Monday, May 13, 2019

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM


This film is utterly without merit, joy, wonder or intelligence  It is a shameless cash-in on a tired franchise, without any of the majesty of the original.  Even worse, it teases us with memories of that film with an early cameo from Jeff Goldblum and a late cameo from BD Wong. Worst of all, it wastes the talents of arthouse director J A Bayona, who made the exceptional A MONSTER CALLS

In this new instalment, a few years after the dinos go bonkers on Isla Nubar, a volcano threatens to make them all extinct again. Goldblum's rational scientist argues for this but reformed park exec Bryce Dallas Howard now wants to rescue them as living creatures deserving of our help. In doing so she enlists the help of ex-lover and dino handler Chris Pratt, and is funded by James Cromwell's dying billionaire and ex partner of the park's original founder.  Of course, the moral of this series was always that the real monsters weren't the killer dinos but the evil capitalist bastards who sought to exploit them. And so it goes with this non-surprising plot-twist.

The whole thing is over-loud, over-long, emotionally involving and lacking in intelligence. Avoid.

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM is rated 12A and has a running time of 128 minutes.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

ARCTIC


Mads Mikkelsen is absolutely gripping as the protagonist in debut feature director Joe Penna's austere and impressive ARCTIC. This lean film begins in media res, with a downed pilot hunting for fish and eking out at existence in his crashed plane. The pilot seems capable and self-reliant but all the same one wonders at his mental rather than physical health.   The pilot's hand is forced when another plane crashes and its horrifically wounded pilot clearly cannot survive without proper medical health.  And so he makes the heroic decision to drag her to the coast and hopefully rescue, through extreme cold, over crevasses, in the path of a polar bear, and at great risk to his own survival.  Through it all we get the same moral quandaries thrown up for real in Kevin MacDonald's superb doc TOUCHING THE VOID.  Should Mikkelsen's character abandon the injured woman to save himself? How much of a risk is worth taking to survive? Do you risk everything to maybe be seen?

The film stands on Mikkelsen's deeply humane performance and the beautiful cinematography from DP Tomas Orn Tomasson shot on location in Iceland.  We also get a beautiful score by Joseph Trapanese (THE GREATEST SHOWMAN) - utterly essential in a film where the characters barely speak.  The result is an austere film that nonetheless is deeply moving and provocative. At once full of almost impossible questions and the majesty of nature but also deeply personal.

ARTIC has a running time of 98 minutes and is rated PG-13. It played Cannes 2018 and is now on release in the UK in cinemas and on demand. 

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN


CHRISTOPHER ROBIN comes to our screens with an impeccable pedigree.  It's director, Marc Forster, has previously explored the inner lives of iconic British children's authors with FINDING NEVERLAND. And its screenwriters have both written and directed award-winning films - whether Alex Ross Perry with HER SMELL or Tom McCarthy with SPOTLIGHT.  It also stars three charismatic British actors - Ewan McGregor as Christopher Robin; Hayley Atwell as his wife; and Mark Gatiss as his venal boss.  And the animation is really lovely - the characters of Winnie The Pooh are fluffy and cuddly and voiced by actors that truly bring them to life!  

And yet, despite all this, the movie just fails to spark interest or emotion.  Maybe its because the opening scenes of a work-worn middle-aged Christopher Robin take so long to establish. Maybe it's because we only see Christopher returning Pooh to the Hundred Acre Wood and having fun with all his childhood friends about an hour in. Maybe it's because even when his daughter meets the animals there still doesn't seem to be any real sense of joy in the film.  And without that, all we really have is a rehash of the story of MARY POPPINS. So, sadly, this is one to avoid. 

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is rated PG and has a running time of 107 minutes.  It is now available to rent and own.

PETER RABBIT


There's no meta humour in PETER RABBIT that will appeal to adults - no smart-arse wise-cracking pop-culture snark.  This live-action animation combo is a very old-fashioned slapstick comedy with a warm heart, earnest and charming in equal measure.  

