Faces, Places

There’s a scene in Faces, Places, the new documentary film Agnès Varda has made in collaboration with photographer and mural artist JR, in which this ostensibly odd couple – a 65-year age gap exists between them – chat with a group of male French dock workers. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Varda’s work that she instinctively asks the men if she can meet their wives, and before long the two artists are introduced to the three relevant women, two of whom – like their husbands – work on the docks.

The basic premise of the film is that Varda and JR travel around France meeting people (generally those who live and/or work in rural or smaller communities), before taking their pictures and then printing large images that are subsequently flyposted onto buildings or large objects. Having met the three women, and feeling suitably inspired by them, Varda and JR ask them to pose for portraits and then decide to plaster the larger-than-life pictures onto a huge stack of cargo containers, with the women themselves eventually emerging from behind the doors of container stacked high at the very top. It’s an extremely powerful visual statement – made in conjunction with a small group of people who appear to work for JR – in a film that’s littered with them, and yet it’s also completely indicative of the film’s humanism, the makers’ genuine interest in ordinary working class people and the rather likeable way that they are lionised in ways that also brings attention to their surroundings and the histories of certain places.

For most of the film Varda and JR travel around in his van, which has a large-scale printer adapted to fit in the back. They meet farmers, people from former mining communities, retirees and young children along the way. As they do, the documentary slowly evolves into a work that’s also about the power of images, as well as society, the influence of political decisions taken elsewhere, mortality and the act of seeing. One thread that’s weaved throughout pertains to Varda’s deteriorating eyesight, while in another Varda regularly chastises the younger man for his desire to ‘hide’ behind his sunglasses at all times, something that occasionally causes a small degree of friction between the two. (JR, like the English artist Banksy, places much value on his own anonymity.)

Despite the odd minor clash between Varda and JR – she quickly puts him in his place when he patronises her – Faces, Places is very much a feelgood film: the two artists make for an extremely sympathetic, likeable duo, and the obvious differences between them – age, height, etc – soon become irrelevant in the face of their shared respect for and interest in others. As well as their time together talking to people – which sometimes recalls Varda’s earlier The Gleaners & I – we’re treated to lots of footage of the pair travelling together, hanging out in Paris and even dashing across the Louvre in a light-hearted homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part.

It comes as a surprise, then, when Godard himself casts a rather unfortunate shadow on the film late on. JR arranges a surprise visit to the house of the notoriously reclusive director, who was one of Varda’s New Wave colleagues and someone who she considers a long-term friend, even though she hasn’t seen him in years, but the meeting and the trip becomes something of a non-event — grinding uncomfortably to a halt as a result of what appears to be mean-spirited pettiness on the part of Godard, perhaps driven by a rather unfortunate mixture of insecurity and thoughtlessness. Given what we’ve seen before it seems like a particularly cruel act to reduce Varda to tears, but her positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible, and the male director’s actions ultimately seem like an irrelevance as she figuratively picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets on with her life. The simple fact is that nobody can stop the positivity that radiates from Varda and from this wonderful film, surely one of 2018’s finest. (****½)

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Clearly the best action film that has been released so far during 2018, this latest franchise entry delivers plenty of the high-octane thrills that have become synonymous with the series, particularly during recent years. There’s a quite thrilling, brutally bone-crunching fist fight that takes place in a bathroom, for example, involving Tom Cruise’s familiar IMF agent Ethan Hunt, Henry Cavill’s CIA assassin August Walker and a man who may or may not be an international terrorist called Lark, with all the shots of bodies slamming into washbasins and through walls that have become de rigeur post-Bourne. There are also speedy, exciting vehicle and foot chases through the streets of central Paris and London, with the requisite number of landmarks incorporated into the sequences’ establishing shots. And the finale – though marred a little by the awful expository dialogue that precedes it, which all of the actors involved seem a tad embarrassed by – is staged very well, particularly with regard to the helicopter chase that was teased in the trailer.

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Simon Pegg and Henry Cavill

This ending is also indicative of Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s laziness, though, perhaps epitomised by the use of such cliches as characters grimacing as they tensely cut the red wire on the left-hand side of a bomb’s interior (WAIT…OR IS IT THE GREEN WIRE ON THE RIGHT, ETC ETC?!!), figures dangling off incredibly high ledges or ropes and timers slowly ticking down to zero. These tired action movie tropes have long been ditched by more inventive, thoughtful writers and directors, and it’s a little dismaying to see them employed yet again within this film, when the marketing tends to proudly push the line that its stunts are next-level and its characters are presented as sprightly and able to think outside of the box in order to outfox the enemy. Allayed to this there’s a nagging sense that even the actors are a little bit bored by it all, performing in variations on scenes that they’ve already appeared in numerous times before (particularly with regard to Cruise, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, all veterans of this series). When one character is hoodwinked by Hunt’s team’s misdirection early in the film, for example, and another subsequently falls for a switcheroo involving one of those rubber face masks that seemingly come out of nowhere in these films (because… someone has a laptop handy), are there any audience members who feel the same level of surprise at having had the rug pulled from under their feet? Isn’t it time to move on from the kind of twists seen in Brian De Palma’s first entry in the franchise, and from the more novel ideas that were contained within David Koepp and Robert Towne’s Mission: Impossible movie screenplay?

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Vanessa Kirby

Supporting actors are game, but this is of course A Tom Cruise Film and as such the rest of the cast is marginalised, their characters unable to wallow in a sub plot or enjoy an independent thought of their own that isn’t somehow for Hunt’s benefit. Rebecca Ferguson’s assassin Ilsa was, for some, a breath of fresh air in previous entry Rogue Nation, but she takes a back seat here, appearing with impeccable timing whenever Hunt is in a bind and needs some help. She’s just another team member now, albeit a quasi-member for much of this story, and the actor is surely destined to go the same way as the likes of Emmanuelle Béart, Emilio Estevez, Jeremy Renner and various others have before; but maybe time will prove me wrong. Elsewhere, Sean Harris reprises his role as the big bad of the series, a puppet master of Very Bad Things who is all beard and gravel-voiced threats, while Vanessa Kirby smoulders unconvincingly as new character ‘The White Widow’, a wealthy, powerful broker of dodgy deals who would not be out of place in a Roger Moore-era Bond film. Pegg has already fully accepted his sidekick status, wisely, while Ving Rhames is also seemingly happy to continually play a character who was last given a bit of meaningful personality and a sense of his own life outside of service to Hunt and the IMF way back in 1996, a full five films ago.

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Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise

There’s terrible dialogue here and lots of wooden acting – particularly during the opening, pre-credits scenes – but evidently people go and see these films to be wowed by stunts, and Fallout will not disappoint in this respect; they are very well-staged and each set piece is exciting and incredibly well-choreographed, especially when you consider how many vehicles are involved at times. Somehow the years do not seem to be catching up with Cruise, who yet again gives a solid impression of a man who happens to leap off buildings, kill people and stop nuclear weapons from being deployed almost as often as he eats cornflakes or takes a dump. It seems like there’s plenty left in the tank. (3/5)

The Paul Kelly-Saint Etienne London Trilogy

As a (slight but long-term) fan of London’s Saint Etienne I’d been meaning to watch the trilogy of short films they made with director Paul Kelly for some time. Examining three different aspects of London, the body of work is made up of Finisterre (2003), What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (2005) and This Is Tomorrow (2007), each one being around an hour long and a kind of wistful meditation on the changing face of the city (and thus as they deal to various extents with the past, present and future Saint Etienne’s very distinct brand of retro-futurism seems like a good fit for the soundtrack to me, for they are a band that has always looked back to classic European and American pop and also to more modern sounds of the dancefloor, albeit filtered through the lens of white pop classicists). I understand that the fourth collaboration between band and filmmaker, 2014’s How We Used To Live  a collage about 20th century living that uses British Film Institute archive footage, and which I haven’t yet watched sits seperately from these earlier works.

