Film Reviews

Recent Viewing #12

My Scientology Movie (Dower, 2016): I like Louis Theroux and have watched his TV shows for years, but despite some weird passive-aggressive behaviour by Scientologists there isn’t much in this documentary that gets near the quality of his Weird Weekends, and there’s very little material that sheds new light on the movement. It’s hardly surprising given the lack of access Theroux and his crew are granted; once their film is underway they receive threatening letters from lawyers acting on behalf of the Church, as you’d expect, and as soon as they go near any Scientology-owned land or property they’re asked to leave by law enforcement officers, so aside from a disgruntled former member or two there’s no-one in this film providing any kind of insight. There are a few entertaining scenes with actors who have been employed to participate in reconstructions of Scientology events and supposed common practices, but the decision to incorporate a Tom Cruise lookalike into as many of these as possible sucks all the credibility from an exercise that was barely credible in the first place. A bit of a let-down, so I’ve made a mental note to check out Alex Gibney’s film Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

The Piano (Campion, 1993): This was my ‘Blind Spot’ pick for November, but I wasn’t able to write a full review. The Piano is a well-crafted and well-acted tale of white settlers in New Zealand, and it’s no surprise to me that the performances by Holly Hunter and a young Anna Paquin won awards (Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel are also excellent). The film has a muted, downbeat feel that reflects and is informed by its main character – a mute Scottish woman who is sold into marriage by her father – while the story transpires to be about forms of communication, or rather the events that can happen when lines of communication break down or are misinterpreted. A very impressive drama, and with a wonderful score by Michael Nyman, though oddly I can’t imagine rushing to see it again any time soon.

a-photo-of-jude-law-and-cat-power-in-a-coffee-shop-taken-from-the-movie-my-blueberry-nights2My Blueberry Nights (Wong, 2007): A beautifully-shot and colourful film by Wong Kar-Wai that’s hampered from start to finish by a ropey script and average (or downright poor) acting. Jude Law – playing an Englishman in New York who runs a cafe despite being afflicted with a risible ‘Ay oop’ Yorkshire accent – is the principal transgressor, but other reliable types also disappoint, such as Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn; Norah Jones is the lead, and while she’s better than the aforementioned it’s no surprise that her acting career failed to take off in the wake of this. Not the director’s best effort by a long stretch, but Wong’s impressionist style is so strong, and such a feast for the eyes, that it just about makes My Blueberry Nights worth watching.

Now You See Me 2 (Chu, 2016): I can’t think of many films that make a more spectacular waste of an expensively-assembled and reasonably talented cast than this one (although hey, somewhat unsurprisingly the original Now You See Me runs it close). This magic-related sequel coughs and splutters its way towards (and then through) three barely-explainable, ultra-flashy showpieces, with a garbled revenge plot doing little other than irritating this weary viewer. ‘Tis hard to give even as much as a miniscule modicum of a shit about any of the characters; writer Ed Solomon seems uninterested in giving any of them any depth at all, so it’s almost impossible to care about anything that happens. My advice is that you should avoid this turkey at all cost and spend two hours watching The Great Soprendo on YouTube instead.

whiskey-tango-foxtrot-mag-03-2Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Ficarra, Requa, 2016): There are a few problematic elements here, such as the fact that white western actors have been cast as Afghans (casting agent: “Uh…what’s Alfred Molina got on next month?”); plus, for a film that’s largely set in Afghanistan, there’s a distinct lack of focus on the locals (as per A Hologram For The King, the American on foreign soil here forms a temporary bond with a fixer/driver, but even his character is barely-developed; other than that Afghan people are portrayed in a fairly negative light). Nevertheless, despite these gripes I actually found this quite a likeable, entertaining film, and was won over by it fairly quickly – Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a sharp script (Robert Carlock’s screenplay adapts The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a memoir by journalist Kim Barker) There’s an engaging central performance by Tina Fey as Barker, too, even if she’s really just fine-tuning her old Liz Lemon shtick. Elsewhere there are good, vaguely-comic supporting turns by Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. The film is on sure footing when dealing with relationships and the hard-partying lifestyles of foreign correspondents, but less convincing when addressing the agendas of TV news channels and the actual war in Afghanistan; it’s better than I thought it’d be, though.

Cell (Williams, 2016): A terrible Stephen King adaptation in which mobile phone users turn into marauding zombie-like crazies. It’s full of horror clichés, the script is abysmal, the direction is ropey at best, the score is bland, and much of it plays out like an amateurish take on The Walking Dead. Both Samuel L Jackson and John Cusack – two actors who usually exude plenty of charisma – listlessly phone in their performances.

journeyJourney To The Shore (Kurosawa, 2016): This was my first taste of Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa (insert obligatory ‘no relation’ comment here), and from what I can gather it’s reflective of his recent move away from terrifying J-horror to calmer, much less unsettling stories. It is a ghost tale, but it shares more common ground with the slow, character-focused cinema of fellow successful exports Kawase and Koreeda than it does with your typical scary movie. The story follows Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) as she deals with the death of her husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), but the grieving process is made easier by his sudden reappearance in her life and the subsequent journey that they undertake together. It’s almost like a second honeymoon, though the good times are laced with bitterness and regret; along the way they meet other people, all of whom can see Yusuke, as well as touch or talk to him. This extra time together gives Mizuki the chance to say things that were left unsaid and to address problems they had as a couple, and as such it’s a moving story that benefits from the almost total focus on the two main characters. If you like the strand of slow, intimate Japanese cinema that clearly has its roots in the work of Ozu and Mizoguchi then you’ll probably enjoy this.

Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986): Of all the films by Jim Jarmusch – even the episodic ones – this black and white tail of three men undertaking a jailbreak is the one I’ve always found the most disjointed and uneven; it loses all of its momentum when the action shifts from the streets of New Orleans to the prison, and I don’t think it ever fully recovers from that elongated passage afterwards. Still, the unlikely central trio – Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits and John Lurie – are watchable and Robby Müller’s cinematography is typically excellent, particularly when his camera is allowed to roam outside; in particular I like his smooth, serene tracking shots through swamps and along rows of city houses. The director’s usual idiosyncrasies and interests are all evident here, and I like all of that, but over the years I’ve just grown less and less fond of this one.

julieta-pedro-almodovarJulieta (Almodóvar, 2016): I’ve never seen a Pedro Almodóvar film that I didn’t like (even if some of them are flawed). I would put this year’s Julieta in the upper elechon of his movies – perhaps not quite up there with Talk To Her, All About My Mother or Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, but it’s certainly one of my favourite dramas of 2016. Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte play older and younger versions of the title character respectively, and part of the joy of the film is seeing how their two performances blend together so seamlessly; the back-and-forth tranisitions between the character at different stages of her life are also helped no end by the editor José Salcedo, the cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu and some creative touches that I must assume came from the director himself. As an older woman Madridista Julieta reflects on a non-existent relationship with daughter Antía; and through flashbacks we see how this has come to pass. The screenplay is first-rate, I was hooked throughout and the main performances are excellent; the two leads do particularly good work, and it’s nice to see Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma on form, here going completely against her real-life public image by playing an unglamorous cleaner.

Ich Seh, Ich Seh (Goodnight Mommy) (Fiala, Franz 2016): The debut feature film by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Goodnight Mommy is an assured and extremely creepy European arthouse horror that owes a debt of sorts to Michael Haneke – there’s more than just one nod to his Funny Games here. The story is deceptively simple: two nine-year-old twin boys suspect that their mother – who has returned home following plastic surgery – isn’t who she says she is, and gradually they begin to undermine and question her. The joint directors create an unsettling atmosphere for the first couple of acts, confining the action to the family’s large lakeside house and a small amount of surrounding countryside, and there’s a certain sense of building claustrophobia as the story pans out, which pressure occasionally alleviated by some gorgeous, lighter pastoral interludes. Gradually things get weirder and weirder until a slightly overcooked third act undoes some of the preceding good work; the nastiness during the last half-an-hour is a little gratuitous for my liking, but I dare say anyone who usually watches torture porn without flinching will lap it up.


November 2016 Recap

Regular readers may have noticed a downturn in activity on this blog recently – that’s because my daughter was born a couple of weeks ago. Obviously my focus has shifted considerably from writing and blogging as a result, but I’m still finding time to watch the occasional film in the middle of the night or across work lunch hours, so I’m trying to keep this site ticking over with short reviews for the time being; I doubt I’ll get to write a full review for a while, but you never know. Unfortunately, to save time, I’ve had to cut out the social element for now – so I’ve switched comments on posts off and have sadly not had the time to read anything written by fellow film bloggers. No offence intended to those of you I’ve known for a few years, and once things settle down things will hopefully be back to normal round here, but as to when that is I don’t know!

I managed to get to the cinema to see Arrival after the baby was born – I have my mother-in-law to thank for that one – but I doubt I’ll be in front of the big screen again until Rogue One is released; that means missing the likes of Paterson and Sully until they’re out on DVD, among others, but hey ho.

In addition to Villeneuve’s latest I caught a few other recent releases on the big screen at the start of the month, such as Swiss Army Man, The Light Between Oceans and Nocturnal Animals. All three have their flaws, but I’d say Nocturnal Animals is by far the most interesting of that trio, and like Arrival it contains a very good performance by Amy Adams. The Light Between Oceans is a solidly-made romantic drama, while Swiss Army Man… I dunno; I’m one of those people who can only tolerate a certain amount of wacky, and the film’s cuteness and relentless quirk began to grate after a while, although I did enjoy the unusual performances by the two leads.

In terms of 2016 releases, everything else I watched during November I caught at home on DVD or via one of the way-too-many streaming services that I subscribe to. I’ve been trying to catch up on a lot of films before finalising an end-of-year favourites list, and one of the movies I missed at the cinema but really wanted to see was Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. I was pretty hooked by this simple thriller, and although I don’t think it’s as good as his previous effort Blue Ruin, I would recommend it; it’s one of Anton Yelchin’s final roles, and Patrick Stewart is good value as a terrifying neo-Nazi.

By contrast I was disappointed by Elvis & Nixon, a lightweight romp based on the brief meeting between Elvis and Tricky Dicky in the early 1970s, but Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey are fun to watch in the title roles. Another low-key release from around the same time of year, Learning To Drive, is more worthy of your time in my humble opinion: it’s a nice little film about a woman coming to terms with a separation and her brief friendship with an Indian driving instructor, with winning performances by Patricia Clarkson and Sir Sir Ben Kingsley.

