Sunday, July 29, 2018


MARY MAGDALENE is a truly beautiful, nuanced, finely acted and imagined film that genuinely does something new with a hackneyed story. It stars Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene - not a reformed whore and temptress of popular myth, but a thoughtful, caring woman who has the fortitude to escape an arranged marriage to follow an inspirational leader.  She becomes his companion and befriends the apostles - but there are no leering gazes or temptations. Rather a quieter tension about interpreting Christ's message and legacy.  To Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), she is a distraction. His aim is worldly power in Jerusalem. For Mary, the meaning of Christianity is compassion and personal kindness. Somewhere in this miscommunication is a tragic and awful misunderstanding on the part of Judas.

Director Garth Davis (LION) has created a quiet film of great passions with a studious script by Helen Edmundson and Phillippa Goslett taking back seat to imaginatively created moments. Early on we see a terrified Mary exorcised in a lake at night by her father and brother because she refuses to marry. It's a stunning imaginative invention.  Later, when Christ (Joaquin Phoenix) wrestles with a possessed man he seems himself in reflection. And is there anything as heartbreaking as Tahar Rahim's Judas on his knees begging Christ to resurrect his dead daughter? All of this carries an emotional weight because it stands in contrast to the muted dun-coloured palette of Greig Fraser's photography, the simplicity of the exterior landscapes, and the austerity of Johan Johannsson's score. But at the moments when Davis uses CGI and set pieces - he is also superb. The rendering of turn of the millennium Jerusalem from a distance is quite breath-taking - as is his evocation of a temple crowded with people, money-lenders and blood sacrifices. 

MARY MAGDALENE has a running time of 120 minutes. 


Director Peter Landesman (the superb JFK assassination film - PARKLAND) returns to iconic American history with this character study cum procedural of how Mark Felt - a 30 year veteran of the FBI - helped the Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein expose the White House's involvement in the Watergate robbery and so triggered the resignation of Richard Nixon.

The resulting film is a handsomely shot and acted, compelling drama about a loyal man pushed to protect the integrity of his institution at great personal risk.  That said, he is also shown overstepping the mark in illegally wiretapping in pursuit of a terrorist group.  But overall, we are rightly meant to see Mark Felt as a hero. I loved the shooting style - Washington as a grey town full of grey men in grey suits.  I loved the subtle power plays - men overlooked for promotion - the flexing of political muscle. And I loved that Landesman allowed Felt to look compromised. Yes, he is doing something noble, but is there also a tinge of revenge against the man who got the job he wanted? This is truly nuanced and intelligent film-making and a must-see for all Watergate obsessives. 

MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE has a running time of 103 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film played Toronto 2017 and opened that year. 


On the back of the wild success of GONE GIRL and now the new TV miniseries SHARP OBJECTS, I was compelled to read Gillian Flynn's middle book - Dark Places - and was surprised to find that it had also received a big screen adaptation. I was even more surprised when I realised it had a stellar cast of big names, because it's release had utterly passed me by. Upon further investigation I realised that it had been horribly reviewed and went straight to video. Nonetheless, it's now available on a lot of pay per view streaming services so I decided to check it out. 

The plot of the film is remarkably faithful to the book which has - admittedly - a highly cinematic structure.  As with SHARP OBJECTS we open in the present day with a survivor of childhood trauma who will be our heroine. She's also falling apart - desperate for money, deeply emotionally scarred, self-medicating.  As with SO, she's sent back into her past to investigate a crime, except this time rather than being a journalist she's paid by a weird crime club of enthusiasts who believe that the testimony she gave as a child to convict her brother of murdering her mother and sisters was co-erced and that a grave injustice has been done.  And so the movie / book proceed by alternating scenes / chapters between the present day investigation and flashbacks to the day of the crime, culminating in a big reveal.