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Finisterre poster

Finisterre, co-directed by Kelly with Kieran Evans, is a modern take on the city symphony film, the footage darting from spots in suburban London a few of which I definitely recognised, a few that seemed familiar, many that I don’t currently know and probably never will – to more recognisable yet characterful places in the centre. The band and others, such as artist Julian Opie and musician Lawrence from the acts Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart (who would later be the subject of Kelly’s 2012 film Lawrence of Belgravia) discuss the places that mean something to them, which tend to be old, traditional cafes, gig venues, record shops, pubs and other places along those lines. But that’s not all; there are wide-reaching cityscapes, close-ups of boarded-up shops and everything in-between. The directors show a knack for catching small architectural details, interesting graffiti and stencils (the latter still a relatively new artistic phenomenon back then), and they use typography as a means of tracking changing times and design fashion, an approach that is consistent across all three films. It’s a fleeting glimpse of a city in flux, and it does to an extent feel like a personal one: this is Kelly and Saint Etienne’s London, primarily, not yours or mine, even if there is some overlap with the types of faces and places you see. The South Bank, Camden, Chalk Farm, Soho, Croydon… Finisterre darts from one spot to the next, knitting it all together, and the emphasis on London’s music scene and nightlife makes it seem warm and positive.

The voices of born and bred locals are more to the fore in What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, a 45-minute short about Hackney Wick and the lower Lee Valley in London’s East End (pictured top). Watching today, this is the part of the trilogy that feels to me like the most valuable snapshot, given that the area of the city it examines has been heavily gentrified in the years since it was made, and is markedly different now to how it was in 2005. Kelly spoke to the BFI in 2014 about the three films, addressing the remaking and remodelling of the era. “There was a lot of change going on in London, but we didn’t necessarily see that as a negative thing,” he said. “London was being revitalised. But we wanted to document anything that we thought was going. At the time, there were lots of places that we thought ‘We’ve got to capture this,’ but by the time we got there it would be gone. There was a sense that things were going very fast. It seems to be changing even faster now, accelerating at a pace.”

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Still from What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?

Mervyn Day the title is a rather niche reference to a 1970s goalkeeper who played for local teams West Ham United and Leyton Orient is an atmospheric portrait, proudly examining the area’s industrial and sporting past, finding plenty of time for the waterways, overgrown and neglected corners and crumbling, condemned buildings of 2005. There are hints of the present and future: radio reports of the London terror attacks are incorporated, while the then-recently successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics is referred to in hopeful terms by some, who correctly identified it back then as an opportunity for renewal, collaboration and sporting endeavour.

East London’s gentrification was already well underway by 2005. As Kelly pointed out to the BFI, it was the influx of artists taking advantage of cheap rent in Hoxton and Dalston during the late 1990s that kicked it all off, but it went through the roof immediately after this film was made. However, as one resident points out on the soundtrack, this is a part of London that has regularly seen periods of dramatic change, partly due to its proximity to the Thames and the City of London (ie the financial district). The arrival of larger numbers of younger, middle-class professionals than normal is nothing new for an area that had just previously welcomed a large influx of Bangladeshi residents, or had seen a sizeable portion of the community’s white working class families move out of London into Kent and Essex. I’ve walked around here a couple of times in 2018. Some edges are still tatty; not everything has changed.

There’s a surprising amount of dereliction on show in this film, considering how close everything depicted is to one of the wealthiest square miles and some of the most valuable property in the entire world, but it’s all shown for a purpose, to highlight lost industries, to demonstrate how things  places, communities, events  can be forgotten, or how economic shifts take place and the use of land changes. Our guide through all of it is a mopey teenage lad on a bike, perhaps a Saint Etienne fan, perhaps a future Olympian, while David Essex and Linda Robson – defiantly uncool but absolutely inspired choices of celebs who were raised in the area – provide commentary.

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DVD cover

Of the three films, I was less enamoured with This Is Tomorrow, which charts the building, role and later renovation of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, but it’s still well worth a watch. The area was bombed during the Second World War; the building of the concert hall as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 helped to put south London on the map, so to speak; and much has sprung up around it since, so it fits with some of the trilogy’s overarching themes, such as London’s changing face and land being used for different purposes. Kelly’s eye for detail is evident once again and there’s an interesting selection of interviewees, including philosopher Alain de Botton. Also present is Robin Day, one of the most significant furniture designers of the 20th century, whose seats adorn the hall. The film was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall itself (or rather the people who work in it and for it), and as such it’s more of a conventional documentary than the other two films in A London Trilogy, somehow less personal and by necessity rendering the people of London irrelevant.

I felt sad watching the three films; I see here the London that I moved to, albeit in 1999 rather than 2003, 2005 or 2007. What I should say, then, is that I definitely see the London I lived in for many years. I also felt a degree of warmth towards the films which came, oddly enough, because of Kelly’s insistence on poking around in dingy, messy corners of the capital. You don’t see these spaces committed to film too often, and I think such scenes here are part of a kind of more general, quiet celebration that I’m glad exists.

The London Trilogy is available to watch on BFI Player in the UK and can be purchased from lots of the usual outlets.

Blog update

I started The Last Picture Blog – under its previous guise of Popcorn Nights – about five-and-a-half years ago. Previously I wrote for magazines and websites on subjects such as football, music and photography, and while I still enjoy those pastimes I’ve barely written a word about any of them in years. With film, though, it has always been a little bit different.

As soon as I began blogging about film the amount of movies that I watched increased exponentially, and my viewing choices and taste quickly became broader; I also found a community that I’ve interacted with online (sometimes heavily, sometimes very little, sometimes not at all), certain corners of which have provided education with regards to the history of cinema and have fuelled my desire to work through all those blind spots that existed; that said, I’ll never get through everything that I want to see, but it’s fun trying. I’ve simultaneously maintained a strong interest in new releases, from great, modern works of art to entertainingly-bad drivel. That’ll continue for as many years as I’ve got left on this spinning rock.

This blog has gone through various different changes over the years. Reviews, initially at least, were much longer and I wrote about everything that I watched. Obviously this was time consuming and occasionally it felt like a chore to keep on top of it, so after a few years I had to scale back. Reviews during the past 18-24 months have been much shorter, effectively just a paragraph or two summarising how I feel about a movie; often it’s simply edited text that I’d previously posted on Letterboxd.

My daughter was born near the end of 2016, and although the amount of spare time I currently have hasn’t changed dramatically, the way in which I choose to spend it is markedly different. Right now I don’t want to spend hours sitting in front of a computer writing (and couldn’t do so with any degree of regularity even if I did actually want to). I’m surprised, though, that I still manage to get through a film a day on average whether that’s watching at home at night, going to the cinema once a week, fitting in twenty minutes’ worth of viewing in the mornings or an hour during lunch, etc but I don’t have the mental energy or the desire to write about every single film that I see any more.

As such, it’s time for another change here. I don’t want to give up on The Last Picture Blog but it’ll have to be different going forward. One thing I do know is that it’ll be sporadic posts from now on, when the mood takes me and when I have the time to sit down and write. I hope that gives me a bit more freedom; I might write the occasional review if I feel I have something worth saying, but I’m also excited about the opportunity to move off in a different direction. Who knows what that will be. Anyway, thanks very much if you’re still reading!

