I Called Him Morgan

Watched: 13 August

Engaging documentary about the brilliant but under-appreciated jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot and killed by his wife Helen in a club in 1972 at the age of 33. It feels standard to begin with, as talking heads lament the loss of a prodigious young talent and share stories about live performances and other events. However, as it approaches the subject of Morgan’s death, director Kasper Collin’s film becomes more and more interested in the life of Helen, and it kind of turns into a documentary about her life, which is every bit as fascinating as Lee’s. It’s complemented by wintry images of New York and, unsurprisingly, an excellent soundtrack. (***½)

Savages

Watched: 13 August

Bright and colourful, yes, but ultimately this Oliver Stone thriller is empty and unsatisfying. The story pits drug-dealing, perma-boning surfer-hippies (Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson) against Mexican cartel members and rogue DEA agents (Benecio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta), and it has a slight 90s vibe as a result of all these shady characters, most of which feel like cheap Tarantino or Elmore Leonard knock-offs. Lots of overacting ensues, as well as a few shootouts, some frankly bizarre character decisions and a good dose of Californian and Mexican sunshine. It’s so forgettable I can barely remember anything about the film as I type this, just three weeks after viewing it, but I kind of admire Oliver Stone for making something so completely unfashionable. (**)

Christiania

Watched: 11 August

A documentary about Freetown Christiania, an area of Copenhagen that was transformed by hippies into an idyllic, tolerant commune during the 1970s, and one that has continued to evolve and grow in interesting ways ever since; in fact, thanks in no small part to the easy availability of weed, which is sold openly from makeshift stalls on Christiania’s infamous Pusher Street, the area has been referred to as being Denmark’s fourth biggest tourist attraction. This is a low budget film with few bells and whistles, but there are interesting interviews with residents, who are keen to discuss all manner of issues, and the brief glimpses into their lives are fascinating. (**½)

Top Of The Lake

Finished: 10 August

Ordinarily I don’t record watches of TV shows here, but I’ll make an exception for Top Of The Lake, the New Zealand-set police-procedural starring Elisabeth Moss, David Wenham, Peter Mullan, Tom Wright  and Holly Hunter. It was, after all, screened in its entirety on the big screen at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals a few years back (indeed the follow up, Top Of The Lake: China Girl, made its debut at Cannes earlier this year). Clearly its creators – principal among whom is the New Zealand director Jane Campion – wish for it to be considered as a piece of work that straddles the worlds of film and television, something emphasised further by the BBC’s decision to release it as a box set on its iPlayer service, inviting a viewing in a single session for those with enough time on their hands (or, perhaps more realistically, anything from three to six sessions).

Anyway, the first series is one of the better TV dramas I have seen in recent years. The story centres around the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl of mixed race descent, and while much of the story is concerned with the search and its aftermath, Top Of The Lake‘s themes go much further, incorporating sexual abuse, the commonality of relationships that exist between men and women at home, in the workplace and elsewhere, the treatment of teenagers by adults and much more (all shot with, of course, a spectacular backdrop of South Island scenery). I’d have liked to have seen it stretched to 10 or 12 episodes, and unfortunately a couple of deaths of characters in the local community are weirdly forgotten about quickly and conveniently, but overall it has a range of well-drawn characters, some excellent performances (Moss and Mullan in particular) and a pervasive and persuasive darkness that I liked very much. (****)

A Date For Mad Mary

Watched: 10 August

It’s a shame that this Irish film – generally well-received at home and by reviewers in other countries – didn’t get a UK cinema release. It has a certain amount of spark, even though it’s still a fairly straightforward drama, in which main character ‘Mad’ Mary McArdle (Séana Kerslake) tries to reconnect with friends and family in Drogheda after a short spell in prison, reacting to their prejudices and lack of support with a mix of frustration and anti-social behaviour. A well-worn premise – Mary needs to find a date for ‘best friend’ Charlene’s wedding – actually ends up leading somewhere interesting, as the screenplay explores Mary’s queerness while a believable romance develops with folk singer Jess (Tara Lee). Kerslake and Lee both deliver good performances that suggest promising futures. (***½)

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Watched: 9 August (August Blind Spot)

What’s noticeable, viewing Spielberg’s Close Encounters for the first time 40 years after it was first released (I know, I know), is how slow it is. Like many other blockbusters of the era, it doesn’t have anything like the kind of frenetic pace we have since come to associate with such grandly-staged American sci-fi; Star Wars, released six months earlier, would change everything, of course, but only after 1977 was over and done with. No, this is a reflective, particularly unhurried film, and the intermittent four decades are keenly felt while watching. (That said, one of last year’s biggest hits, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, was very much cast from the same mould.)

Anyway, the slow pace ensures that there’s plenty of space between the few scenes here that depict UFOs, which filled lots of viewers with wonder in the 1970s and probably still do regularly today (though personally I think it all looks quaint now, and understandably so, rather than awe-inspiring). It’s space in which you can get a good feel for the characters played by Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon and even François Truffaut, and understand how their own very different experiences with aliens affect them or have affected them in unique ways. Of these, Dreyfuss’s Neary’s ambivalence when his wife leaves and takes their three children with her is perhaps the film’s coldest moment, and fairly shocking, but it does serve the picture well, reinforcing the notion that those who come into contact with the aliens are subsequently completely in thrall of or obsessed by them, and want to be with them or see them again whatever the cost.

Some scenes and themes just seem to sum up early Spielberg: the everyman protagonist; the rural middle-America locations; the crane shots that show the authorities carrying out a vast operation; the toys and appliances that shake and ‘come alive’ in a house at night (repeated in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Poltergeist, assuming the rumours are true); and the grandness of the finale at Devils Tower, Wyoming, where the director shows us something we haven’t seen before and finds the perfect – and I mean perfect – way of scoring it. Lots of things come together well here: the music, the acting, the way Spielberg builds to something big and makes good on the promise to give you something big (is there a director more deserving of the audience’s implicit trust?), the way an air of mystery is sustained right through to the final moments. Something, probably related to the passage of time and the way things and people change, is stopping me from loving it, though; doubtless I’d have thought differently had I seen it in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but I do admire the film. (****)

Five Came Back

Watched: 8 August

A short, illuminating documentary series about the careers of five important Hollywood filmmakers – Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston – during the Second World War, when they helped with the US war effort. It’s fascinating to explore the stories behind films as diverse as William Wyler’s propaganda drama Mrs Miniver and Ford’s documentary The Battle Of Midway, and there’s lots of insightful commentary from the select band of interviewees (Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Francis Ford Coppola). Meryl Streep narrates. A follow-up focusing on the army careers of the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable would be great. (***½)

Anvil! The True Story Of Anvil

Watched: 5 August

There’s certainly an obvious case for long-running metal outfit Anvil being a real-life version of Spinal Tap – and there are plenty of scenes here that recall Rob Reiner’s pioneering and much-loved mockumentary – but this film doesn’t just make the two principal, longstanding band members out to be jokes; it has real heart too, and serves as a celebration of the notion of following your dreams while also paying close attention to the effects such long-term optimism can have on individuals and families.