The film opens with Beatrix Potter's iconic mischievous rabbits - Peter (James Corden), Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cotton Tail (Daisy Ridley) and Benjamin (Colin Moody) poaching scrumptious carrots from Mr McGregor's garden before escaping to his neighbour the lovely Bea's house.  When McGregor senior dies, Peter thinks he's victorious and can move back into the house once occupied by his beloved parents. The only problem is that Mr McGregor's nephew (Domnhall Gleeson) moves in and falls for Bea (Rose Byrne). Of course,  the OCD neat-freak McGregor Jr can't admit he hates the rabbits for fear of losing Bea, so the two sides engage in a covert slapstick war that's a bit like Home Alone with the rabbits as Macauley Culkin and McGregor as the trespasser. 

The resulting film is predictable and hokey but nonetheless beautifully animated, heart-warming and genuinely fun.  

PETER RABBIT has a running time of 95 minutes and is rated PG. The movie is available to rent and own.

WINE COUNTRY


What an absolute shame! With so much female talent in front of and behind the lens, I was expecting great things from Amy Poehler's directorial debut. But sadly, her story of a bunch of middle-aged women taking a holiday in Napa is dull and humourless, despite a script penned by, and many actresses from, the SNL stable. Poehler stars as the highly strung organiser of the weekend break in a beautiful house owned by Tina Fey's weirdly unemotional owner.  Both she and the ladies' husbands warn that the girls are bound to fall out and - in a sadly predictable and gender-stereotypical way - they do.  So while we get some moments of drunken bonding we also get plenty of passive-aggressive quibbling.  It all reaches its nadir when drunken Maya Rudolph sings in a wine bar and when poor Jason Schwartzman is forced to play a thinly written earnest chef cum driver.  There's really nothing new original or funny here.  Frankly, if you want to watch authentic, funny and moving depictions of female friendship you'd be better off watching the superb adult animated comedy TUCA AND BERTIE, also released on Netflix this weekend. 

WINE COUNTRY has a running time of 103 minutes and is rated R.  It was released on May 10th on Netflix. 

THE 15:17 TO PARIS


Remember back in 2015 when that terrorist nutter tried to cause chaos on a high speed train to Paris, but an Englishman a Frenchman and some Americans took him out?  Well, Clint Eastwood has made a film about the attack, taking the interesting angle of looking at how the three Americans grew up, in order to cast some light on why they took that courageous decision to have a go.  Eastwood is even more experimental - shockingly so - in that he casts the three real life men - Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone - to play themselves. The result is a film that is disarmingly simple, direct, authentic and surprisingly affecting. 

As the film opens we see the three men as kids, getting into scrapes at school, being split up as one leaves for school in another town.  You get the feeling that they're just normal boys, albeit boys brought up with strong mothers and for one of them at least strong faith and a strong sense of (military) service.  There's a kind of simplicity to their basic human decency and - at the same time - their almost moronic banality. They sound like most twenty something friends, when they're ordering beers and food in a Dutch bar with a raging hangover. To be sure they can't act - but that's kind of the point. That extraordinary things can happen to ordinary people.  But not all ordinary people react in the way these boys did.  Military training helps. Knowing your way around a gun probably does help, as much I hate to say it. And having strong moral values that compel you to insert yourself into the situation probably helps.

To be sure, Eastwood's brand of folksy patriotism and family values will grate on some viewers. I found myself having to detach myself for the allegory that could be made to a kind of interventionist military pro-gun policy.  But it's hard to be cynical when faced with such common decency and bravery. And as much as I was irritated by the lack of focus given to the French and British men who also fought back, I guess that's just the nature of the beast. And after all, Eastwood does give the final most emotional speech to a real life Francois Hollande. And I honestly did shed a tear when he spoke about humanity countering terror. 


THE 15:17 TO PARIS is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 94 minutes. It is available to rent and own.