A Silent Voice (Eiga Koe No Katachi)

Watched: 7 March

Endearing high school-set anime about a bully named Ishida who torments the new girl in his class, Nishimiya. She is ostracised on account of her deafness by other classmates, and the same children subsequently shun Ishida despite their part in the sorry affair. This contributes to Ishida’s low self-esteem, but he eventually learns the error of his ways and repents after Nishimiya exhibits constant kindness and warmth, so there’s a nice message here and there’s a certain softness to the way it’s all handled. There’s an interesting visual style going on, too, with crosses placed over the mouths of classmates Ishida has no relationship with, and director Naoko Yamada using close-ups of body parts (knees and calves mostly, which I guess could be some kind of fetishising but there may be another reason for it or cultural subtext that I’m unaware of). (***)

London Symphony

Watched: 6 March

Taking a cue from the silent ‘city symphony’ films of the 1920s, Alex Barrett’s document of modern London applies a rather old-fashioned style to the 21st century sights, despite being shot with digital cameras. It is filmed in black and white and is made up of four thematic ‘movements’, though these can be broken down into smaller groupings of related images or subjects, all of which is tastefully scored by James McWilliam. A large amount of footage has been carefully edited into a work that only just stretches beyond an hour, and the cinematography is fine, particularly with regard to the photography of buildings. It is evenly-paced, by which I mean the shots and the movements tend to be of roughly equal length; other viewers may feel that this is a good thing but I have a feeling I’d have enjoyed this even more had there been sudden Koyaanisqatsi-like bursts of speed and life and light and energy. Anyway, it’s certainly worth seeing if you like or live in London, or if you’d enjoy seeing a view of the city that eschews the more obvious views for sights that are likely to be missed by most eyes (including those of Londoners themselves). (**½)

Mute

Watched: 3 March

Sci-fi noir with a plodding, stultifying plot and an obvious visual debt to Blade Runner (so at least Mute looks good, with its teeming city streets drenched in neon, flying cars, etc). In all honesty there’s not much else worthy of note, except to say that old Merry Brandybuck has a stab at playing a Berlin-based robot-shagging South African future-geisha, so there’s that. It’s not really going too well for Duncan Jones at the moment, unfortunately. (*½)

After The Storm (Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku)

Watched: 2 March

Another enjoyably low-key slice of Japanese family life from Hirokazu Koreeda, whose consistency and regularity of output means that he makes this kind of thing look easy (and also made me think that he is in danger of being taken for granted as a filmmaker until his recent Palme d’Or win at Cannes). The story here largely revolves around novelist-turned-private detective Ryota and the various relationships he has with his mother, sister, ex-wife and son, though arguably the key relationship hanging over the whole film is the one that existed between Ryota and his recently-deceased father. It mostly plays out within and around the old family home, occasionally venturing outside to unspectacular, everyday locations – though these are still somewhat intriguing to my foreign eyes – and any Koreeda watcher will know how adept he is at making films within such spaces, mostly focusing on his characters as they converse, sometimes while they carry out quotidian household tasks. There are good performances from Kore-eda regulars Hiroshi Abe, Yōko Maki and Kirin Kiki, though for some reason this didn’t grab me in the same way as the other Koreeda films I’ve seen (Still Walking, Our Little Sister, Like Father, Like Son). (***½)

Pitch Perfect 2

Watched: 2 March

I’m glad that the cast and crew of Pitch Perfect got to make a follow-up; the first film was a feel-good treat, with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson in particular managing to showcase their comic talents and deserving the chance to reprise their roles as the stars of college a capella singing group The Barden Bellas. However, there’s definitely a sense of second-film-syndrome hanging around this sophomore effort, which is a real shame. Jokes are repeated, there’s a half-arsed attempt to expand on the original by setting the plot within a world champtonship (as opposed to a national one) and the characters seem no different by the end of the film to the way they did at the start, as if they’ve become mere carriers of recognised catchphrases and little else. That said, those well-choreographed routines are still a lot of fun, and I like the way the naffness of a capella singing is still never challenged or acknowledged. (**)

The Death Of Stalin

Watched: 1 March

Another droll, biting satire from Armando Iannucci, a man who has been at the forefront of British comedy for the best part of thirty years. The title suggests that this film is about the notorious Russian leader’s demise – and it is, to a certain extent – but the focus is very much on the rush to seize power after Joseph Stalin suffers a fatal brain haemorrhage, Iannucci using all the panic and opportunity created by a temporarily headless state as a means of highlighting some truly despicable behaviour. The jockeying and scheming is carried out with aplomb by the ensemble cast: Steve Buscemi as de-Staliniser Nikita Krushchev; Simon Russell Beale as NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria; Geoffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, the man destined to become the next Soviet leader; Jason Isaacs as barking military hound dog Georgy Zhukov; Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana and Rupert Friend as Vasily, Joseph’s children. A great many more actors – including Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse and Adrian McLoughlin as the fearsome leader himself– also make strong impressions, even if they only appear for two or three scenes.

Iannucci’s direction is sound: he’s working with a really good bunch of actors, so it’s no surprise that all of the best lines hit the mark, and he manages to make time for all of the characters to make their mark. Perhaps most surprising to me – as someone who knows very little about 20th century Russian politics other than the most obvious facts and the most obvious names – was the clarity of the piece: it’s surprisingly easy to follow. The Death of Stalin is a great companion to Iannucci’s more recent TV work and his deliciously witty feature film debut In The Loop, sharing a gleeful immersion in the backstabbing, chaos and incompetence of the corridors of power. An excellent screenplay, co-written with David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. (****)

High Noon

Watched: 28 February

Here is a classic archetype of a stoic, silent hero… and a stubborn and stupid one to boot (he should have listened to Grace Kelly’s character in the first five minutes, but then there’d be no movie). There are things I really don’t like about this showdown western – the soundtrack is good but used so bloody relentlessly, and despite the Oscar win I’m not a fan of Gary Cooper’s acting (he’s just a bit…grey). However, there’s a lot that I do like as High Noon metronomically chugs through it’s 85 minutes; the final act includes a really great, purposeful crane shot, for example, and the last scene is a brilliant, silent ‘fuck you’ to the townspeople that also serves as a terrific full stop. For all Cooper’s embodiment of masculinity it’s worth noting that he’s saved by a woman before he gets to return the favour. As I say, he should have just listened in the first place. (****)

A Separation

Watched: 27 February

Of the three films I’ve seen by Asghar Farhadi, this is definitely the best – a kind of modern day morality play in which the ‘separation’ is between an Iranian woman and her husband (she wants to move abroad, he wants to stay to look after his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s), or the potential distance that will exist between their teenage daughter and one of the parents when she eventually picks who she will go to live with, or indeed the ‘separation’ that occurs when the man’s cleaning lady – who also looks after his father – suffers a miscarriage. These unfortunate events link the characters together, and it’s the death of the baby that moves the plot forward most obviously, resulting in a long and protracted legal claim to establish fault, a conflict being driven by one man in particular. Throughout the characters’ opinions of each other begin to shift, and this makes for an enthralling drama that kept me on the edge of my seat for long periods – something I guess is more usually experienced while watching thrillers or action films. The acting is excellent. (****½)