Anvil nearly made it to the big time, back in the 1980s, and as this film attests they have a few famous supporters, though when a couple of big names pop up here to say nice things you can tell they’re discussing a band they clearly haven’t given much thought to for 30 years. Anyway, as the action follows the two core members of Anvil through the course of a couple of years (wearying European tours, attempts to stick with crummy jobs and wasted trips to record labels), you begin to realise just how much is at stake for them, and just how much success – even if occasionally it’s just measured in terms of securing a one-off gig or a decent-size crowd – means to these men; as such only the mean-spirited will be chuckling throughout the film at those Tap-like utterances and situations. This is a lovely, heartwarming documentary and even though the music isn’t my cup of tea at all I have nothing but admiration for Anvil’s singer and drummer. Good guys. (****)

The Founder

Watched: 4 August

An unusual biopic about Ray Kroc, the man who ‘joined’ McDonald’s as a kind of uninvited partner – at least that’s how it is portrayed here – and later transformed the company into the world’s biggest fast-food franchise. It’s unusual in the sense that it spends the first hour setting Kroc up as a nice guy, a dreamer with a vision and a sense of the potential of McDonald’s, and a man who has the will and belief to see it through; it’s mostly shown as being positive. The second half, however, systematically destroys his character, emphasising his rather sneaky business acumen and single-minded ruthlessness in sidelining the franchise restaurant’s real founders, Richard and Maurice McDonald, as well as his first wife Ethel (an underused Laura Dern; Kroc’s second wife doesn’t feature and his third, Ethel, is played by Linda Cardellini, who is also underused). Michael Keaton is very good in the lead role, and the film sags a little whenever he is not on screen, though in truth he’s only missing for a handful of moments. It’s an odd piece of work that appears to be celebrating an American institution at times, yet also undermining it, faintly criticising the business practices and moral decisions that transpire as it reaches (or are required to happen in order for it to reach) a certain size. It could have gone further in terms of its criticism of the company, but doubtless wouldn’t have enjoyed as much corporate cooperation as a result. It held my attention throughout, anyway. (***½)

Man Down

Watched: 3 August

While not a complete mess, Dito Montiel’s Man Down is a slightly confusing picture, as for a long while it appears to be an odd, uneasy blend of Afghanistan-set war movie and post-apocalyptic drama. There’s a lot of jumping back and forth in time, and many segments share a similar look and ambience with The Walking Dead and The Road – all washed out colours and rust belt decay. Sadly, the film’s time-shifts are too numerous, given the short running time, and the visual style employed feels very tired as a result of its overuse elsewhere during recent years. Shia LaBoeuf delivers yet another intense, committed performance, and there’s an understated turn – finally! – from Gary Oldman, but ultimately this is a dreary affair and watching it quickly turns into a chore. The underlying points the film is trying to present about PTSD and the treatment of army veterans gets lost in the mire, unfortunately. (**)

Lourdes

Watched: 2 August

An excellent film by Jessica Hausner focusing on a woman with severe multiple sclerosis (played superbly by Sylvie Testud) as she visits Lourdes in France – a town of just 15,000 people with the capacity to cater for up to 5,000,000 Catholics on pilgrimages each year. Hausner is slyly critical of the whole set-up, or at least that’s how I read the deadpan shots of shops selling holy water and statuettes of the Virgin Mary, and there are also slightly more overt digs, for example characters looking on enviously when the ills of others miraculously heal (at least temporarily), or blasphemous jokes being told directly in front of life-size religious icons.

The director has evidently taken a lot of care in setting up her shots – there’s an incredible amount of detail in some of them, and so I suspect a second viewing would be beneficial, allowing me to take in the actions and reactions of many of the extras. The camera pans and zooms slowly, often from above, as if we have the view of a CCTV camera; scenes are not rushed and there is time to digest any subtext that might be going on, or dialogue that is intended to resonate (Hausner lingers, for example, when a matronly nun explains to a group that they have a ‘free’ day only to then set out two options that they must choose from, or when the same woman later excitedly announces a trip into the Pyrenees mountains before cruelly pointing out that those in wheelchairs cannot attend).

Sometimes long shots are used to highlight crowds or queues, which manages to illustrate the process involved with certain events or with regard to visits at certain holy sites, as well as the scale. There’s attentive and consistent use of colour, too, with red and a kind of ‘hospital’ blue predominant throughout, perhaps representing the simmering passion and unchecked coldness found within the group as a whole, and within certain characters. All of this combines to create a rather sterile, detached style, but I thought it worked really well, suiting the material perfectly. It’s hardly dialogue-heavy but characters are well-drawn and there’s a pleasing ambiguity to Hausner’s treatment of miracles and religion. Surprised that this film isn’t more widely known. (****½)

Detour

Watched: 1 August

A road movie/crime drama starring Tye Sheridan, Bel Powley and Emory Cohen that has a faint whiff of the early 1990s about it. (Seriously, is this the designated year for millennial True Romance homages or something?) There’s a slight twist to this one in that the structure and split screen employed leads you to believe that you’re watching alternative timelines unfolding, at least for a while (a bit like Sliding Doors, but with guns, Americans and desert roads), but it’s a sleight of hand trick that is really just an attempt to paper over a weak, cliché-ridden script, a barely-believable scenario and a decidedly ropey crazy bad guy performance from Cohen. Sheridan tries hard but fails to make his character interesting and Powley is wasted in an underwritten role as a stripper/prostitute, but there are at least a few good pulpy moments. (**½)

Rush

Watched: 1 August

A surprisingly low-key and now almost-forgotten film from 1991 starring Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a pair of undercover narcotics officers, both of whom struggle with smack addiction while trying to bust a Texan drug ring. It hasn’t aged too badly, but there are certain problematic aspects, such as Patric’s terrible scenery-chewing, some unlikely-sounding dialogue and a rather irritating and overly-intrusive noodly score by Eric Clapton (the soundtrack also includes his hit song Tears In Heaven). Jason Leigh is good, and there are also decent supporting performances from Sam Elliott, Max Perlich – an actor who I wish had done more movie work during the past 20 years – and Gregg Allman, who plays the local kingpin. (Allman doesn’t say much, and mostly just glares, so he’s actually quite a threatening presence.) A valiant attempt at a hard-boiled junkie cop drama that probably seemed more authentic at the time of release than it does today. (***)

The Runaways

Watched: July 31

Admittedly there isn’t much new to digest here if you’re a seasoned watcher of rock biopics, although the focus on an oft-overlooked all-girl band from the mid-1970s is at least different to the norm. In fact, aside from Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, I’m racking my brain to think of another band-oriented biopic that concentrates on women. The Runaways were Joan Jett’s first group, perhaps best known for their minor hit Cherry Bomb, though they were – as the film briefly shows – big in Japan. Kristen Stewart plays rhythm guitarist Jett with the kind of nuanced, embattled, nervy, slightly-withdrawn but also slightly-confident style we have subsequently seen her develop through the rest of this decade, while opposite her Dakota Fanning is at times a magnetic presence as lead singer Cherie Currie, whose gradual big-headedness is perhaps unfairly put forward here as being the main catalyst for the band’s eventual demise. The only other primary character of note is Michael Shannon’s necessarily OTT take on Kim Fowley, the songwriter and record producer who helped put the band together and send them on their way (his flamboyant guru appearances have a comic air about them, a little like Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s brief scenes as journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous; it’s worth mentioning, though, that the film is based on Currie’s memoirs and never touches on the allegations made by bassist Jackie Fox that Fowley raped her).