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD


For a very long film, CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD has a lot of characters with very few lines, and even less to do.  There's the troubling casting of a pretty Asian woman as a mysterious but almost mute Nagini.  There's Ezra Miller (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN) as the troubled, mysterious but almost mute Credence.  Even the lead character, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) says little except in a cryptically shy mumble, his eyes shyly averted from his interlocutor's face and yet somehow aimed at their boobs. 

For a very long film, CRIMES OF GRINDEWALD also seems rather rushed and haphazard.  Scenes end in a jarring manner, mashed up against the next one. There's a feeling that things are happening in between that have been left on the editors floor.  Things that would help us understand what the frack is going on.  It's been quite some time since I've had to google the ending of a film to figure out what just happened, but I had to with this film on two counts!

So what's actually going on? There's a powerfully magically destructive kid called Credence. He may be able to take out Dumbledore (Jude Law).  Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is a kind of fascist anti-muggle bastard who's escaped prison and now wants to manipulate Credence into helping him take out Dumbledore.  It's not clear why Grindelwald can't go after Dumbledore directly. But maybe it's for the same reason that Dumbledore has to use his proxy - Scamander - to go after Grindelwald - because the two have a blood oath not to attack each other. Apparently this is because they used to be gay lovers. I know this because of the interwebs, rather than from anything the film might helpfully tell me.

What the movie actually consists of is a bunch of different characters wandering around Paris trying to find each other.  This is all very dull. What makes the movie worth watching are two things - first the absolutely ravishing costume and production design evoking an inter-war Paris - and the occasional moments of emotional impact - mostly revolving around the character of Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz.)  Leta is, like Credence, filled with self-hate and conflict. She's an old school friend of Newt, engaged to his elder brother, anxious about some childhood guilt, and flirting with joining Grindelwald.  By contrast, the less I had to watch Redmayne's Scamander - a bag of cliched tics and mumbles - the better. And his purported love interest - played by Katherine Waterston - is a charisma vacuum.  Dan Fogler is far more engaging as the muggle comedy sidekick but is criminally underused. And as for his lover, Tina Goldstein (Alison Sudol channelling Marilyn's breathy high-pitched voice), it's not clear why she would react to not being allowed to marry a muggle by following a fascist who wants to enslave muggles.

Not much of this movie makes sense.

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 134 minutes. It is available to rent and own. 

Sunday, May 05, 2019

PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING


I'm not sure if the sequel to the 2013 monsters vs robots gonzo action flick PACIFIC RIM was particularly "long-awaited" by anyone, especially when it became known that Guillermo del Toro had left the project to direct the Oscar-Winning THE SHAPE OF WATER.  Still, I rather enjoyed the loud gonzo silliness of the original and was mildly interesting in what the follow-up would be like despite its distinct lack of Idris Elba's hotness. The sad truth is that the sequel is a pretty humourless affair, with less of the carefree silliness of the original, and all to commercial a feel to it.  Directed by TV Hack Stephen S DeKnight of SPARTACUS fame, the film is efficient rather than joyous. And a final act twist that flatters the Chinese market is nakedly entrepreneurial. But the most disappointing part is the sheer lack of charisma from STAR WARS' John Boyega. He plays Stacker Pentecost's son, living in the shadow of his father's martyrdom and unwilling to step up to that responsibility Aragorn-stylee, until surprise surprise, humanity is once again under attack.  This film suggests that Bpyega's not yet capable of carrying a movie on his own but there is some fun to be had from Burn Gorman's camp self-conscious overly annunciated performance as the science-nerd Scotty who makes the tech work just in time. 

PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING has a running time of 111 minutes and is rated PG-13. It is now available to rent and own.

BOOK CLUB


Bill Holderman's directorial debut and Erin Simms screenwriting debut comprises a rather gentle but pleasant rom-com aimed at the sixty-something market.   The conceit is that four long-time friends have a regular bookclub, and reading Fifty Shades of Grey re-awakens their interest in sex, dating and love.  Diane Keaton plays a people-pleasing grandma being bullied by her patronising kids into moving closer to them and away from her friends, not to mention a potential new love interest played by the still hot Andy Garcia.  Mary Steenburgen plays a married woman desperate to re-inject some sex into her otherwise happy marriage.  Candice Bergen takes the leap into online dating despite the knock to her self-esteem from her ex's twenty-something new fiancee. And Jane Fonda plays a successful businesswoman who finally allows herself to admit that she needs love in the form of Don Johnson.