The Final Year

Watched: 26 February

Absorbing HBO documentary about Barack Obama’s final year as POTUS, focusing not only on the inspirational leader but also on former Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama’s key aide and national security adviser Ben Rhodes and the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. It feels at times like director Greg Barker had no-holds barred access, even though I very much doubt that was the case, and it occasionally feels a bit too one-sided, too much like a four-pronged hagiography. Still, I find myself in agreement with many of the policies this team attempted to push through as the clock ticked down on the Obama administration, and it’s not exactly difficult to sympathise or identify with their despair at President Fucktrumpet’s 2016 election win. (***)

Lady Bird

Watched: 26 February

The very best coming-of-age movies – and this widely-celebrated effort by Greta Gerwig is probably the best American take on the genre since Boyhood – find time to explore child-parent relationships as well as the usual high-school-centric flirtations with disaster. In Lady Bird, a semi-autobiographical work set in Sacramento, California in 2002, the dynamics that exist between main college-bound protagonist Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and her father Larry (Tracey Letts) are examined in a way that feels satisfying to me, though I do wonder whether this is the case simply because we get fly-on-the-wall/car window access to a few heated arguments that Marion and Lady Bird – two characters cut from the same cloth and unable to back down – have with each other; the dialogue within these rows is well written, and believable, and although it’s never comfortable watching people argue, even in a fictional film, these exchanges really do feel like they’re taking place between people who have spent 17 years in each other’s company.

I found Lady Bird’s family ties more intriguing than the up-and-down-and-up-again friendship she has with best mate Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and the two brief romances she enters into with fellow students (Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet), purely because the very best scenes here – and thus the most memorable – involve Lady Bird and her parents. In one, after a heated exchange with Marion in a car over college applications, Lady Bird throws herself out of a moving vehicle, breaking her arm by doing so. Later, in a heart-wrenching finale, the main character is set to move to New York only to be given the cold shoulder at the airport by Marion, who interprets the move as a personal slight and stubbornly refuses to go to the departure gate. Marion goes through a range of emotions in a short space of time, as does her departing daughter, and the whole episode is acted with finesse.

The film mirrors life: it’s funny, it’s sad, suburban teenage life is Ghost World-y, all car park listlessness and dreams of elsewhere, the main character is embarrassed by certain aspects of her upbringing (her home, her friend) and seeks to promote a sleeker, ‘better’ version of herself by lying about where she lives and seeking the approval of a supposedly cooler, aloof classmate. (Anyone that has watched a movie about American teenagers from the Hughes years onwards knows how all of that pans out, but it’s still a fairly common teenage mistake, right?)

I was drawn in by the acting and screenplay, and one of the main reasons I’d like to watch Lady Bird again at a later date is that I didn’t really take much note of other aspects of the film; the cinematography I think is good, the rhythm of the movie seemed to be a plus, the soundtrack is probably worth more of my concentration, and though the exploration of Catholicism and education is hardly rigorous I’m sure there’s lots there that I’ve missed too. (****½)

Black Panther

Watched: 25 February

Obviously it’s unusual to see a predominantly black cast and a black story in a big-budget blockbuster, as well as an African setting (or rather a quasi-African setting), and in that sense Ryan Coogler’s exciting and often thoughtful, incisive Black Panther very much stands out from the pack. (If I were a person of colour myself I expect I’d be happy – possibly thrilled – at finally seeing greater representation in this kind of movie, and while yes there have been other black superheroes before Chadwick Boseman’s Panther, this does feel more like a watershed moment; a game-changer.)

The second obvious thing to say about Black Panther is that it’s still very much Another Marvel Movie in other respects, hitting the exact same beats as many of the preceding films (well, it is a cog in the wheel of a franchise and a wider story, of course), suffering from really poor CGI on occasion and following the same basic tenets in the way it goes about telling an origin story and introducing new characters. Still, Boseman proves once more that he’s a capable leading man, Coogler regular Michael B. Jordan impresses as villain ‘Killmonger’ and the three most prominent female members of the cast – Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright – add plenty of warmth, toughness, charisma and humour. Despite the similarities that exist between them I’ve been enjoying the Marvel films again during the past couple of years, by and large. This one is a fun, entertaining adventure; and possibly their best origin film since Guardians of the Galaxy. (***)

Loving Vincent

Watched: 25 February

Loving Vincent is an impressive technological and artistic accomplishment; it has oft been said already, but I think it’s worth reiterating that this film took ten years to complete, with 125 artists creating close to 65,000 paintings in doing so. That’s an amazing commitment. Piecing together the final days and death of Vincent Van Gogh, it plays out a bit like a detective story, which I hadn’t expected at all. It’s quite gripping, but I think it’s let down a bit by some fairly average voice acting (I’m really not sure why Douglas Booth pushes the cockney accent so hard, for example). Anyway, it looks great and Clint Mansell‘s score is beautiful. And if nothing else you get a good idea of what a Van Gogh portrait of Jerome Flynn might look like. (***)

I, Tonya

Watched: 23 February

I want to like this film more than I do – but the main point is that I do like it. It’s absolutely true that it’s extremely entertaining at times – much more so than some of the other ‘awards season’ contenders that I’ve seen so far this year – and there are terrific, big performances to enjoy by Margot Robbie as the figure skater Tonya Harding and Alison Janney as her aggressive mother LaVona. Plus, it’s also true that this is a really fascinating story, and one ripe for the Hollywood treatment – incorporating as it does tabloid scandal, crime, a period of domestic abuse, conflicting and therefore unreliable testimonies, a sporting rise against the odds (and certainly one with some interesting class issues and snobbery to pore over) and a similarly spectacular fall from grace. Yet I think that ultimately it’s just too busy, too unable to sit back and allow its excellent actors a bit of space, and time, to bring a little more nuance to their roles. Also, the Scorsese-mimicry (whip-zooms, quick cuts, 70s classic rock soundtrack, etc) eventually makes you want to watch the real thing instead of an imitation, the incredibly patronising commentator voiceovers grate throughout and the mockumentary stylings are tired. On the whole, though, a hit. (***½)

Last Flag Flying

Watched: 22 February

Set in 2003, Richard Linklater’s sequel-but-not-a-sequel to The Last Detail sees three ‘Nam vets (Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carroll) set off on a road trip together, ostensibly at first in order to attend a funeral. It contains its fair share of sentimental moments as they reminisce about old times and their lives since the war, and there are also scenes of lighthearted comedy (which didn’t really work for me at all) as they trade banter on trains and attempt to catch up with changes in technology and culture, which seem to have passed Cranston’s character Sal by in particular. I’ve seen plenty of praise for the performances but I thought the acting was patchy – poor at times, good at others. It’s slow, though that’s not intended to be a criticism, while Linklater’s screenplay – co-written with Darryl Ponicsan, adapting his novel – contains some hard-hitting emotional moments and smartly critiques the American military’s treatment of veterans and current soldiers alike. (**½)

Obvious Child

Watched: 20 February

Often very funny, this abortion-related rom-com rests largely on the shoulders of SNL’s/Parks and Recreation’s Jenny Slate, who delivers a really likeable turn as a stand-up with a penchant for delivering extremely personal routines in front of crowds that lead to painfully awkward silences. There are some very good comedy club routines, so it would make a good double bill with the equally sharp The Big Sick. (***)

The Post

Watched: 19 February

The first of this year’s two Steven Spielberg films is perhaps more typical of the director’s later period than his other big release, Ready Player One: like 2015’s Bridge Of Spies, The Post is the kind of movie you probably won’t love, but it’s serious and forthright and concerned with historic events and it feels important as a result, so basically it’s both asking for and worthy of your admiration… if not your heart. And, as such, The Post has elicited all kinds of vague phrases from people keen to point out that it is ‘solidly crafted’, ‘well-made’ and ‘superbly put-together’, which are also things that dads say while admiring the coffee tables at OakFurnitureLand. And even though I like the film very much, there’s no doubt that The Post is very coffee table.

