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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. (***)

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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)

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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. (***)

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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. (***)

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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)

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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)

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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. (***)