The progression of the story within scenes, and the order in which events play out, may be familiar – we see the band form, write their first song, negotiate their first hostile gigs before becoming more popular, leap wholeheartedly into the sex, drugs ‘n’ rock and roll lifestyle on the road and eventually implode in the studio once some band members start to envy the attention lavished on others – but it’s all done with such spirit and energy that I enjoyed it very much; its certainly much more fun than a few of the sombre, dreary and overly-reverent jazz biopics I’ve watched in the past year or two. This film actually captures the spirit of the band, and a certain flavour of the times, and hey, it’s got Kristen Stewart playing Joan Jett. (***½)

Tanna

A very beautiful and dramatic love story set on the island of Tanna (part of Vanuatu), which features the Yakel people as actors – most of whom either play themselves or versions of themselves. The story – about a doomed marriage and the way a relationship exacerbates tensions between rival tribes – is based on true events, and is similar in many respects to Romeo And Juliet; in fact the link is played up on a few occasions. It’s a simple tale, acted well, and there are certainly insights into the Yakel way of life, particularly in terms of arranged marriage and the way that women in this society can be used as bartering tools with other tribes. The element I enjoyed the most is the cinematography, with plenty of good use made of the stunning, volcanic landscape, particularly at night or at dawn. (***)

The Olive Tree (El Olivo)

A warm, sometimes-spirited Spanish drama – written by Paul Laverty of yer Ken Loach films – about a young woman’s attempts to find and bring home an olive tree that was sold against the will of her grandfather during the 2008 financial crisis, an incident that subsequently divided her family and which may or may not have contributed to the old man’s more subdued, withdrawn state of being. Once the basic elements of the story are in place it’s a rather predictable affair, and disbelief must be suspended as certain incidents play out, but the acting is fine and it’s competently directed by Icíar Bollaín. Laverty’s own politics are to the fore, with points made via his screenplay on the practices of big and small businesses, local corruption, the global economic crash and how the after-effects are still being felt in Spain; and in the lead character of Anna (Anna Castillo) we have a rebel with a cause, of sorts, who charms as these points are being made. (***)

The Mummy

Tom Cruise has rarely looked so serious while running around and doing his plane stunts and stuff. Honestly… he is really very serious here, as if he’s being paid by the grimace. Russell Crowe delivers another terrible English accent, just when you’d almost forgotten his abysmal attempt in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, but at least his character disappears for long periods of the film. I have little knowledge of the Boris Karloff Mummy films but this putrid blockbuster can’t even hold a candle to the swashbuckling, enjoyably silly Brendan Fraser movies of the late 1990s and early 2000s. There’s barely an original idea in here, but Cruise’s box office draw shows no sign of waning, and so despite the fact that The Mummy is a terrible start to yet another cinematic universe we will doubtless be seeing more along these lines soon enough. (*)

The Other Side Of Hope (Toivon Tuolla Puolen)

Aki Kaurismäki’s not covering any new ground with this latest deadpan drama, but if you like any of his earlier films then the chances are you’ll find plenty to enjoy here, too, and I’ll happily champion any work right now that is as empathetic and considerate with regard to Muslims who have desperately fled a war zone as this film is. The story revolves around a Finnish businessman who leaves his wife, wins a lot of money playing poker and then opens a restaurant, as well as a Syrian migrant from Aleppo, who arrives in Helsinki after stowing away on a boat transporting coal and finds himself on the receiving end of the Finnish man’s generosity. There’s irony and droll humour, but in all honesty I was more impressed by the film’s touching, serious, humane moments, of which there are several. I think it’s some way short of Kaurismäki’s best, but it’s pleasantly unassuming and well-meaning and there’s always room for that. (***½)

Stockholm, My Love

It pains me to say this about Mark Cousins, a man whose enthusiasm with regards to cinema is second to none, but this psychogeographical piece about Stockholm lacks the insight with regards to quotidian life, as well as the empathy with people and humour, that made last year’s I Am Belfast such an enjoyable treat to watch. To be fair, he obviously hasn’t set out to make the same film again, though this is a kind of ‘sister’ work, given that it too features a woman (in this case Neneh Cherry) who acts as a kind of tour guide for people who know that a city’s heart and soul and life and stories all lie beyond familiar tourist hotspots. I’m not sure if she is supposed to represent Stockholm in the same way that Helena Bereen represented Cousins’ home in that earlier mix of fiction and non-fiction, but watching Cherry walking around and discussing her memories is captivating enough, even though I felt a building frustration that the filmmaker wasn’t quite getting to grips with the city itself. But it has its moments, if you’re in the right mood. (**½)

A Quiet Passion

High quality biographical drama from the ever-classy Terence Davies, in which Cynthia Nixon delivers an excellent performance as the acerbic, witty, forward-thinking American poet Emily Dickinson. It looks great, as it has wonderful period production design, and it’s often very funny, with Dickinson’s superbly caustic zingers arriving regularly throughout (many of which, if anything, are as good as or better than any line in Whit Stillman’s similarly-impressive Love & Friendship). However Davies and Nixon manage to create a strong sense of Dickinson’s loneliness here as well, and that seems to be more important than the humour; Davies explores the way in which the poet’s lifestyle allowed her the freedom to create, yet she is presented as ultimately unfulfilled, and missing out on something crucial: an intimate relationship. It’s clear that the director sympathises very much with his subject, and there are times in which she feels like she could be a proxy. Surely this film is about the director’s own life and work as much as it is Dickinson’s? Davies seems to be lamenting his own periods of loneliness, his own struggles with religion or of living in a repressive society that is overly-concerned with the church’s view on certain subjects. Many lines in the script and recurring themes reinforce the idea, but the beauty of this film is that it is easily one thing and another… and as a tribute to an artist it is both thoughtful and sincere. (****)

Harmonium (Fuchi ni Tatsu)

Typically, a small home features prominently in this Japanese family drama, in which an ex-con goes to live and work with a man who we later discover is indebted to him, as a result of an unseen act carried out years beforehand. The ex-con, perhaps through desperation, or perhaps – as we discover later – for some other reason, has no shame in imposing himself on the family’s territory, but he quickly begins to show his value, first helping the young daughter with her harmonium lessons and then later developing a friendship of sorts with the mother. Having the action take place in a small, cramped area means that both pre-existing and previously non-existent relationships between these four characters develop quickly, as each struggles to find the privacy they once took for granted (and indeed struggles to cope without it), and as things change between them there’s a grim inevitability that things are going to go wrong at some stage. (When it does happen, director Kōji Fukada deals with two incidents in a rather matter-of-fact, distant manner, which conversely seems to emphasise the oddness of the day in which the incidents take place.) The film is split into two parts; the first, leading up to two terrible events, is suffused with dread, the second – set years later – a suffocating sadness and a sense that a new character’s genuine attempt to put things right is just going to lead somewhere very dark indeed. Good performances all round, and Fukada uses a visual style that’s comparable with (or influenced by) other acclaimed, modern and historic Japanese directors, in which the home and the surrounding urban area are presented without much in the way of photographic bells and whistles. (***½)