I’m being a little disingenuous. The acting in this film – which tells the story of the Washington Post’s reporting of the Pentagon Papers (um… five days later than the New York Times) – is very good indeed, with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks doing most of the legwork as the Post’s Publisher Katharine Graham and Editor Ben Bradlee respectively. This is a film that initially concerns itself with the furrowed brows of a small-ish number of people as they weigh up the potential impact of what they’re about to do, but as they and their New York counterparts seek counsel and eventually publish articles many more organisations and people become involved, not least the Nixon administration, who try to stop the papers from publishing their articles (and indeed there’s a superb ensemble here in addition to Streep and Hanks, including Bob Odenkirk, Tracey Letts, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie and Michael Stuhlbarg). Let’s be honest, montages of printing presses aside, if your film is going to include lots of meetings in rooms and late night conferences over the phone, you’re very much reliant on the quality of acting to make it cinematic enough, and worthwhile – and this is very much a film to enjoy on account of its acting, and its script. So, lower-key Spielberg, timely and worthy given the attacks on the free press that are being carried out by Trump and his cronies, and solidly-crafted, well-made, superbly put-together, etc. etc. (***½)

The Florida Project

Watched: 18 February

There are excellent, naturalistic performances by some relatively inexperienced actors (and one experienced actor) here, and a sugary, colourful look that captures perfectly the way that the pastels of the Walt Disney World Resort – once known as the ‘Florida Project’ during the planning stages – seep beyond its boundaries and across the Floridian businesses that surround it (and which rely to a certain degree on the megacomplex’s draw). The setting here is a hotel where many of the residents – single mothers and their children, predominantly, or at least those are the people director Sean Baker focuses on – are apparently fighting to raise enough money to keep a roof over their heads, the irony being that there is a block of empty, repossessed homes just down the road. Baker’s film is sympathetic and non-judgmental, but it doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of a certain character’s actions either – and indeed it also subtly criticises the way figures in authority are forced by their employers to view other people’s situations purely in black and white terms. The director presents the candy-coloured world from a child’s point of view before effortlessly changing to the points of view of the stressed adults who also inhabit it, which is a masterstroke. One of the year’s best. (****½)

Blade Runner / Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 / 2036: Nexus Dawn / 2048: Nowhere To Run

Watched: 17 February

I rewatch Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (The Final Cut) every couple of years because it’s not too shabby. Nothing to add that hasn’t been said many times before elsewhere. This time, though, I followed up by watching the three shorts (one anime, two live action) that were released in the run-up to Denis Villeneuve’s 2049-set sequel last year. The first, Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 (pictured), is set three years after Ridley Scott’s film; it’s a fun, action-heavy animated short depicting events that are referred to in passing in Blade Runner 2049. Less impressive are the two live action shorts; 2036: Nexus Dawn is just a few minutes of Jared Leto mega-emoting as megalomaniac businessman Niander Wallace in front of other actors (including Benedict Wong), while 2048: Nowhere To Run merely applies a little bit of backstory to Dave Bautista’s minor character Sapper Morton; there’s some punchy backstreet scrapping in the latter. None of the three are essential, and they don’t really add all that much to this particular sci-fi world, but if you’re a fan you might get some enjoyment out of them. (***** / *** / **½ / **½)

Irreplaceable You

Watched: 17 February

Cheesy landfill Netflix romance / cancer weepie. The impressive-on-paper cast (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Huisman, Steve Coogan, Christopher Walken, Jackie Weaver) have to work with a poor screenplay that rarely (if at all) gets to grips with the true pain and suffering caused by terminal illness. The sweet moments are extra-sugary, so clearly someone somewhere felt that the main subject matter would be too depressing for an audience to take. A shame. (*½)

The Trader (Sovdagari)

Watched: 17 February

Interesting short film about a trader in Georgia who buys goods at stores and markets in towns and then sells them to people who live in rural communities, who often purchase them using potatoes as currency. Given the length you only get a glimpse into the trader’s daily life, but I enjoyed it. (***)

Marshall

Watched: 16 February

This film is supposed to be – and to a certain extent is – about the early career of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice and tireless civil rights campaigner Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman)… so I’m really not sure why the story has to concentrate so much on one particular case in which Marshall coaches Josh Gad’s white lawyer as he defends a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. The focus shifts far too much towards Gad’s character and his enjoyment of a legal triumph during the closing stages, before a series of pre-credit comments about Marshall’s incredible career make you wonder why the hell barely a jot of it has made it into the previous two hours. There’s way too much bland courtroom drama, too, I’m afraid, but Boseman’s performance is sound. (**)

God’s Own Country

Watched: 15 February

Francis Lee’s feature debut is a love story set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire countryside – not the Dales National Park, as quite a few reviews have incorrectly stated, but just to the south in West Yorkshire, near Leeds and Skipton. The two lovers are an English farmer’s son named Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a young man who is facing increased responsibilities as his dad (played with considerable gravitas by an occasionally incoherent Ian Hart) struggles to adapt following a stroke, and a Romanian farmhand named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), who is moving from farm to farm in the area in search of work.

At first Johnny – who has not come out at the start of the film – berates Gheorghe with insults, the line between mere flirtation and racist ignorance somewhat blurred, but the two men become closer during a stay away from the farmhouse to look after some ewes. Though the structure mirrors that of Brokeback Mountain, this is in every other way a very British film; the Yorkshire scenery is a major factor, beautiful but often wet and windswept, and you can see and feel its harshness, even when out of focus during the many close-ups and mid shots of the two main actors. And then there’s the typically male, typically Yorkshire dialogue: communication between men in this drama is nearly always blunt and any discussion of emotions or attempts to repair relationships are to be avoided at all costs. In this sense it’s interesting to compare Johnny’s inability to express his feelings with Gheorghe’s own verbal struggles – he is a quiet chap and, though it’s obvious to say so, English isn’t his first language. So the relationship looks like it’ll be a struggle from the get-go, and watching this play out is pretty enjoyable. It’s a strong debut from Lee, with good performances and impressive photography. (***½)

Borg vs McEnroe

Watched: 15 February

I enjoyed this dramatisation of the early days of the rivalry between ice-cool tennis champion Björn Borg and hotheaded pretender to the throne John McEnroe, which focuses on the 1980 Wimbledon championships and culminates in an excellently-staged re-enactment of their gripping men’s singles final. The two leads – Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf – do a pretty good job, although hanging around with LaBeouf’s McEnroe, who enjoys London’s nightlife and seems altogether more human (on-court outbursts and all), is much more fun than watching Gudnason’s Borg mope around town. The film is partly concerned with the psychological damage that the two men suffered as boys, the suggestion being that both players’ personalities were shaped in different ways by the strict training regimes they endured from a young age; it’s also interesting to observe the way in which they manage stress and pressure throughout their tournament matches. The big shame is that the film ends after the 1980 final, though, and that their rematch (and Borg’s subsequent retirement) a year later only gets just a couple of lines prior to the credits. It’s a punchy, straightforward snapshot of two great sporting careers, but there are a few sports movie cliches to contend with, as well as the nagging sense that there’s so much more to the relationship between these players than we get here. (***)

The Past (Le Passé)