In the past month I’ve watched three films about white American protagonists who are working temporarily in the Middle East: Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram For The King is a straightforward fish-out-of-water story (Tom Hanks is a hologram conferencing system salesman trying to broker a deal in Saudi Arabia); I didn’t really care for War Dogs, which is a popular Todd Phillips movie that’s based on the true story of two bros who become major players in the international arms trade; and, like War Dogs, the Tina Fey-starring Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is also based on a true story, specifically with regard to the reporter Kim Barker’s time in Afghanistan. Of these three I’d say the latter is by far the best, though it has plenty of flaws, not least the decision to cast white western guys as Afghan men (and the fact that Afghan characters in the film for the most part are either depicted as scammers or seemingly there to provide extra comic relief).

I’ll quickly run through a few other recent releases: Australian apocalyptic drama These Final Hours has a couple of entertainingly violent scenes but I didn’t care for it too much overall; Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune is a well-written and well-acted drama that successfully transitions from broad comedy drama to something much darker; Imperium sees Daniel Radcliffe taking on far right extremism for the FBI (uh, that’s serious mis-casting, but it’s a better performance than one might have expected); The Hard Stop is a fascinating documentary about Tottenham in London, the killing of Mark Duggan and the subsequent riots of 2011; Kubo And The Two Strings is an excellent animated feature from Laika that features some really good voice work by Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey; Race is a so-so biopic of Jesse Owens; The Clan is a better-than-average Argentinian drama about a murderous, greedy family (another true story); The BFG is warm-hearted Spielbergian mush, and I can imagine kids liking it; My Scientology Movie is Louis Theroux trying his damnedest to mask the fact he and filmmaker John Dower found getting access to senior current Scientologists nigh-on impossible (though there are some surreal and weird moments); and finally Now You See Me 2 is a complete waste of everyone’s time and money, and you’d be much better off watching videos of The Great Soprendo or Tommy Cooper on YouTube for two hours instead.

I haven’t mentioned my film of the month for November yet; I think it was actually released in cinemas and on Netflix in October, but anyway… Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th is timely and essential. It’s an extremely thought-provoking examination of the incarceration of young black men and women in America, from slavery and its abolition right through to the extremely questionable political practices and rhetoric that have taken place during the past 30 years. At the end of a month where an outspoken bigot somehow became the President Elect of the United States, I would urge you to watch it.

Film Reviews

Recent Viewing #11

Kollektivet (The Commune) (Vinterberg, 2016): An entertaining and occasionally-moving period drama by Thomas Vinterberg and regular co-writer Tobias Lindholm, set in early-80s Copenhagen and following the lives of a group of people who come together to live side-by-side in a commune. The strand of idealism that informs the rules of the house imbues the first half of the film with some comic moments, but these are eventually supplanted when the more selfish residents make repeat transgressions; the second half contains serious, darker passages, with the break-up of one couple and a tragic incident enduring The Commune features plenty of emotional drama. It’s well-acted by the ensemble cast, and even though some characters fade into the background while others take centre stage, it’s another strong work from Vinterberg.

Imperium (Ragussis, 2016): Poor old Daniel Radcliffe. It’s obvious to anyone following his career that the British actor is doing all he can to shed the Harry Potter image for which he is best known; it’s proving a little difficult for him to do so, but at least time is on his side. A snarky review of this tale of an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates far right groups in the US might read something like ‘Harry Potter And The Pristine Copy Of Mein Kampf’, but in fairness Radcliffe turns in a half-decent performance, even if he does seem a little mis-cast as the federal mole. It’s a perfunctory thriller – nothing more, nothing less.

hard-stop-web-4The Hard Stop (Amponsah, 2016): This excellent documentary by George Amponsah examines the London riots of 2012, which flared up in the wake of the police killing of Mark Duggan and spread quickly to other urban areas around the UK. The film sets out the circumstances around Duggan’s death (and subsequent inquest) and looks at life on the Broadwater Farm estate, where successive generations of young men feel that they are being unduly harassed as punishment by the police for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock, which took place in the 1980s and remains unsolved today. Two of Duggan’s friends are interviewed extensively, and they offer interesting perspectives on the 2012 death, the riots and the ongoing tension between police and the residents of Tottenham in north-east London. Even back in 2012 – with the media descending on the borough en masse – it was hard for young black men who were either caught up in the violence or living nearby to get their voices heard, so this documentary offers them a much-needed platform, among other things; it’s a valuable and insightful film.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Weitz, 2009): Two movies in to the Twilight series and I’m cursing my ‘got-to-watch-them-all’ personality. This is pretty dire, and the effects haven’t improved much on the original film, but it’s great to see Michael Sheen playing Brett Anderson circa 1994.