Tokyo Idols

Kyoko Miyake’s documentary explores the phenomenon of pop idols and the people who worship them in Japan, which is to say it’s about mostly male otaku of a certain age fawning and obsessing over teenage and pre-pubescent female J-pop singers. In doing so it follows an idol-on-the-rise, Rio Hiiragi (know to her followers as RioRio), as her career begins to take off, and also weaves in plenty of footage of adult men going wild at small-scale concerts, as well as decidedly creepy behaviour at fan meet-and-greets. The director allows the audience to form their own opinions on this behaviour, though there’s little explanation for western audiences who may be unfamiliar with Japanese culture; this is a country where youthfulness and cuteness is celebrated in many different ways, after all, and the film never properly sets out how idol worship sits within that culture, or whether many people in Japanese society have linked it to paedophilia. I’d have liked to have heard less from the middle-aged male otaku and more from the psychologist, whose many concerns about the way young women are depicted in Japanese culture are fascinating but never fully explored by the film. This is an intriguing documentary, but also frustratingly slight. (**½)

To The Bone

A recent made-for-Netflix movie that takes on the subject of anorexia nervosa, written and directed by Marti Nixon, and apparently based on her own struggles with the eating disorder. Far be it from me to comment on the realism of the material here, or how it might be viewed by those with eating disorders, but it has been criticised by others for simplifying the causes of anorexia, and a leading UK charity – Beat – has even urged sufferers to exercise caution before deciding whether or not to watch it. Anyway, Lily Collins stars as Ellen, a 20-year-old woman who is convinced by a leading private doctor (Keanu!) to join his inpatient programme, which involves staying in a kind of convalescent home for an indeterminate amount of time. Several other patients are resident in the house at the same time, including a young and immensely irritating English fop named Luke (Alex Sharp), who becomes Ellen’s love interest. I’m afraid my main problem with this film is this English character, who made me either cringe or recoil in horror every time he appeared on screen; I wonder whether he’s based on a real person, and can only hope – for Marti Nixon’s sake – that he isn’t. Leaving Luke aside, clearly an attempt has been made to make a ‘no holds barred’ film – a ‘graphic content’ warning for viewers pops up at the beginning – but I suspect it may have been softened at some point by Netflix, as I didn’t spot anything particularly harrowing. A disappointment, though certainly not awful. (**)

Dunkirk

In a way Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed and much-loved Dunkirk is the logical conclusion of ‘set piece’-oriented blockbuster filmmaking, because even though he has three stories of varying length playing out concurrently (and edited superbly) in this WWII drama, his 100-minute-long film is effectively one very long, very tense sequence that builds and builds to a particularly thrilling finale. That’s an awful prospect for us to consider, particularly when lesser directors try and pull of something similar, but in this particular case I was gripped throughout and felt for the first time in a long time that I was watching a blockbuster worthy of the name. Anyway, just to be clear, Dunkirk is also much more than just an extended, bravura action sequence; it has Mark Rylance’s kind-faced performance and Tom Hardy’s narrowing eyebrows; the icy Channel and the miserable rain-swept beach; Harry Styles’ unexpectedly effective panic and Hans Zimmer’s wonderful metronomic score. With regard to the latter, among the upbeat nature of the finale (some of which doesn’t quite sit right, such as Kenneth Branagh’s clunky delivery of the line “Hope”), I did really love how the composer incorporated Elgar’s Nimrod. That was beautiful and I was surprised to find myself fighting back the tears and swelling with pride; to imagine at this point a granddad or other relative making their way back – sans musical accompaniment – is bound to affect many people (and I certainly don’t understand why anyone would sneer at or look down on such a reaction in other cinemagoers). This film is a superb technical achievement and an extremely effective way of playing with narrative threads; and one of the finest war films since Saving Private Ryan, if not the finest.

Prevenge

As per Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers – which she co-wrote and starred in – Alice Lowe’s Prevenge takes as its subject someone who is fairly quiet and unremarkable: here her character Ruth doesn’t dress outlandishly or seek attention in any other way, but she is heavily pregnant and liable to slit your throat before stabbing you repeatedly in the chest, just to make sure that you’re definitely dead. So the two films are about normal, unassuming women who just happen to be on killing sprees. In Wheatley’s film she has a partner, but in this film – which Lowe filmed in a fortnight in Cardiff a short while before giving birth – she acts alone (unless you count the voice of her unborn child, which is apparently urging her on to stab, slash and smash a great number of skulls in). The comedy largely comes from the scenario, and there are a few droll lines here and there, though I’m not sure how well they will travel. Lowe is a funny writer, and a good deadpan actor, but the marriage of humour and kitchen sink drama with extreme violence doesn’t quite do it for me. (***)

Shampoo

Another smart movie from Hal Ashby about the American middle and upper-middle classes, Shampoo is a sly, wry take on sexual mores of the late 1960s, prominently featuring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie (who appeared together in the earlier McCabe & Mrs Miller and were romantically involved off screen as well as on). Beatty plays George Roundy, a high-end hairdresser in a relationship with Goldie Hawn’s good-natured Jill; he is sleeping with other women, though, and pines most for his old girlfriend Jackie (Christie), supposedly the only woman with whom he has been in a serious relationship. Complicating matters further, George’s mistress Felicia is married to his potential new business partner Lester, a man who is currently having an affair with Jackie. (In simple terms, barring a couple of exceptions, everyone in the film is sleeping with at least two other people.) The characters here are less likeable than those in Ashby’s other films of the era, save for Hawn’s, who is portrayed for much of the film as a naive woman who will put up with just about anything, but is actually one of the first and only people who sees George for what he truly is. As a protagonist, George isn’t particularly sympathetic, but Beatty certainly looks cool at times as he cuts a swath through LA on his motorbike, all frilly shirts and big hair billowing in the wind. The film’s downbeat ending is deliciously at odds with the preceeding frothy, light and rather amusing comedy. (***½)

Gifted

A light and likeable drama from (500) Days Of Summer director Marc Webb, who is on what seems to be more comfortable ground after back-to-back superhero movies. Coincidentally, this drama stars Captain America Chris Evans, playing an apparent maths genius named Frank, a man who has turned his back on academia for a stress-free life of boat repairing. The film’s about his relationship with niece Mary (McKenna Grace), a gifted child who he is raising and sending to a ‘normal’ school, and the custody battle that ensues when Frank’s estranged mother (Mary’s grandmother) insists on Mary being tutored. There are a handful of decent courtroom scenes and some syrupy, warm moments between Mary and her surrogate father, which are often pleasingly witty. Webb seems to like precocious child characters, as there was also one in Summer, and I guess the nicest thing I can think to say about this film is that said character here isn’t too annoying and the film in its entirety is better than it sounds on paper. (***)