Watched: 14 February

Like his previous film A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is concerned with a marital break-up, to a certain extent, although in this later drama the situation is far more complex than the one in that earlier, Oscar-winning piece. There’s a moral quandary at the heart of both screenplays, and you get the sense that Farhadi’s main aim is to engage the viewer in the rights and wrongs of the scenario and cajole even the most reticent into making their own judgements. Here there’s a love quadrangle, of sorts, involving a man named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) who returns to France from Iran to finalise a divorce from his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo, typically good); in the interim, Marie has entered into an affair with Ali (Tahar Rahim), a married man whose wife is in a coma. It’s this later part of the situation that really muddies the waters, especially when various characters realise they may be directly or indirectly to blame for certain acts that lead to (or perhaps relate to the cause of) the coma. It has very good performances and a strong screenplay that keeps you invested in the characters, though as with the director’s other work don’t expect a neat resolution. (***½)

Mountain

Watched: 12 February

This eye candy-heavy documentary by Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa) looks at our fascination with the world’s highest peaks, and the ways in which we attempt to ‘conquer’ them, though Willem Dafoe’s narration carefully distances the film from such human arrogance, instead waxing lyrical about the majesty, scale and otherness of various mountain ranges. The assembled footage is quite incredible – much of it made with drones, I am assuming – and despite my familiarity with a few pieces of the pie (e.g. The Ridge, the short film about stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill’s rather stupefying ride across the top of the Cuillin Hills on Skye) it’s hard not to have your heart in your mouth as the likes of free solo climbers negotiate sheer rock faces and wingsuit flyers pass through rock crevices at high speeds. The various skiers, snowboarders and extreme sport dudes who appear aren’t named or interviewed, which keeps the focus on the mountains that dwarf them, but it’s a shame that the various locations aren’t listed either (Everest aside). (***)

The Guns Of Navarone

Watched: 11 February

Better than your average WWII adventure, although considering Gregory Peck is such a charismatic actor his stoic hero here is a little dreary – certainly when standing next to fellow gun-destroyers David Niven and Anthony Quinn, anyway. I grew up watching big war movies with stellar casts like this, and I’d say it’s up there with the likes of Where Eagles Dare – if a little predictable at times. (****)

Paddington 2

Watched: 11 February

Paul King’s Paddington sequel expands on the rather lovely first film, revisiting certain locations and characters while also finding the time for an entertaining prison-set sequence, a terrific train-based finale and some sweet pop-up book-style stop-motion animation – the latter a lovely and cleverly-incorporated homage to the BBC/FilmFair Paddington TV series of the 1970s. There are several funny comic moments, some wonderfully over-the-top performances (Hugh Grant as a villainous luvvie, Brendan Gleeson as a tough prison chef) and it’s worth saying once more that Ben Whishaw is perfectly cast as the titular Peruvian bear. There’s just a hell of a lot to like, to be honest, and watching it in a cinema full of chuckling, excited children on a Sunday morning was a real treat. (****)

A Bad Moms Christmas

Watched: 11 February

Not quite as funny as the first Bad Moms film, but not without merit, mostly because the excellent Kathryn Hahn reprises her role as baddest bad mom Carla. Like other low-brow American comedy sequels of recent years this simply pulls the trick of dishing up similar gags (the women get drunk and cause havoc while doing the Christmas shopping in a mall, etc) and introducing a few new characters; here we get to meet the protagonists’ parents (there are three new older moms here, played with relish by Christine Baranski, Susan Sarandon and Cheryl Hines), but it runs out of steam long before the end and there’s a nagging sense that the whole affair could be… badder. (**)

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Watched: 10 February

British heritage period piece about the life of ‘Winnie The Pooh’ author AA Milne (Domnhall Gleeson), focusing on the creation of his enduring stories for children and the way that this shaped his relationship with son Christopher (Will Tilston, Alex Lawther). It’s certainly not bad but there’s something tiresome about the way it insistently puts forward an idyllic, yellow-and-golden-brown-hued view of England during the 1920s and 1930s (only briefly dispensing with the notion that it was permanently magic hour and summer back then for a couple of clumsily contrasting dark n’ muddy trench-cliché sequences set during the two world wars).

I’m yet to be fully convinced by Gleeson, who has carved out a successful two-prong career: I get the appeal of him as a go-to leading man for British filmmakers – he has delivered a few decent performances playing semi-manic fringe-y mumble-stumble guys – but I simply don’t see the versatile character actor that Hollywood’s casting directors seem to be in love with at present (his scenes in the Star Wars franchise are only remotely memorable because of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren). Sadly the two more interesting actors appearing in this film (Kelly Macdonald and Margot Robbie) are very much playing second fiddle, and I thought it a shame that the relationship between man and boy takes precedence over the more complex and awkward three-way dynamic between Christopher Milne, his nanny and his mother.

The obvious intention was to make something sentimental and classy that appeals to Milne fans and plays well abroad with audiences that appreciate those rather narrow views of what England is (and was), and to that end this is a success… but it’s a type of filmmaking that I find really boring and there’s nothing new being said here about father-son relationships or the creative process. (**)

My Happy Family

Watched: 10 February

A well-acted Georgian film by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, in which the central character Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) decides that she has had enough of living with her family and moves out of her home and into her own apartment. She is seeking more space, both physical and mental, and it’s soon obvious why that is the case. As well as her husband Soso and her children, various grandparents and others also co-habit in a fairly cramped house, and by the looks of things barely a topic goes by without everyone having their say on the matter; it would seem that years of this have combined with Manana’s general feeling of being underappreciated, as well as her will to assert (or possibly reassert) her independence. The act of moving out of the family home is considered shameful within Georgian society, so much of the best drama comes once Manana has flown the nest, with various family members reacting incredulously; rumours begin to circulate that Soso has been physically abusing Manana, because a few of the characters can think of no other logical explanation for her decision. Though My Happy Family is very much in a minor key, there’s not a single duff note from the cast and the interplay between characters is well worth studying. (***½)

Collateral Beauty

Watched: 10 February

Terrible film in which a man (Will Smith) tries to get over the death of his young daughter while his colleagues/friends (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña) unkindly drag him through some protracted screwball comedy gubbins that involves tricking him into thinking he’s seeing apparitions (the apparitions are, in fact, played by hired actors). Naturally everyone learns valuable lessons and all turns out fairly well… except for one character, who has the Big C. The impressive cast – which also includes Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley – is completely wasted. It’s a mess. (*)

The Odyssey (L’Odyssée)

Watched: 9 February

Biographical drama about Jacques Cousteau. It’s fine, if ultimately forgettable: the performances are OK and there’s some lovely, crisp underwater photography that’s reminiscent of The Big Blue. We see too much of the mundane aspects of Cousteau’s life, though, such as his attempts to secure funding for his expeditions and films, and there’s not enough celebration of the magic of the ocean. (**½)

The 15:17 To Paris

Watched: 9 February

A film about the incredible story of three very brave young American backpackers, who tackled and subdued an armed man before he could murder an entire train’s worth of people en route to Paris. Director Clint Eastwood has even cast all three men as themselves in his latest film, which is a brave, meta move, albeit one that ultimately means The 15:17 to Paris often looks, sounds and feels like a bad TV movie. We shouldn’t judge the film solely on their acting, of course – these guys are non-professionals, and it’s worth considering just how traumatic reconstructing many of these scenes might have been for them – but there has to be a question mark over Clint’s direction, as every other performance in this film (ie those undertaken by professionals) is below the standards you might expect.