The plot is satisfyingly tricksy and gnarly and riffs off familiar topics from the WEST MEMPHIS THREE case - accusations of satan worship and child molestation. But as with all SO, I've come to believe that the point of Gillian Flynn's fiction is not so much whodunnit - it's perfectly possible to enjoy it having guessed that - but exploring the margins of American life - the people left behind by globalisation, suffering under bad debt and addiction, living from pay cheque to pay cheque and falling apart. It's this social observation of post financial crisis America that makes for compelling reading. That, and Flynn's eye for the grotesque - the stink and sounds and horror of life that other authors choose to avoid. She is a deeply visually impressive author.

And that's really the problem with this plot-faithful but atmosphere-blind adaptation. The director and production designers and costume designers just won't let it go grungy enough. Charlize Theron is also horribly miscast - this stunningly beautiful amazonian woman just doesn't look malnourished, maladjusted and on the poverty line. Her childhood just isn't dirty and shambolic enough.  Christina Hendricks admittedly does better at looking beaten down as her mother, but she has to look truly broken - a woman who would resort to the desperate - and she doesn't. The only people who really look perfect are Chloe Grace Moretz as the vampy teen girlfriend of the convicted man, and Drea De Matteo as a washed up stripper.  Otherwise this entire film just isn't gritty, grimy and grungy enough - and contrasts poorly with the production design and slippery memories of SHARP OBJECTS

DARK PLACE has a running time of 113 minutes and is rated R. It went straight to video in 2015. 


I was ready to love LOVE, SIMON, even predicting I might cry by the end. All I knew was that it was a very well received teen romance about a kid called Simon coming out - a long over-due mainstream look at a seminal moment for any gay teen. The movie starred Jennifer Garner as the mum - so was bound to be aw-shucks lovely and earnestness - and even had two of the cast of 13 REASONS WHY - Katherine Langford and Miles Heizer - for teen credibility. 

But as the movie unfolded I found myself alienated by its interior design perfection. Perfect house, perfect room, perfect parents. Simon listens to perfectly curated cool music and has perfectly curated politically correct diverse friends. I guess this is the point - when life is so perfect - why risk alienation from it by coming out? And so Simon resists coming-out, even though his parents are so huggingly-warm-hearted and liberal.  Rather, he submits to a blackmailer at school and sells his friends out.  I'm sure this is meant to come across as a genuinely tough decision but it struck me as just really shitty and selfish, for a kid who was probably going to have the easiest coming out in history. 

The rom-com grinds through its wheels. Third act alienation of all friends. Fourth act redemption. And ends with a happy politically correct resolution. But it just left me as limp and unexcited as the poorly executed mid-move college-set dance number - clearly inspired by (500) DAYS OF SUMMER.

It all got me wondering just how radical this film really was. When I grew up I was watching Ricki deal with high school bullying and sex on MY SO-CALLED LIFE with a level of authenticity way beyond anything here. Is this really the progress - or regress - we have made in thirty years? That, dear reader, is truly depressing. It also got me wondering how actors could go from a show that attempts something as raw, and truthful, and unpatronising as 13RW, into something as banal and airbrushed as this.  For shame. Still, for all that, I'm glad this movie exists insofar as it can give comfort and inspiration to any kids out there.  I just don't need to see it again.

LOVE, SIMON is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 110 minutes. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018


DESPICABLE ME has become one of the most reliably inventive, funny and heart-warming of the children's animation franchises, and doesn't disappoint with this short, sharp three-quel.  

Steve Carrel reprises his role as the reformed ex-villian Gru and Kristen Wiig as his wife Lucy. As the movie opens both are fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing to apprehend Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) - a delusional former child-star intent on revenge on Hollywood.  Gru sees a shot at still capturing Bratt when he meets his super-rich long-lost twin brother, Dru.  Of course, Dru is a useless super-hero but he does have lots of cool gadgets.  Meanwhile Lucy's story arc sees her try to become a mum to Gru's girls.  

The resulting film is fast-paced, full of great action set pieces and lots of genuinely funny physical comedy.  As usual, the movie works on a number of levels - with enough bright colours and silliness for the kids, and lots of 80s nostalgia for the grown ups. The use of 80s pop hits is particularly on point, and Corey Feldman must be suing for image rights!

DESPICABLE ME 3 is rated PG and has a running time of 89 minutes.