A Most Wanted Man

A modern spy thriller directed by Anton Corbijn and based on the John le Carré novel of the same name, A Most Wanted Man largely eschews action in favour of intense, dialogue-heavy scenes – as you’d expect from a story concerning money laundering and the funding of terrorism. Various subplots explore loneliness, loyalty and the international nature of terrorism today, but the film’s central game of cat and mouse is between two western governments that are supposedly on the same ‘side’ and should be cooperating; one embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s German agent, the other by Robin Wright’s American diplomat. Both actors are good, and there’s an impressive supporting cast, which includes Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Danie Brühl and Nina Hoss. (***½)

Spider-Man: Homecoming

There’s little point in me adding to the cacophany of noise surrounding super-hero films, but, briefly, I’ve been at a point for about four or five years now where I’m going to see them out of habit, knowing what I’ll get and leaving resonably happy for the most part (it helps, of course, if the film doesn’t suck hard on the withered, hairless, gnarled scrotum of Gollum). It’s a bit like returning to the same tried-and-tested sandwich place for lunch: you know there’s probably better out there, but it’s comfortable, and nearby, and it’ll do, and occasionally it can be pretty damn good, anyway. Spider-Man: Homecoming, which features Tom Holland as the latest incarnation of Peter Parker/Spidey, successfully brings its protagonist back into the high school milieu (given his age, Andrew Garfield pottering about by the lockers was ridiculous) and cements the character’s place within the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. You get the usual three big set-pieces (the best of which takes place in and around the Washington monument) and the ever-watchable Michael Keaton plays villain Vulture, though his descent from ordinary, upstanding citizen to threatening, murderous gang leader doesn’t quite ring true. Holland is fresh and bright and Robert Downey, Jr.’s supporting turn as Tony Stark/Iron Man still just about cuts it, though I’m beginning to tire of the smug shtick. I guess Spider-Man is feeling a little well-worn, too: this is the seventh film to feature the character in 15 years, and I guess it’s some achievement that watching it is a fun, light experience that doesn’t leave you pining for Sam Raimi. (***)

One More Time With Feeling

With most music documentaries the degree to which you enjoy the film will largely depend on how much you appreciate the work of the subject, above all other factors. I suppose that despite this film’s fascinating insight into mourning, trauma and grief, and how it can all feed into the creative process, that has to be the case here, too. Made by the excellent Australian director Andrew Dominik, One More Time With Feeling is the second film to feature Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in two years, and the band’s music features prominently via several live studio takes of songs from Cave and co’s latest album, Skeleton Tree. This record, infamously, was already being recorded when Cave and his wife Susie tragically lost their 15-year-old son Arthur, who fell from a cliff near their home in Brighton (Arthur appeared briefly in the earlier Bad Seeds documentary 20,000 Days On Earth).

Cave subsequently re-wrote some of the album’s lyrics and re-recorded some of the songs; we see black and white footage of these sessions here, Dominik’s camera dollying around the musicians while they play, and there are also extensive interviews with the Caves as well as briefer ones with Warren Ellis, who has gradually emerged as the singer’s most important writing and recording partner during the past 15 years or so. It’s an intimate, reflective and extremely sad film, as you would expect, but also one depicting people who are trying to make sense of their lives amid all the sorrow, and to move on and carry on with their work, as it is the only thing that can help them to remain on even keels. Cave’s analogy of feeling like he is tied to Arthur’s death by way of an elastic band, able to move away but always eventually being snapped back to the trauma, is just one illuminating moment, but at times I wondered whether I should have the right to peer in on someone’s life in this way, particularly when such a devastating event is clearly so raw for all involved. It is, though, as sensitive a film as you could hope for, and the music that has come out of all of this, in my opinion, is magnificent. (****½)

Minority Report

A long-overdue rewatch of one of Steven Spielberg’s most entertaining recent films, and another science fiction movie that mined Philip K Dick’s ouevre successfully. In this story, set in the near future, three pre-cognitive beings can predict murders before they take place, meaning perpetrators can be arrested before the act of killing has actually occurred; Tom Cruise is the top dog in the ‘pre-cog’ crime division, responsible for stopping the murders and making arrests, though his position is threatened by a supremely cocky interloper played by Colin Farrell, whose attempt to out-Cruise Cruise pays dividends and kicks off an intriguing cat-and-mouse dynamic between the two (it’s a real shame they don’t share three or four more scenes together). Samantha Morton is also very good as the ‘main’ pre-cognitive being, the action is exciting and the effects and inventive production design offer similar thrilling pleasures. It’s close to being one of the best action films of the 2000s, but sadly it bears a rather limp final act, and perhaps placing a greater emphasis on the main character’s drug addiction might have lent a little more insta-weight to proceedings. (****)

It’s Only The End Of The World (Juste La Fin Du Monde)

Xavier Dolan’s sixth film lives up to its fatalistic title and continues with the oppressive, hemmed-in feel the director employed to great effect in Mommy, though where the ratio suddenly changed in that film to denote the main character’s brief mental escape from daily life, here there’s no such let-up (a car journey looks like it could be a chance for characters and viewers to take stock and relax for five minutes, but it turns out to be a scene that’s just as uncomfortable to sit through as anything else). It’s a five-hander, featuring lots of close-up shots, and like Trey Edward Shults’s similarly awkward Krisha it concerns a family tentatively welcoming back an estranged member, in this case Gaspard Ulliel’s young playwright Louis, who apparently lives a short flight away but hasn’t seen his nearest and not-so-dearest for 12 years. He has a terminal illness, and is visiting so that he can tell his family the bad news, and even though they are apparently not on great terms they are at least seemingly pleased to see him. Present in the house are Louis’ matriarchal mother (Nathalie Baye), younger sister (Léa Seydoux), aggressive and bitter older brother (Vincent Cassel) and his older brother’s wife (Marion Cotillard); it’s her status as an outsider, of sorts, that seems to attract Louis, and despite the fact we know that Louis is gay there seems to be some kind of attraction implied by Dolan, going beyond mere kinship, as he leaves the camera lingering on their pregnant, lengthy exchanged glances. The performances are good – no surprise given the quality of the cast – and yet as the film ended I was left wanting more; perhaps more from Dolan, rather than the actors, as the director seems to be on slightly more restrained form here than in his other films (you may think this is no bad thing, though). Either way, it’s quite good and certainly undeserving of all the immature booing and catcalls it apparently received at Cannes last year. (***)

Wonder Woman

It has taken a long, long time, but finally we have a blockbuster based on a female superhero who leads, rather than one who follows others or is merely a non-descript cog in some team or other’s wheel. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman – the latest big budget movie to depict DC’s expanded, none-more-murky universe – has plenty of feminist credentials, occasionally couched in asides that make fun of the sexism of the 1910s, the period setting for this story, and Gal Gadot’s performance as the titular Amazon warrior is impressive (whether she’s in physical combat with German soldiers during World War I or contributing to the film’s many tender or lighter moments). There’s also a good turn here by the consistently reliable Chris Pine, playing second fiddle. The leads have enough chemistry to make you believe and care about the relationship that develops between their two characters, meaning there’s the kind of emotional payoff here that has been sadly lacking from most superhero movies of late, DC or otherwise. It also has more humour than the other DC-related offerings, which is welcome given we’re going to see plenty more of Henry Cavill’s stoic and bland Superman and Ben Affleck’s growling, mirthless Batman in the next few years.