Kubo And The Two Strings (Knight, 2016): This is a beautiful stop-motion film by Laika (American-made, but set in Japan), with a lovely story and fine voice acting, particularly from Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, playing a kick-ass monkey and a Samurai warrior-beetle respectively. It’s imaginative, funny, moving and occasionally quite dark, and one of my favourite animated films of the year.

thumbnail_24172War Dogs (Phillips, 2016): Based on a true story, Hangover man Todd Phillips’ latest has Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as a pair of chancers who start off as small fry in the arms-dealing world before somehow becoming major international suppliers. Hill’s character is really unlikeable, which will no doubt put off the large number of people who already seem to dislike the actor, but the biggest shame about the film is that Phillips seems to have no evident opinion on the actions of either his or Teller’s character, instead treating them like a pair of wayward Spring Breakers who are accidentally caught up in a series of international japes (so, for all the talk of the director moving away from the frat boy comedies that made his name, well… ). Phillips’ ‘new-found’ style – all freeze-frame and voiceover – is copped almost wholesale from the more recent films of Martin Scorsese, though obviously nowhere near as good.

Race (Hopkins, 2016): Very much a by-the-numbers biopic about the legendary athlete and Olympian Jesse Owens, though it’s well-meaning and looks far more expensive than you’d expect from a film with a modest $5 million budget; I was impressed by such a glossy sheen. It’s hampered – ironically – by a slow pace, with only sporadic track and field action to lift proceedings, though I guess there’s lots of interesting ground to cover, not least the political wranglings behind Owens’ participation and success at the Munich Olympics in 1936. Another problem is that sporting events that only last a handful of seconds – such as the 100m or the long jump – do not translate well to the big screen, as there’s little chance for in-contest tension to develop. There’s a decent central performance from Stephan Janes as the athlete and Jeremy Irons lends a touch of class as athletics bigwig Avery Brundage; elsewhere Carice van Houten adds support with a sympathetic take on filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and Jason Sudeikis blusters his way through as Owens’ coach Larry Snyder. It’s hard to take against a simple celebration of such an amazing man, but it is a shame that the film has dreary lulls.

3000Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016): An impressive alien contact blockbuster that has been written about ad nauseam elsewhere. I’m not going to add much more, partly because I don’t have the time to write a full review at the moment, but I just want to say that I enjoyed the cinematography, the production design, the score and the performances by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner (the acting gives a cold-feeling film much-needed warmth). Plus I like the fact Arrival feels big, and important: it demands to be viewed on the largest screen possible so that you can drink in those wide-angle landscape shots, which incorporate those giant, hovering alien egg-shaped ships; what a striking series of images they are, and isn’t cinema amazing? It isn’t perfect – parts of it feel rushed, such as the montage in which communication between the human and alien parties improves, which contrasts awkwardly with the slower build-up before it – but evidently this is streets ahead of most of the big budget fayre of 2016 and Villeneuve must be considered one of the most exciting big studio directors working in Hollywood today.

El Clan (The Clan) (Trapero, 2016): Enjoyably-grim dramatisation of a real-life story from 1980s Buenos Aires: that is, a series of kidnaps, ransoms and murders carried out by the social-climbing Puccio family. Guillermo Francella (who appeared in the original version of The Secret In Their Eyes) is superb as patriarch Arquímedes, while Juan Pedro Lanzini – formerly of pop-rockers Teen Angels – impresses as his son, Alejandro. The film throbs with nighttime colour, and the story is gripping, but there are flaws, such as the inclusion of far too many scenes in which kidnapping, murder and other acts of violence are juxtaposed with an upbeat pop song on the soundtrack.

2000The BFG (Spielberg, 2016): A typically warm-hearted Roald Dahl adaptation from Steven Spielberg that might have been better served by a one-hour Christmas TV special, as it feels like there’s quite a bit of filler here in order to pad it out to feature length. I can imagine young kids taking to this one, as there’s a gentle Mary Poppins-like treatment of postwar London, and the peril isn’t particularly scary. The effects are good and the repeated appearance of Mark Rylance’s kind face is a highlight; there’s not enough of the angry giants (Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader) though.

Film Reviews

Nocturnal Animals

For his second film, the fashion designer, writer and director Tom Ford has adapted Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. As with his first – 2009’s A Single ManNocturnal Animals is a stylish drama/thriller in which much weight is placed on formal elements such as the cinematography and the mise-en-scène, with many smaller decisions taken within these areas contributing to the telling of the story (in a range of ways that are at times subtle and at other times obvious). Such talk of a pronounced style – Ford would appear to have a fully-defined look and his films have a particular feel, despite the fact he is still somewhat green in filmmaking terms – instantly has many cinemagoers wondering whether it has been achieved at the expense of substance – as if it’s impossible for both to co-exist within a movie in 2016. Suspicion is exacerbated in Ford’s case by the fact that he’s a man who has come into the film world having gained success and fame in a supposedly-vacuous industry where shimmering, stunning appearance is often seen as the be all and end all. So is there more to Nocturnal Animals than a lavish look?

Ford’s sophomore effort relies heavily on a film-within-a-film structure, though here the device is employed in a far more jarring fashion than, say, in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation or even Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, two recent(ish) efforts by other directors in which the lines separating a character’s individual experience of reality and fiction are blurred and harder to discern. Here we have a very clearly-defined ‘reality’, and a very clearly-defined ‘fictional’ sub-narrative, and although there’s plenty of effort made to bleed the two together through the editing (and a little of the production design), ultimately the two threads are distinct and kept apart; only in one instance does a character from the story-within-a-story make his way – briefly and startlingly – into the ‘real’ world.