Structurally it resembles the superior Sully, teasing glimpses of the train incident throughout before we get to see it in full during the final act; and like that earlier film you get a sense of Eastwood’s fascination with ordinary people who are suddenly forced to step up to the plate and become heroes in order to save the day – and he really emphasises the mundanity of their school lives and careers in a big way, which serves to underline just how abnormal that big moment is/was. Unfortunately the ruminations on destiny – in a nutshell, God has a plan for us all – that are contained throughout are cringe-inducing, and there’s a horror-show of a sequence that follows the three men as they backpack around Europe; whoever thought it would be a good idea to score the arrival of two characters in Rome with stereotypically-French accordion music, for example, needs to take a good, long look at themselves.

A final thought: one of the three men, Anthony Sadler, serves as the narrator at the start; the narration is dispensed with fairly soon thereafter, and we learn next-to-nothing about Anthony’s family, education or career subsequently, although two family members (parents?) do show up during the real-life footage of a reception with François Hollande that appears at the end. With regard to the other two, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos, we see plenty of their mothers and their military careers. That seems a tad strange, but is perhaps indicative of a lackadaisical approach by Eastwood. A very interesting film, and an unusual one, in some respects… but the core, self-reflexive idea hasn’t worked out well at all. (*½)

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Watched: 9 February

Fun second episode that carries on where the first Hellboy film left off, with Guillermo del Toro once again putting Ron Perlman’s world-weary, snarky, cigar-chomping demon scrapper to good use. As you would expect the production design is superb – even better than the first film – and I liked the increased reliance on steampunk-inflected sets, outfits, etc. The plot is instantly forgettable, but never mind. (***)

The Battle Of Midway

Watched: 8 February

Harrowing documentary footage of Pacific fighting during World War II, directed by John Ford. The effect of the footage is lessened somewhat by the glib narration. Interesting propaganda piece. (**½)

The Cloverfield Paradox

Watched: 8 February

There are a few links here to the previous two Cloverfield films, but increasingly this has become a cobbled-together franchise for unloved, unoptioned and unfilmed genre screenplays that have been floating around Hollywood, and results have become somewhat mixed, rather predictably. This instalment of the alien invasion saga takes place almost entirely within a space station, where the scientist crew (another League of Nations bunch, following on from those in The Martian, Life, Alien: Covenant et al) stand around for much of the movie blandly delivering expository dialogue (Daniel Brühl draws the short straw and has to say the majority of it) or staring at things (monitors, levers, each other) with looks of horror or confusion plastered across their faces. There’s a nice line in strange, inter-dimensional occurrences at times, but ultimately it’s a dull, utterly derivative affair that brings nothing new to the genre and shamelessly cribs from much better films; you all know which ones. And Chris O’Dowd’s comic relief turn is the worst. (*)

Phantom Thread

Watched: 7 February

Yet another richly-textured, atmospheric and constantly fascinating drama by Paul Thomas Anderson, centering on a woman (Vicky Krieps) who becomes both muse and lover – very much in that order – to a couturier (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1950s London. Both newcomer and supposedly-retiring old hand deliver excellent performances; Krieps’ character Alma is a waitress who is presented as a naïve ingénue at first, meekly accepting a subordinate role or position within the House of Woodcock, the fashion house named after Day-Lewis’ temperamental, celebrated, fussy designer Reynolds Woodcock; this is also where he lives, petulantly demanding conditions of silence over breakfast, and also a place where her presence will begin to be felt more keenly. She gradually establishes a stronger, more dominant voice, and the psychodrama that surrounds her gradual increase in confidence (tied-in with episodes of poisoning) provides the film with a strong narrative… thread. Reynolds, meanwhile, is a man who has never come to terms with the death of his mother and is struggling to accept the fact that the fashion world is changing apace; he knows he is unable to keep up, and though his austere, lavish evening gowns are undoubtedly beautiful they already seem dated by mid-50s standards to my untrained eye. The world is moving on and leaving him behind, rendering him irrelevent.

The third major presence in the house – and the third great performance in this film – is Cyril, played superbly by Lesley Manville, who was nominated for an Academy Award but inexplicably always seemed to be on the periphery of this year’s Oscar conversation. She is a de facto mother for Reynolds, and manager of both his household and his House. Initially skeptical of (threatened by?) Alma, Cyril slowly, gradually accepts her presence… and eventually comes to admire her strength of character.

It’s a film that – despite its more immediately satisfying moments of tension and humour – is mostly made up of subtle scenes of character development that linger in the mind afterwards. It has great production design, a wonderful score by Jonny Greenwood (another Oscar robbery, though that kind of thing never raises my blood pressure, to be honest) and the 35mm print obviously looks fantastic; Anderson’s attempts to roughen or dirty up the image, incidentally, dials back the lavishness of it all a little. I’d be keen to see it again to make sure, but I think it just falls short of the director’s very best work; I prefer the films in which the pleasures are more immediate, and obvious. (****½)

Machines

Watched: 6 February

Rahul Jain’s film shows – in some depth – the workers and workings of a textile factory in Gujarat, India, the camera slowly moving around the giant machinery and huge rolls of material, occasionally catching napping employees presumably exhausted on account of their twelve-hour shifts. The conditions are poor, and the men here earn roughly $3 per day for their toil. There is little context provided, but it’s hardly difficult to get a handle on what you are watching, and to help things along plenty of people are interviewed; included in the number is the boss of the firm, who tries and fails to dismiss concerns about the working environment and low pay, while the most effective scene sees a number of frustrated employees – many of whom have relocated in order to work here – gather round the camera and bemoan the fact that nothing will change for them after the director leaves and the film gets released. (***½)

Moolaadé

Watched: 5 February

Ousmane Sembène’s last film, Moolaadé, is set in a small village in Burkina Faso, and its plot is set in motion when a mother named Collé (who is also the second of a man’s three wives) refuses to let her daughter’s genitals be cut, which is sadly a practice that is still commonplace today. (UNICEF estimate around 200 million women in 30 countries have had their genitals mutilated, and as roughly 15-20% of girls die during or after the process it’s entirely possible that tens of millions have perished as a result of this act within the past eighty or ninety years.)

To prevent either her daughter’s death or a lifetime of pain, Collé draws a symbolic rope, or Moolaadé, across the front of her house, which offers a magical protection and stops women elders from entering and taking her daughter away. Though Collé and others are outspoken and challenge the long-held traditions and the views of local (male and female) elders, I wouldn’t describe the film as angry, per se, and more as being one in which you can feel a sense of simmering discontent at the resistance to change. It is concerned with so-called ‘green’ Africa and the general refusal to accept or listen to ideas, news etc. that come from the wider world, with radios and television sets in particular featuring as symbols of the repression of speech. (By the end a stack of burning radios is a permanent fixture in front of the village’s striking clay mosque, while a TV further exasperates an already-strained relationship between a father and a son.) It’s a beautifully-shot film with a strong moral message, and the various hierarchies that exist within Collé’s house and village are clearly set out for viewers who might not be familiar with village life in Burkina Faso. (***½)

Dirty Pretty Things

Watched: 4 February

Stephen Frears’ drama looks at the lives of immigrant Londoners, with characters from a number of different backgrounds finding some common ground with one another as co-workers within the Baltic Hotel (actually Whitehall Court in Westminster). The plot is concerned with illegal organ harvesting – a trade that’s actually being carried out within the hotel itself – as well as more general exploitation of the characters, and while those are interesting topics it does seem to take rather a lot of attention away from the home lives of characters such as Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Nigerian cabbie/desk operator Okwe and Audrey Tautou’s Turkish cleaner Senay, although the roundabout point being made is that these people are working so hard to stay afloat in an expensive city (or to send money to family members in the countries they have left behind) that any leisure time is simply spent catching up on sleep. However, Frears fails to find much time to properly explore Senay and Okwe’s (developing, platonic) love for one another, which is a shame as it’s an intriguing thread and the two leads are on good form, the make-up and costume department having done a stellar job in terms of ‘normalising’ two strikingly good-looking actors.