Unfortunately, though, these improvements are ultimately housed within yet another tightly-controlled and predictable superhero origin story, which hits the same old beats with showy, expensive set pieces that culminate in a grand night-time battle with the big bad, and it’s a shame that there’s no real attempt to break away from the tried-and-tested, formula-abiding superhero movie structure. I understand, though, that for many people the presence of a woman in the lead role means that this isn’t simply more of the same. For me, as much as I’m pleased to have seen this overdue day arrive, I’m no fan at all of the style that has been imposed on this franchise by Zack Snyder and others, which subsequent DC universe directors and DoPs – Jenkins included – are slavishly adhering to; this is as heavy on the slow-mo as Snyder’s Superman and Batman films, as well as David Ayer’s ballsed-up Suicide Squad, though at least it does not share with those movies a general lack of interest in real human beings. So, for a few reasons, this is a step in the right direction. (***)

Baby Driver

Many people have been effusive with their praise for this new high-octane musical drama from Edgar Wright, and it’s not hard to see why it appeals: there are several sequences in Baby Driver – particularly near the beginning – that are incredibly enjoyable, marrying sound and vision in a way that makes you want to stand up and applaud the creativity, planning and technical expertise while the damn thing’s still playing. Those sequences are reason enough to recommend this film, about a young, tinnitus-suffering getaway driver (‘Baby’, Ansel Elgort) paying off a debt to a criminal mastermind (‘Doc’, Kevin Spacey). Sadly, though, after an initial rush the effects of several of Wright’s decisions begin to irritate, or at least withdraw some of that earlier goodwill. First of all the characters here are a fairly weakly-drawn bunch, though no-one suffers quite as badly as fantasy diner waitress Debora (Lily James), who apparently has no friends, family or life outside of work when Baby shows up with promises to turn her road trip dreams into reality. Wright has deliberately opted for a cartoonish, insult-trading bunch of thieves in Doc’s gang, which is fine, but unfortunately certain nastier acts that subsequently take place don’t feel earned, and though the director tries to pull off a surprise with regard to the villain of the piece, it simply doesn’t work at all. (One character in particular has an arc so staggeringly unbelievable it comes close to undoing all of Wright’s good work up to that point.) The writer-director has cited Walter Hill’s The Driver as a key influence, and there’s also plenty of Tony Scott’s True Romance in there too, in terms of the film’s simple central love story and the way in which we’re asked to turn a blind eye to (or accept) any of the violent acts committed by Baby or Debora. Yet the relationship never feels like anything other than a pastiche of Tarantino’s writing, and I’d given up hope long before the awful montage that concludes the affair at the end. At times, though, Baby Driver‘s a hell of a lot of fun, with a pulsating soundtrack and terrificly showy editing by Wright regular Paul Machliss. (***)

As Good As It Gets

There are a few good (Oscar-winning or nominated) performances in this New York-set dramedy by James L Brooks, including Jack Nicholson as Melvin, an obsessive-compulsive disorder-suffering misanthrope (a character who doesn’t hold back with regard to racist, sexist and homophobic slurs), and Helen Hunt as a kind-hearted waitress who, incredibly, still takes pity on him and continues to serve him in a busy diner; Greg Kinnear is OK, too, as a gay artist who lives next to Melvin in the same apartment block. It’s the small acts of kindness Nicholson’s troubled writer bestows on the other two that propel the narrative forward, indicating to us that his character is not all bad and also serving as the catalyst for the unlikely bonds that develop between the three. It feels very much of its time, instantly recognisable as a 1990s film, and it’s hard to imagine something similar today that focuses on such an unlikeable character being such a big box office hit. There are some wry lines in Brooks’ screenplay (co-written with Mark Andrus) but it eventually becomes apparent that they’re loaded towards the beginning of the movie; I got tired, in the end, and unfortunately started tuning out. (***)

Pineapple Express

Every generation gets the stoner comedy it deserves. Here’s one starring, y’know, those current stoner comedy guys, recycling the same old jokes. (**)

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

There are times during this film when you get a sense of the old, mischievous Tim Burton, but this time-travelly YA novel adaptation is only fleetingly impressive, and once the story has been set in motion it hits all the requisite beats as young loner Jake (Asa Butterfield) goes from troubled teenage zero to world-saving hero. It’s a little like a gothic X-Men, with the excellent Eva Green’s Mary Poppins-esque Miss Peregrine watching over a group of children with disturbing special abilities; along with a firestarter and an invisible man, there’s also a kid who has a giant, snarling mouth in the back of her head, a boy who emits bees and a disturbed young gentleman who creates robot-style creatures that he then turns on one another in vicious, bloody battles. Some of this, coupled with the Pan’s Labyrinth-style monsters that attack Peregrine and her charges, is (I assume) too disturbing for small children, but Burton isn’t exactly making a film for adults either; in fact I’m surprised it did so well at the box office. Samuel L Jackson snarls his way through another generic, over-the-top villain performance and there are supporting turns by Chris O’Dowd, Judi Dench, Alison Janney, Rupert Everett and Terence Stamp that equally serve to establish the spirit of the affair, but sadly too many of the child characters are poorly written, the grandfather-father-son relationship at the heart of the film is cliched beyond belief and the internal time-travel logic is occasionally baffling (wormholes, loops, days repeating over and over, etc. etc.). (**½)

About Time

A year or two ago I would have been cynical about this Richard Curtis film, which is like all the other films Richard Curtis has written in many, many ways. However, post-parenthood, I was welling up by the end, and though it’s transparent in its attempts to push emotional buttons it all worked effectively on me. I suppose it helps when you have two leads (Domnhall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams) who share really great chemistry. Best to just go with all the time travel stuff in the film, though, which seems to occurs to two different men when they go into a cupboard or closet alone. Um, OK. (***)

The Sting

My Blind Spot for July. George Roy Hill’s con-men caper requires little in the way of introduction, having won seven of its ten Academy Awards nominations in 1974, including Best Picture and Best Director. It also earned a hefty $160m at the box office, the largest amount that year (The Exorcist was second and American Graffiti third) which means it’s surprising that when people discuss the Robert Redford and Paul Newman movie they’re probably referring to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Anyway, both the stars are on great form here, particularly Redford as small-time grifter Hooker, who unknowingly rips off Robert Shaw’s Oirish mob boss Doyle Lonergan and finds himself in very deep, very hot water as a result. There’s plenty of humour as Hooker teams up with Newman’s legendary con man Gondorff (and many others), the pair setting out to take even more money from the gangster while also paying him back for an earlier murder, and yet there’s a cold, brutal edge to the movie too, with comic chase scenes (soundtracked by Scott Joplin) and the like often giving way to moments of quick, nasty violence. There are entertaining performances all round, including Robert Earl Jones (father of James), Eileen Brennan and Charles Durning, but the real joy is in the plot, which includes several twists and turns and will keep most people guessing the outcome until the very end. Lots of fun, a terrific script, lovely attention to period detail and splendid cinematography by Robert Surtees, too. (*****)