After a fleshy, carnivalesque opening sequence, we meet troubled LA art gallerist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), whose life appears to have taken a downturn: she spends her time in a number of cold, high-end modernist spaces – from a glassy, overwhelmingly-large Hollywood Hills home, which seems larger than it probably is because she’s the only resident for most of the film, to bright, sterile and minimally-decorated meeting rooms and galleries; she has money problems; she finds that her work is unfulfilling; her relationships with colleagues and friends seem to be built upon fakeness – it all veers between air kisses and The Neon Demon-like snarkiness (Jena Malone, one of the stars of that film, even shows up here as a rather unlikeable gallery curator); and her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is disinterested in Susan’s life and is sleeping with at least one other woman. Out of nowhere Susan receives a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield, a writer played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who we see in flashbacks (where, it must be said, Susan generally looks a lot happier). Rather ominously the manuscript gives her a paper cut, instantly drawing blood.

This is Edward’s first novel, a pulpy thriller that is based, very loosely, on personal experience. It’s called Nocturnal Animals – a term Susan used to use when they were together. As Susan reads it – alone, late at night – Ford dramatises her interpretation/imagination of the novel, and this forms the film-within-a-film. Here, Gyllenhaal takes on a second role as Tony Hastings, a man whose family is terrorised one night by a trio of rednecks while driving in West Texas: his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) suffering the most. Edward has clearly based the character of ‘Laura’ on Susan, and this, coupled with the tension of the story, drive Susan to read on: after a devastating attack on the Hastings family, Tony enlists the help of a chain-smoking detective named Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, on fine form yet again) to track down the perpetrators and exact revenge.

As we and Susan delve further into the novel it becomes obvious that the whole work is itself a thinly-veiled act of revenge on Edward’s part, designed to punish Susan for their break-up and related incidents, all of which took place 20 years earlier. The text contains ‘trigger’ phrases and coded messages that are designed to play upon Susan’s own fears and insecurities, such as her apparent desire not to turn into her mother, another woman who has lived a sad, unfulfilled life. These are gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks that show Edward and Susan as a younger couple, though it takes Ford quite a while to get to them. Gradually we begin to understand Susan’s unhappiness, and as she reads the novel we begin to realise that it is little more than a sustained attack on her fragile psyche by a still-embittered Edward.


Jake Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings in Nocturnal Animals

Reading the paragraphs above back, I’m aware that the narrative isn’t particularly straightforward, and if you haven’t actually seen the film I’m sorry if I haven’t given an easily-digestible synopsis. What Ford and his crew do well, though, is make everything clear as you are watching: the sleekness of ‘real’ LA and the Christmassy romance of Edward and Susan’s flashback scenes together contrast with one another, and also with the dusty, wide-open spaces of ‘fictional’ Texas; hanging wall art and decorations delineate each place and time; and Ford’s editor Joan Sobel does a terrific job in terms of transitioning between the three, fast cutting between images of bodies that are in similar positions, or making sure that we move from one part of the story to another while focusing on objects of the same colour (this is a film where pretty much everything you see that is red appears to have been put there by Ford as some kind of clue or link between narrative periods).

Despite all of the effort made the difference between the pulpy thriller and the psychological drama is a little strong, and whenever the action shifts from Shannon and Gyllenhaal to the subtler, Susan-led drama the film seems to lose some of its forward momentum (the third thread, Edward’s earlier romance with Susan, is by definitely minor compared to the others, though illuminating nonetheless). The initial Texas-set scene in particular – where the Hastings family is attacked on a near-deserted road at night – marks the high point of the film, and sadly nothing quite gets near to that afterwards. Here in Texas, Gyllenhaal’s performance of a man who is unable to protect his family and who subsequently wanders around like an empty shell is good, while Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his chief tormentor and Shannon as the lawman with no particular desire to follow the law add entertaining support. The story is all macho bluster: violence begats violence and it’s characterised by guns, psychopaths and revenge. Adams is perfectly suited to Susan’s contrasting section, which is comparably free of serious incident, but requires the actress to slowly reveal her inner torment and sadness; this she achieves with real aplomb, but the overall film itself is a mixed bag.

Film Reviews

Recent Viewing #10

Elvis & Nixon (Johnson, 2016): The main draw of Liza Johnson’s comedy-drama is the chance to see Michael Shannon play Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, two men who wielded considerable power in 1970, when this film is set. Both are quite entertaining. In terms of the former I’m reminded of Bruce Campbell’s turn as The King in Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep, which is a good thing; and Spacey gets Nixon’s physicality and harassed air just right. The screenplay by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes offers up a potential story behind the most requested photo from the National Archives and they have fun exploring a few myths relating to both men, but there’s not much here in the way of genuine insight into either singer or politician, or their respective careers. The best scenes come late in the film and feature both of the actors in the White House’s Oval Office, and they’re light and frothy enough to pass the time, but I was left with a feeling of ‘so what?’ at the end.