Frears sets Sergi López’s hotel manager Juan up as the villain of the piece – and anyone who has seen Pan’s Labyrinth knows how much he relishes such roles – but the character is a one-dimensional, hissable bad guy where others, such as Benedict Wong’s mortuary employee and Sophie Okonedo’s prostitute (this is a film that very much defines characters by their jobs) seem far more realistic. I thought occasionally of the London night-time world of Mona Lisa because of these characters and the things that some of them are up to, even though the city changed immeasurably in the years in-between the two films; the two do share a certain seediness, though.

Director Frears and screenwriter Steven Knight are both white, born and raised in England and (I assume) were reasonably affluent at the time of making this, given their earlier career successes; perhaps not. Anyway, I don’t have any objection to people making films about places, situations or characters with backgrounds that they may not be immediately familiar with, but perhaps if a similar film were being made today we might benefit from the voice of someone who had actually lived and worked in London having moved to the city from another country. (***)

The Belko Experiment

Watched: 4 February

There’s a rather fun premise here that plays on the dog-eat-dog, cutthroat nature of corporate life, with all the attendant backstabbing, ruthlessness and selfishness that one associates with employees who are desperately trying to make their way up the greasy pole. The story is set within an American company’s isolated office block in Bogotá, where the 80 or so foreign nationals who work there, each of which has an implant in the back of their heads (supposedly a tracking device to monitor whereabouts in case they ever get kidnapped), are suddenly locked in without prior warning and given a series of instructions that they must carry out – and let’s just say that these instructions put a fresh spin on the notion of team-building exercises and ruin a few friendships. It’s all a bit silly, and eventually Wolf Creek director Greg McLean goes a little bit too wild with the gory visuals, but it’s a fun, throwaway genre piece with a few smart casting choices; though, that said, I’d have happily seen more of Michael Rooker and less of John C. McGinley. In a nutshell it’s the white collar Battle Royale, but James Gunn’s screenplay can’t match that film’s wit. (**½)

Mother!

Watched: 3 February

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother Earth parable is certainly a visceral experience, especially during the second half, in which Jennifer Lawrence’s character ‘her’ is terrorised by hordes of unwanted and uninvited visitors in her house, several of whom start to attack her (a couple of scenes here arguably go too far in depicting the violence, but hey, maybe that’s just me).

There are plenty of grisly, horror-style sights too – decaying, still-beating hearts, blood travelling along the floor and seeping along walls, creatures in the bathroom, etc) – all of which seemingly stem from an act of original sin that’s committed during the first act, and are apparently signs that the house in which the entire film is set (i.e. the Earth itself) is slowly and then rapidly dying while humans strip it of all its assets. There’s a measured, gradual build-up to this at first, with Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer intriguing as (I presume) Adam and Eve, and Domhnall and Brian Gleeson playing Cain and Abel figures; by the end, though, you feel like Aronofsky has been bludgeoning you around the head with his metaphors and his religious stand-ins for two hours – presumably the director’s commentary features him eagerly barking the questions “Do you get it? How about now? How about now? How about now?” for the full 120 minutes.

I was impressed by the commitment to the cause, though: clearly the entire cast and crew were on board and behind Aronofsky, and the house is a fascinating setting, seemingly big enough to have secret areas but also small enough to suddenly appear full to the brim as the camera whizzes round 180 degrees. And whizz it most certainly does; the cinematography is restless, the focus often snapping back onto the face of Lawrence, who is shot in medium close-up and looks perplexed for the first 90 minutes and then miserable for a further half-an-hour. I’m loathe to jump on the ‘masterpiece’ bandwagon, as I don’t think mother! is anywhere near as clever as its maker thinks it is, but it’s undoubtedly an interesting and unusual film that offers a rather damning, myopic and finger-wagging critique of humanity and organised religion, and it’s also a bit of a technical marvel. (***½)

Trophy

Watched: 3 February

Like me, you’ll probably approach this documentary with a pre-existing opinion on ‘canned’ big game trophy hunting, or hunting more generally; it’s something that I disagree with, although after seeing this film I am more aware of the arguments in favour of it than I was beforehand. This is a work with a very even-handed approach to its subject matter: for all the sickening images of rich American holidaymakers standing over the magnificent lions, tigers and other animals they have paid considerable amounts of money to slaughter in the name of sport, there are also compellingly-put arguments that highlight the amount of money that such tourism brings into South Africa (the country that features the most here), and how in turn that money is subsequently spent on certain conservation projects or how it is used to combat the illegal, unchecked poaching of, say, rhinos and elephants. That said, although Trophy shows us how arguments for or against hunting are not quite as black and white as many of us might think they are, ultimately the witless, arrogant utterances of several hunters here – including one religious nutjob – ensured that my pre-existing views on the matter were well and truly cemented by the end. (***½)

In Between (Bar Bahar)

Watched: 2 February

I really enjoyed this drama by Maysaloun Hamoud about three different women in Tel Aviv, who are each grappling with problems that relate in different ways to struggles for independence, equality and tolerance within a patriarchal, conservative society, though the city does appear to be a more progressive place than the outlying smaller communities that are briefly depicted here. The main characters – two old friends and their new flatmate – are all very well drawn and well acted by Mouna Howa (playing Layla, a lawyer who will not compromise her personality or independence when she enters a new relationship), Shaden Kanboura (Nour, a student whose husband-to-be exerts control over her life) and Sana Jammelieh (Salma, a DJ and a lesbian). The story examines the hedonistic, modern lifestyles that Layla and Salma enjoy and contrasts this with the more conservative corners of Israeli society, from which Nour emerges. It’s hard hitting at times, and it’s pretty damning of the country’s menfolk, with just one male character depicted in a wholly positive light (a gay friend of the women). Good direction and a strong screenplay. (****)

Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer

Watched: 2 February

Richard Gere has been picking some very interesting roles of late, and continues his recent penchant for playing older men on the fringes of society with Norman, a fixer who claims to know just about everyone within New York’s Jewish community (though there’s never any clear evidence that he actually does). In this film by the much-celebrated Joseph Cedar, Norman sets out to befriend an up-and-coming Israeli politician, a calculated move that brings rewards (of sorts) when said politician subsequently becomes the country’s Prime Minister. Suddenly and briefly – and this is shown via one superb sequence which takes on a fantastical air as well as a vaguely nightmarish tone – everyone in town wants to be Norman’s friend, aware that he might have the Prime Minister’s ear and (potentially) access to vast sums of money. But ultimately Norman is a chancer, part wannabe and part delusional loser with a slight whiff of De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin about him; and as the title of the film attests, any status or influence he enjoys will only ever be fleeting. We don’t learn much else about this well-turned-out but mysterious man – he has a lawyer nephew (Michael Sheen), but otherwise there’s no suggestion of a family and we don’t get to see where he lives – but Gere completely sells the character, aided by small and effective supporting turns (Lior Ashkenazi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Steve Buscemi, Isaach de Bankolé, Dan Stevens and Josh Charles round out the cast). It drags a little, at times, but there’s a light touch to most of it. (***)