Plastic Galaxy: The Story Of Star Wars Toys

A short documentary that I assume is only really of interest to Star Wars fans, and even then only the ones of a certain age who played with the Kenner toys in the late 1970s and 1980s (I still regret to this day giving my parents the go ahead to give them all away, but at the age of 41 I probably ought to let it go). The collectors interviewed here are exactly how you probably picture them: slightly nerdy, wearing t-shirts, mostly men (only one woman appears) and usually over 40, driven by a need to maintain links with their respective childhoods and an innate desire to, erm… hunt and gather. They’re actually pretty insightful about their collections, the history of film and movie tie-in toys and with regard to Kenner, the company that made the Star Wars toys when other manufacturers stupidly passed on the opportunity. Kenner designers and other staff came up with several very successful and imaginative marketing ploys to both create and satisfy demand during the early days, and several are interviewed here, which are on balance the more intriguing sections of the documentary. Of course it’s also packed with people getting excited about things like rare Boba Fett figures (I could have lived without knowing the difference between an ‘L-shaped’ rocket-firing figure and a ‘J-shaped’ rocket-firing figure), but if you get a little buzz at the sight of a plastic Dengar or a lightsaber extending from Luke Skywalker’s hand, then you’ll probably enjoy this. (**½)

The Virgin Suicides

I used to have Sofia Coppola’s debut on VHS, but it must be 15 years since I last watched it. It was an unusual, striking piece of work in 2000 and, somewhat unsurprisingly, it remains so today; not just for the hazy, dreamlike filter Coppola applies to the suburban American 1970s milieu, but also because of her empathy for and overall treatment of the teenage characters here (both the girls and the boys – they’re equally well-observed – even if a few are allowed to make more of an impression than others). The film’s best sequences – though not all of its best lines – can be found in the bittersweet second act, which begins with the family recovering from the suicide of youngest daughter Cecilia and ends with Kirsten Dunst’s Lux and Josh Hartnett’s swaggering Trip Fontaine – recently crowned Prom Queen and King – having sex on the school football field. The whole sequence builds to a terrific, earlier crescendo at the prom, with Coppola making wonderful use of Styx’s AOR anthem Come Sail Away.

Though the superb middle section has common ground with period coming-of-age comedy dramas like Dazed And Confused and even Stand By Me, it’s during the earlier and later parts of the film that The Virgin Suicides strikes out into different, often uncomfortable territory; it’s hard not to think of Peter Weir’s dreamy Picnic At Hanging Rock when you see the ill-fated Lisbon sisters in their oversized dresses and modesty-protecting nightgowns, imposed on them by their over-protective mother (Kathleen Turner on fine form); the two films also share a sense of the uncanny, and both feature strong female connections that undermine and frustrate adult characters. There are extremely dark moments in Coppola’s first and third acts, but also odd snatches of unexpected humour surrounding the men in the film: witness for example the gang of teenage boys with their telescopes and binoculars, straining for a view as Lux makes out with pizza delivery men across the street, and even the way the extent of the mental health problems that begin to affect her father Ronald (James Woods) after Cecilia’s death is established in a comic scene in which he talks to plants at his school.

There is indeed a great sense of fun here, which caught people off guard in the early 2000s, assuming they hadn’t of course read Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel beforehand and were expecting a miserable movie because of the title. For example, Coppola adds a twinkle effect into Lux’s left eye when she first sees a stoned Trip in her classroom, a small touch but one that’s indicative of the director’s playfulness. There’s similar attention to detail elsewhere: text that occasionally appears on the screen throughout the film genuinely looks like it has been scribbled on the front or back cover of a girl’s diary, and there are often laughs to be had by listening to the background noise of projected movies and TV shows, which inadvertently offer witty contextual commentary. Coppola proves very adept at gentle ribbing of the cockiness of teenage boys, too, and there are painfully awkward scenes of their teenage lust and longing that I find very funny indeed. The one shame is that some of this softens the film’s intended emotional punch at the end; it has always seemed a little flat to me, with events entirely lacking the same kind of impact that Cecilia’s death near the start of the film has. Aside from this small mis-step, Coppola hardly puts a foot wrong, even with regard to her choice for the original score (a floaty, retro-sounding mini-album by Air) and Giovanni Ribisi’s narration, which never intrudes too much. (****½)

Okja

Netflix’s recent run of genre-hopping, tonally-mixed movies may have thrown up several notable failures, but at least the signs suggest that the platform is committing to creating interesting and unusual work with interesting directors, for the most part; one wonders what kind of freedom they are being afforded in relation to directors of similar repute working for more established, traditional studios. Every now and again there’s bound to be a success like Bong Joon-ho’s latest Okja, which seems to have been well received generally, despite those boos by (ironically) pig-headed cineastes at Cannes; in fact Bong has been quite vocal with his praise for the Netflix experience, though it’s hardly surprising given what happened with Miramax and Snowpiercer, which to this day remains unreleased in the UK (though of course there are ways and means of seeing it).

Okja is a mix of Spielbergian fantasy and adventure, light corporate satire and angry condemnation of the food industry, featuring at its heart the relationship between a young Korean girl and a genetically-modified, highly-intelligent giant (CGI) pig. Not all of it works, but it does at least hold your attention for two hours and it includes a couple of decent-ish performances (Seo-Hyeon Ahn and Paul Dano) as well as a couple of laughably over the top but watchable clangers (Tilda Swindon, Jake Gyllenhaal). Some bits are very sad indeed, some bits are high-octane fun, some bits are poorly plotted and certain scenes, performances and key messages jar awkwardly with others. But overall there’s something about its messiness and Bong’s exuberant desire to try on hats of all shapes and sizes that I like. I hope Netflix continues to take risks instead of playing it safe, even if it does mean this has to sit alongside intriguing but ultimately duff releases like War Machine and The Discovery. (***)

Graduation (Bacalaureat)

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s latest drama sees a chain of events unfold after a promising student (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is attacked outside her school, an incident that affects her ability to excel in a crucial exam with a scholarship to the University of Cambridge riding on the outcome. Her father Romeo – a doctor played with considerable skill and subtlety by Adrian Titieni – already appears to have a complicated life before he starts to interfere in proceedings, trading favours with local policemen, exam supervisors and grubby politicians; but the attacks that are already occurring on his home and car by a mostly-unseen vandal – incidents that are likely linked to the disintegration of his marriage/an affair with a local teacher – seem insignificant once the authorities discover his corrupt practices and begin to apply pressure for their own ends. Despite the fact the film is obviously commenting on widespread corruption throughout Romanian society, its focus never strays too far from the father-daughter relationship as it enters a new phase, and one finds out a lot more about the other’s character; by the end there is a quietly devastating sense of a loss of innocence and a loss of trust. It has an excellent script by Mungiu and there’s a really impressive ensemble performance at its heart. Bleak and downbeat, but also sincere and thoughtful. (****)

Why Him?