Speedy (Wilde, 1928): Harold Lloyd’s final silent comedy is an entertaining lark, particularly the middle section, wheupon his character Harold ‘Speedy’ Swift takes a job as a taxi driver in New York (and ferries a petrified Babe Ruth to Yankee Stadium). Another sequence set in Coney Island is very charming, and the intertitles (written by Albert DeMond) are funnier than your average silent comedy, too. Pretty good.

photo_01Io Sono L’amore (I Am Love) (Guadagnino, 2009): People who’ve seen this film regularly argue that it’s Tilda Swinton’s finest performance, and I must admit there were times that I forgot that I was watching someone acting while it was playing; during an interview on BBC Radio earlier this year Michael Caine suggested that that was the Holy Grail for performers, and who am I to argue? Swinton really is excellent here as a Russian-Italian woman who has seemingly grown tired of married life; as the matriarch of a wealthy Milanese family she is expected to keep up certain appearances, but she appears to have had her fill of social gatherings and she is neglected by her businessman husband Tancredi. An affair with a young chef reignites her passion, but it also inadvertantly causes a tragedy that rips an already-faltering family unit apart. Guadagnino’s film is mostly subtle as it shows the pillars of this bourgeois clan – the marriage, the family business – beginning to crack, and its very stylishly shot and well-written. In fact the director and his writing partner Barbara Alberti developed the screenplay over 11 years, so it’s no wonder the characters feel real and lived-in. I liked this one very much.

The Amazing Spider-Man (Webb, 2012): This Spider-Man reboot was deemed unnecessary at the time of release by fans of the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi version, and at the time of writing it’s about to be rendered obsolete by another re-imagining of the enduring web-slinger, but I’m glad I finally got round to it as there are bits of it that I quite enjoyed (mostly because I’m a sucker for Spidey’s origin story and the teenage travails of his alter-ego, Peter Parker). Andrew Garfield’s pretty good at acting the sullen teen – or at least he was five years ago, when this was made – and he makes a decent fist of Parker, the vaguely nerdy high schooler who develops his powers after he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Sadly Garfield’s not really a natural quipper, so I guess my main criticism of his performance is that his Spider-Man lacks a bit of wit and verbal pizzazz; in fact it’s a bit like watching the tennis player Andy Murray attempting to play a wise-cracking superhero, at times. Emma Stone is passable as Parker’s classmate Gwen Stacy, Rhys Ifans is necessarily over the top as villain Curt Conners/Lizard, while Sally Field and Martin Sheen ease their way into Kind Older Person roles that don’t really stretch either actor. It’s not as good as Raimi’s first two efforts with the hero, though hardly the disaster some claimed it to be, either.

andrew-garfield-spiderman-prison-ftrThe Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Webb, 2014): Ah. This one though… they didn’t really capitalise on the promise of the first film, did they? The second of Marc Webb’s blockbusters to feature Andrew Garfield as the friendly, neighbourhood super-hero is messy, overlong and riddled with risible acting performances, notably from the two men playing villains (Jamie Foxx as Electro and Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn). Again Garfield plays the tormented teen hero well – the spider suit weighs heavily on his Peter Parker, because he understands that he is putting loved ones around him in danger – and the star is at his best during his scenes with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, their on-off relationship propelling the narrative forward in a far more effective way than any of the good guy vs bad guy shenanigans that unfold. There are some obvious attempts to include some extra humour – notably during the opening sequence – and as with the first film this doesn’t work particularly well. Overall it’s a poor effort, so wiping the slate clean and starting again makes some sense.

Learning To Drive (Coixet, 2016): A low-key drama about an-about-to-be-divorced book editor (Patricia Clarkson) and her Sikh driving instructor (Sir Sir Ben Kingsley), which basically concentrates on her ability to pick herself up in the wake of her husband leaving for the arms and bed of another woman, and the way in which his race and religion shapes his life in New York. It may overplay the metaphor of ‘getting back behind the wheel’ a little, but it’s well acted, told in a pleasantly straightforward fashion and a solid little drama (no back-handed insult intended by that) that’s filled with optimism. The two leads are pretty good.

a-hologram-for-the-king-2735951A Hologram For The King (Tykwer, 2016): It’s a shame that this glimpse into Saudi Arabian commercial practices and the rapid development taking place within the wealthier Middle East nations focuses on a fairly dull and entirely familiar American protagonist as a prism through which we must view the country and its customs – a conferencing technology salesman named Alan Clay, who is played by the everyman’s everyman, Tom Hanks. Alan is going through a mid-life crisis and – like Bill Murray’s actor in Lost In Translation – he must grimace his way through a bleary, jet-lagged week of business meet-and-greets, stressy phone calls from home, cultural misunderstandings and a brief fling, all while staying at a posh hotel. He gets increasingly frustrated as meetings are cancelled at short notice and his techy colleagues are denied wi-fi and food, and his stress levels are exacerbated while he worries about a large cyst that has developed on his back. Ultimately Alan may be a decent guy trying to make sense of his life, but I’m a bit tired of fish-out-of-water stories, and this one typically engages with local issues as reticently as its confused protagonist, who mostly veers between surprised confusion and confused surprise at everything he sees and hears. There’s something a little different toward the end as a second, more intriguing love story develops between Alan and his temporary doctor, Zahra (Anita Choudhury), but sadly the film finishes just as this romance enters its most interesting phase. I’m not surprised that it flopped, despite Hanks’s box office pull, though it’s not without its merits; Sidse Babett Knudsen is typically impressive in her supporting role, for example, but marks off for casting Alexander Black – a white American – as Yousef, a Saudi tour guide, and also for the terrible opening sequence, where an uncomfortable Hanks awkwardly trots out the lyrics to Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime.

