even more. When a break in the case appears to clear Pascal, it’s still not enough to convince Moll, and she starts to challenge what seems to be the truth…

Based very loosely on the real life Beast of Jersey who broke into homes at night and attacked women and children during the 60’s and 70’s, Beast is a psycho-drama that is heavy on atmosphere, and rife with undercurrents of dread and barely contained mania. There’s madness here too, but the source isn’t what (or who) you might expect, as writer/director Michael Pearce slowly unravels the identity of someone who isn’t the Beast, but who is, in many ways, far worse. Both Pascal and Moll have violent pasts – she stabbed a fellow pupil when she was thirteen as revenge for bullying, he assaulted his girlfriend of the time – and Pearce explores the different mindsets that have kept both of them from having any real friends, or from being in a long-term relationship. They’re both outsiders, Pascal because he doesn’t “fit in”, and Moll because she doesn’t want to. Together their different social exclusions help them bond and this bond allows a twisted form of romance to develop. But as the movie progresses, and we learn more about them, Pearce reveals that their relationship is less of a romantic connection, and more of a strange co-dependency.

Pearce places this odd, and very disturbing central relationship against a backdrop of bucolic imagery that hints at darker deeds to come, and which also offers little in the way of comfort for the easily dismayed viewer. Bolstered by two terrific performances from Buckley and Flynn, the movie works best when it’s exploring Moll’s tortured psychological motivations, with Buckley navigating the kind of dark emotional territory that is both unnerving and frightening for the scale of its intensity. Flynn makes Pascal more of a tragic figure than he first appears, and though his past misdeeds point at the poacher being involved in the murders, there’s an ambiguity that remains in place even when Pearce affects a narrative sleight of hand that changes things irrevocably for both Moll and Pascal. But this sleight of hand also means that the movie goes off at a tangent that isn’t anywhere near as convincing as what’s gone before, and it raises more questions than Pearce’s screenplay has answers for. It’s a shame, as up until then, the movie is a confident, tightly controlled thriller that plays with audience expectations, and which offers complex characterisations instead of the usual thriller-style stereotypes. It’s also beautifully composed and shot by DoP Benjamin Kracun, and features an eclectic but effective score by Jim Williams.

Rating: 7/10 – a compelling, and malice-filled first feature from Pearce, Beast isn’t quite the sum of its parts, but when it’s being mysterious and malignant, it’s hard to look away for fear of missing something either horrible or important, or both; Buckley is outstanding, but the secondary characters, including James’s stern-faced mother and Gravelle’s lovelorn policeman, aren’t as well developed, while Maya Maffioli’s sometimes hesitant editing doesn’t always allow certain scenes to flow as smoothly as they should.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)


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D: Ben Wheatley / 95m

Cast: Sarah Baxendale, Sudha Bhuchar, Asim Choudhry, Joe Cole, Charles Dance, Sura Dohnke, Vincent Ebrahim, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Alexandra Maria Lara, Doon Mackichan, Neil Maskell, Sinead Matthews, Mark Monero, Bill Paterson, Sam Riley, Hayley Squires

For Colin Burstead (Maskell), a New Year’s Eve party for his extended family at a seaside country manor seems like a great idea. But as he and his wife, Val (Dohnke), and the rest of the guests begin to arrive, the chances of the event going smoothly becomes increasingly unlikely, and begins when his mother, Sandy (Mackichan) trips over the front step and injures her ankle. With his father, Gordon (Paterson), trying desperately to convince Colin to lend him a large amount of money, and the news that his estranged brother, David (Riley), has been invited as a surprise by his sister, Jini (Squires), Colin begins to feel more and more agitated as he tries to keep everything from falling apart. With most of the other guests having their own issues to deal with – uncle Bertie (Dance) is a cross-dresser with a bleak immediate future, Val is perturbed by the presence of Lainey (Matthews), a member of the hotel staff who dated Colin before he and Val met – the arrival of David threatens to ruin everything…

With its simple premise and very basic set up, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead introduces us to yet another dysfunctional family whose individual idiosyncracies and personal motivations will ensure an awkward time is had by all, thereby allowing the viewer to reap the dramatic and comedic benefits. You know from the start that it’s all going to go badly wrong, as soon as David’s name is mentioned. You just don’t know how, and part of the fun of Ben Wheatley’s latest, emotional violence only, movie is in trying to work out just how it will all go downhill, and how rapidly. But Wheatley (here stripping back Coriolanus and using it as the basis for the action), isn’t just interested in revealing secrets and infidelities, he’s more concerned with the effects that these have had on his characters, and where those effects have brought them. In the end it doesn’t matter what David has done (though we do find out), but what is is how it informs the responses of everyone else. What this leads to, and what is refreshing in terms of the drama, is the restrained nature of the fallout itself. No one comes to blows with anyone else, and though there are plenty of strong verbal exchanges, Wheatley refrains from making this anything more than the kind of family disagreements that we’ve all witnessed.

So, while Wheatley’s restraint is admirable in terms of making things unpredictable, it does, however, have the unfortunate effect of making the drama of the situation itself feel less impactful. With its documentary style camerawork courtesy of long-term collaborator, DoP Laurie Rose, the movie flits from character to character with a restlessness that gives the movie some much needed energy and pace, but which doesn’t entirely hide the fact that the various storylines and personal intrigues on display aren’t as interesting or as provocative as might be expected. Also, some of the characters – necessarily perhaps – are marginalised by the demands of Wheatley’s script, which begs the question, why have so many? As a result, cast members such as Ferdinando and Cole have little to do, while some of the storylines peter out thanks to the need to address the issue of what David did. Though the movie suffers accordingly, and ends with a scene that some viewers might sympathise with (though for different reasons), Wheatley’s script does ensure that there’s plenty of dry wit on display, and the characters and their foibles are both recognisable, and understandable.

Rating: 7/10 – with an ensemble cast of British acting talent that takes to the material with obvious enthusiasm, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is writer/director Ben Wheatley’s most relaxed and (for British audiences at least) accessible movie to date; with echoes of Mike Leigh’s work about it – the improvised dialogue, the emotive undercurrents – it’s a movie that takes a different tack with what is over-familiar territory, but in doing so, forgets to provide anything too memorable for viewers to take away with them.

NOTE: Currently, there isn’t a trailer available for Happy New Year, Colin Burstead.