A dull comedy that wastes the proven comic talents of its two leads, James Franco and Bryan Cranston, who play a mismatched son-in-law/father-in-law to be (Franco’s a sweary Californian tech billionaire with tats, Cranston’s a respected but square Midwest paper merchant). It’s by John Hamburg, who has previously written Meet The Parents, Meet The Fockers and I Love You, Man, among others, and although he has experience and success with this kind of male-oriented pre-marriage-hiccups-comedy sub-genre I think this is his worst effort yet. The laughs disappear fairly quickly, and you’ve seen most of the scenes before in various other comedies; can we not move on from naff celebrity cameos or uncool adult characters losing their inhibitions after accidentally taking drugs? (*)

The Student (Uchenik)

Kirill Serebrennikov’s seventh film uses the character of a radicalised student within the microcosm of a high school to make points about religion, interpretation and tolerance within modern Russia, arguing that certain textual passages – they happen to come from the Bible, in this case, and are duly referenced on screen while being quoted – can be edited in such a way as to fit with an individual’s ideology, however extreme that may be. Pyotr Skvortsov plays the student in question, Venya, whose disruptive behaviour at home and in school threatens to get out of hand, while his nemesis is the progressive, forward-thinking teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), who must also fight a needlessly frustrating secondary battle with her superiors and the school system. It’s a doom-laden but good-looking film; criticism of organised religion and Vladimir Putin is forthright, though the director’s treatment of Russian educational institutions is markedly lighter, and occasionally even farcical. It’s also well-acted, but I think it runs out of steam, and it seems likely to me that the student’s public behaviour would be dealt with at a much earlier stage. (***)

Aquarius

This impressive, thoughtful and unhurried Brazilian drama by Kleber Mendonça Filho is arguably most notable for its excellent central performance by Sônia Braga, an actor who has worked on English language projects as diverse as Kiss Of The Spider Woman and The Cosby Show. Braga plays Dona Clara, a retired music critic, cancer survivor, widow and mother, and also the last resident of the titular beachside block of flats in Recife. Her apartment is full of history: it’s here that she beat her disease, raised her kids, shared memories with her husband, and it’s also full of her possessions, including her extensive collection of vinyl, in which every record is seemingly able to reveal a stage in her life or rekindle recollections of otherwise long-forgotten days. Understandably she doesn’t want her smarmy landlord-developer and his son-in-law to raze the building to the ground for some new (presumably high-rise or luxury) construction, and resists their offers as well as their underhand tactics. It’s a film about gentrification, and greed, and there is a central conflict between a plucky underdog woman and a couple of men with a business behind them trying to throw their weight around, but for long periods that seems to be on the back-burner. Aquarius, for the most part, is a reflection on time and (a particular) space, subtly exploring family relationships, individualism and memory, and the story recognises the importance of objects in a time when we are implored to chuck things away and live minimally, as well as questioning the idea that humans should always let go of the past and embrace change. It’s very good. (****½)

La Strada

One of the first things that needs to be said about Federico Fellini’s La Strada is how perfectly executed the casting process was. There are only three main characters, but each actor seems so suited to their particular role it’s quite easy to temporarily forget all the other work they made, which is not to be sniffed at. Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina is the expressive, wide-eyed Gelsomina, a naive and carefree young woman (perhaps with learning difficulties) who is suddenly sold to cruel, violent and unscrupulous travelling circus strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn); they’re both so good it’s difficult to imagine the original choices, Silvana Mangano and Burt Lancaster, playing this odd couple. Joining them is Richard Basehart as Il Matto… The Fool, the film’s third tragic figure.

Italian cinema at the time was still enjoying its new-found post-Mussolini freedom, and the neo-realism movement was by 1954 in full swing, though there hadn’t been anything quite like La Strada before, which is so shot through with fatalism and sadness it’s hard not to be moved by it long before the truly miserable events of the story occur. The action stays out of cities, by and large, and often seems to be on the outskirts of towns, such is the circus performer’s itinerant lifestyle. The other locations – shot by the great Otello Martelli and Carlo Carlini – such as those in the mountains and next to the sea, are oddly barren and uneappealing, as if to emphasise the harshness of nature, of life. Wedded to this is a sad diegetic and non-diegetic score by Nino Rota and those terrific performances. Quinn’s face looks like it has been carved from rock, and he makes Zampanò extremely detestable, but even after all his cruelty you cannot help but feel a sliver of sympathy for him during the final moments; his only act is to break chains that he tightly binds around his chest, the irony being he can’t break free from himself. (And the chain he uses is also a metaphor for Fellini’s intention with the film: the director unconventially uses the unreal, quasi-mystical background of circuses and travelling performers to break free of constraints that had been forming within Italian cinema, and to show other filmmaker peers that the style could move beyond just straight social drama.)

Masina’s memorable Gelsomina gives the film much of its heart. It’s hard not to think of several silent comedians as she lurches from frown to smile at the drop of a hat, the most famous of which would be Charlie Chaplin. Hers is one of the great performances of the era: she sells the character within her first scene, and you are always looking for her within the frame, watching how she reacts to everything that happens, feeling every physical and mental blow she receives. Masina’s acting makes this one of the great weepies. (*****)

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword

It’s hard to know where to begin with regard to this bizarre King Arthur origin story, which is in effect Guy Ritchie’s attempt to meld his own Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels wideboy shtick with Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. I’d love to take my hat off to the director, whose much-derided sword and sorcery epic eschews realism and any attempt at historic (or even mythological) credibilty for cockney bantaaaah and huge, grandly-staged battles, but unfortunately I’m not wearing one. I guess there’s an argument that the source material is ripe for Ritchiefication in much the same way Sherlock Holmes was, but for fuck’s sake Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur is wearing hair gel throughout this film – it’s just beyond ridiculous (though I have to concede it is a reasonable amount of fun as a result). Annoying that such a lot of money has been wasted, but at least it answers the decades-old “I wonder whether David Beckham can act?” non-question. (*)

Assassin’s Creed

Before I launch into negativity, this movie adaptation of the long-running video game series – which flips between the present and various locations in the past – does have a few things going for it: director Justin Kurzel has a strong, gloomy visual style – perhaps too strong – which seems to be a much more natural fit for this kind of material than his recent take on Macbeth; it’s not a million miles away from that developed by Zack Snyder, whose films tend to be… popular. And Kurzel does seem to have good casting agents working for him, as once again he has managed to get Michael Fassbender (playing a rebelling assassin) and Marion Cotillard on board, who both look committed while spurting out their lines from the script (which, it has to be said, is utter drivel). The same can be said for the various (wasted) notable supporting actors, which include a typecast, serious Jeremy Irons as a head of industry / Knights Templar bigwig, Charlotte Rampling as another serious and high ranking Templar, Ariane Labed and Michael K Williams as Fassbender’s serious fellow assassins and Brendan Gleeson as his serious father. Anyway, despite their collective furrowed brows Assassin’s Creed is a complete mess, and though the story is not impenetrable it will likely confuse many people who are unfamiliar with the games, as Kurzel never really manages to clearly explain the time-travelly business, how it has come to be possible, or why people are trying to achieve what they are trying to achieve (there’s some blather about control of free will that can be empowered by a golden apple, or something). Kurzel handles the running and jumping business quite well, and the sets are pretty good, but ultimately this a load of hairy old balls in a big, elaborately-decorated sack. (*½)