These Final Hours (Hilditch, 2016): I probably shouldn’t have watched this mid-apocalyptic hints-of-Ozploitation flick on the same day that Donald Trump won the presidential election, though it did at least make me consider what I’d do if I had twelve hours left to live on Earth (there’d be at least four cups of tea involved). The main protagonist here decides to go a bit wild before an explosion from a massive meteor wipes out Western Australia and beyond, and the start of the film features violent episodes and hedonistic abandon as society breaks down and wonders what to do with itself. Cue a lost little girl to show him the error of his ways and the clear path through a redemptive story arc, leading eventually to some emotional moments as a massive ring of fire approaches. It has a few powerfully-violent scenes but I don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking here and I hated the yellow filter applied throughout; it just looks tacky.

00-31_2013-06-02_11-34The Kiss In The Tunnel (Smith, 1899): A couple share a kiss as their train passes through a dark tunnel. It’s simple, and we all know it isn’t a clandestine moment, because the camera is there recording, but isn’t it amazing that people can still watch their smooch a hundred and seventeen years later? I wonder how they’d have felt if they’d have known about that; now they’re on YouTube, and people can see their kiss on their mobile phones, or their computers, or their TV screens. It has been viewed by thousand and thousands of people in the years in-between, and although it wasn’t the first screen kiss, it is still notable for being one of the earliest edited films, with continuity shots of the train entering and exiting the tunnel framing the ‘private’ moment. Brief and interesting from a historical perspective.

Le Manoir Du Diable (The Haunted Castle, aka The Devil’s Castle) (Méliès, 1896): The great thing about this short film by Georges Méliès – free to watch all over the internet – is that it’s impossible to resist the director’s obvious excitement as he employs rudimentary but utterly fun special effects; it’s also technically the first ever horror film, and within that genre the first ever vampire film, given that it includes a bat transforming into a man. It’s short, by today’s standards, but in 1896 the running time of just over three minutes was incredibly ambitious. Who can honestly say that they have done more than Méliès for the special effects industry?

Film Reviews

The Light Between Oceans

This latest film by Derek Cianfrance – director of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines – shares some common ground with his earlier work, given that it too is a slow, rather downbeat affair about people who end up in miserable situations (partly, at least, of their own making) and who must face up to the consequences of their actions. It will presumably only find a small audience in a world that seems to favour fast-paced all-action franchise blockbusters, thrill-heavy horrors, brightly-animated kids films and low-brow adult comedies above all else, at least in terms of what is popular at the cinema of today. However, those that decide to check it out will find a film with some striking cinematography and some excellent acting by the three principal cast members: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz.

Fassbender and Vikander play Tom and Isabel, a couple who begin their married life a few years after the end of World War I, living on a remote rock off the coast of Tasmania; his job is to ensure that the island’s lighthouse keeps running at all times. The place is barren, which serves as an obvious metaphor for her brace of miscarriages, as does the untuned piano in their house, an object which is used to suggest that Isabel’s body is not operating as it should. And so despite their initial happiness and constant love for one another, their matrimony is ultimately defined after a few years by their inability to have a child together. Suddenly – and rather unbelievably, it must be said – their second period of mourning is interrupted when a small sailing boat washes ashore; inside there’s a dead man, but also a baby girl, who has miraculously survived on rough seas. Rather than report the incident, as they should, the couple jointly decides to bury the body and adopt the baby, raising it as their own, theorising that no-one back on the mainland will be any the wiser. Problems arise – and, it must be said, the film finally gets going – when Tom beecomes so racked with guilt that he contacts the baby’s real mother (Weisz) anonymously, to let her know that her child has survived and is safe. Their community is not particularly large, so it seems a matter of time before Tom and Isabel’s secret is discovered.


Rachel Weisz in The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans cruises along during an elongated first act, though I must admit that the slower pace and the time given over to establishing the two main characters works in the film’s favtors our in the long-term: we see that Tom is a stoic man with a strong sense of duty, while Isabel’s pain and longing after her miscarriages is explored in detail; given the lack of things to do on the small island, these understandably play on her mind and come to define her character until the baby in the boat arrives. This all makes their subsequent actions in the second and third acts a lot easier to understand, and to swallow. The first act is also successful in establishing the love the two characters have for one another. There may be countless close-ups of Fassbender and Vikander as they gaze into one another’s eyes, but there is genuine chemistry between the two (not a given, despite the fact that the two actors fell in love on set), and their romance is entirely believable and eminently watchable.

As stated above, I feel the story only ever shifts gears (from first to second) when Weisz’s character Hannah enters the story, though I must admit that given the predominance of fast-paced films in my local multiplex of late the slower-than-usual speed of this one made for a welcome change. The scenes themselves are not elongated, as such, but Cianfrance seems unhurried and regularly splits them with brief montages that allow Alexandre Desplat’s score room to breathe and that show off Adam Arkapaw’s stunning and inventive photography. The latter is one of the film’s great strengths: considering much of the action takes place at first on a small patch on a small island and latterly in a coastal town that barely covers a square mile, the cinematographer manages to shoot the same recurring locations in different ways, which makes the film seem less staid, and fresher; the editing by Jim Helton and Ron Patane also neatly incorporates Arkapaw’s dazzling array of seascapes, landscapes and shots of the sky at night, which are filmed from all kinds of angles. These allow some respite from the heavy, rather depressing narrative.

The film is unabashedly sentimental at times, and unfortunately a couple of corny moments arrive during the final half hour as Cianfrance attempts to wring every last tear from the battered, drained audience. I won’t go into the details but the timing around one particularly melodramatic scene near the end, set on a jetty, had me rolling my eyes, though I must admit that the bittersweet coda set twenty-odd years after the rest of the story got to me, and for the most part the emotional manipulation doesn’t go too far and has been set-up by those earlier, slower passages. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s certainly classy, and will cement the burgeoning reputation of its director – I really like his trio of films to date, overall – as well as doing nothing to harm the reputations of its principal actors. It looks fantastic on the big screen, sounds very good (there’s something soothing about hearing and seeing those ocean waves rolling in, even when it’s stormy) and as romances go I felt pretty invested in the characters; their love for one another rang true. Even Hannah’s relationship with a German immigrant, shown briefly on occasion in flashback, is handled deftly. Much to recommend.

Film Reviews

Swiss Army Man

Having gained some notoriety at Sundance earlier this year (where word quickly spread of a ‘Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie’, as well as audience walkouts), the quirky and perhaps difficult nature of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s Swiss Army Man preceded its arrival in the UK… though I dare say it will still have surprised many a casual cinemagoer upon general release last month. Radcliffe – doing all he can to lose his Harry Potter heritage at the present time – does indeed star as a farting corpse, later christened ‘Manny’, who washes up on the shoreline at the exact point that apparent castaway Hank (Paul Dano) is about to commit suicide. In a bizarre opening sequence that sets the tone for much of the action that follows, Hank realises that he may be able to harness Manny’s flatulence, and subsequently attempts to ride the trumping cadaver like a flesh jet ski across the ocean, back to civilisation. Hank fails, but the appearance of Manny seems to give him a renewed sense of hope, and optimism; and the dead body is also a welcome source of company for the lonely survivor. At first Manny’s social interaction only extends as far as breaking wind, but with Hank’s encouragement the corpse begins to reanimate in other ways, first starting to talk before later developing to the point that he begins to echo Hank’s longing for a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who features heavily in Hank’s memories and who appears in photos on Hank’s phone.

There are plenty of silly and immature (and funny) jokes here, especially during the scenes in which ‘Swiss army man’ Manny is put to good use, aiding Hank’s survival in all sorts of bizarre ways. When the corpse gets an erection after looking at a Sports Illustrated-style magazine of women in swimsuits, for example, Hank spontaneously decides that the tall, proud, dead man’s stiffy can double as a useful compass that will lead them back to civilisation; and he later turns Manny into a makeshift hunting weapon, bending him over double and applying pressure to fire gas-powered buckshot at passing critters. Hank also constructs a wooden replica of a bus that he used to ride every day, before he ended up lost: we see the real bus in flashbacks, and that the mysterious woman in the photos was a regular passenger. Yet what are we to make of Hank’s decision to fashion a dress and a wig so that he can play the role of the woman in his re-staged fantasies, and what are we to make of him tutoring Manny to be decisive and forward when approaching ‘her’? And is he really trying to get back to civilisation?

If it wasn’t abundantly clear from the opening scene, the audience is supposed to be questioning Hank’s state of mind throughout the movie. Has he had some kind of mental breakdown? Well, presumably, the answer is ‘yes’. Was he ever shipwrecked, or is it all a construct, a figment of his imagination? And what are we to make of Manny and his ability to hold conversations, exactly? The two Daniels (writers as well as directors) go some way to answering these questions during a final act that takes us from fantasy to reality and back again; it just about works, largely thanks to all the hard work the two leads have put in up to that point in terms of selling their characters to the audience. The film is at its most moving when it finally does shed its silly streak and enters into a more melancholic, realistic phase, one which deals with human fragility and pain and complicated family relationships in a surprisingly tender, sad fashion, and there’s certainly some excitement to be had as you realise that the delicate house of cards that the cast and crew have constructed could come crashing down at any point. As I said above, I think the film just about holds together, and that’s largely due to the performances by Dano and Radcliffe (who delivers a terrific physical turn in order to make you believe in his character). I have some admiration for them, but must admit to feeling completely worn down by Swiss Army Man‘s near-incessant wackiness by the end; the lyrics to the original songs on the soundtrack by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (from the band Manchester Orchestra), which reference the on-screen action, quickly got on my nerves, and there’s something irritably cutesy in having the two leads singing along when this isn’t really a musical. It’s a very Sundance-y piece, and I’m not sure that I’d want to sit through it again, but it’s also fun and charming at times; I managed to go along with most of it.