It turns out that the issues plaguing sixty-something women are not that different from those affecting their younger counterparts - the inability to be vulnerable, balancing work and relationships, getting over an ex, getting over low self-esteem. As a result this movie was actually more relatable than I'd thought.  Moreover, from what I've seen from friends parents, their is an alarming tendency to co-opt one's parents lives and assume that they have nothing going on - and a need for the grandparents to reclaim their independence. 

The downside is that it also turns out that a sixty-something rom-com has also the same genre cliches as a twenty-something one - the meet cutes, the final act reconciliations.  But I feel that if you take this film for what it is, you'll enjoy the ride. 

BOOK CLUB has a running time of 104 minutes and is rated PG-13.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP



I'm so far behind on Marvel movies it's an embarrassment but I blame peak TV and the relentless churning out of these rather similar films.  In catching up I had all my worst fears confirmed with this ANT-MAN sequel.  Paul Rudd returns as the smart-ass superhero in the ant suit - a kind of cut rate IRON MAN or DEADPOOL.  Why do all superhero movies now have to have a wise-ass hero?  Evangeline Lily returns as his partner/romantic interest, THE WASP.  Both are working to rescue her mum slash Michael Douglas' ex-Shield scientist's wife, played by an almost scarily well preserved Michelle Pfeiffer, trapped in some super-magical alt-realm.  Problem is, there's an evil baddie woman after them - out for vengeance - and only magical mum can save her.   

What then follows is a movie that self-consciously tries to tug on our heart strings.  Isn't Paul Rudd cute playing a hands-on father?!  Isn't it so adorable how he co-parents with his lovely ex (Judy Greer) and her huggable hubby (Bobby Canavale)?!  Isn't it cute how Michael Douglas' scientist joshes his daughter and Antman about getting together. Isn't it entirely predictable that  Laurence Fishburne's evil villain scientist is actually rather decent and that magic-mum is gonna cure the vengeful baddie who isn't gonna be that bad after all?

In other words, this is a really banal anodyne film, film of try-hard goofy humour and self-conscious feel-good vibes. The action sequences are predictably CGI driven, dull and silly. That said, Paul Rudd is funny doing his Paul Rudd thing and Michael Pena as his side-kick is funny too.  Just not enough to justify a two-hour run-time.


ANT-MAN AND THE WASP has a running time of 118 minutes, is rated PG-13 and is available to rent and own.

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN


Catching up on a few releases I missed last year and the first is MAMMA MIA! 2, the inevitable follow up to the phenomenally commercially successful ABBA jukebox musical turned movie. I must confess to a lot of fondness to the original with its top tier hits, performed with elan by the elder cast members - notably a very campy Meryl Streep, always superb Christine Baranski and Julie Walters.  The added surprise was that Amanda Seyfried, playing the young girl wondering which of her mother's one night stands was her real father - had a superb singing voice. It would take a cynic indeed to resist the original movie's charm.

Sadly the sequel doesn't quite live up to the original's infectious joy. Partly that's because a lot of the best songs have already been used up - so that the occasional hits seen here are diluted with some B grade material.  Partly it's because Lily James, playing the young Streep, just doesn't have a strong singing voice to compete with Seyfried - and neither competes with a last minute cameo from Cher as their mum/grandma.  Partly it's because all the young actors in the flashback scenes to Meryl Streep's wild years have to do impersonations of how their elderly versions would act and it's hugely constraining. So we have Lily James not acting as her character but impersonating Streep's exaggerated somewhat awkward dancing - and we have all three young men impersonating Firth, Skarsgard and Brosnan from the original film.  Of the three Harry Skinner does the best as Young Harry, perfectly imitating Firth's stilted delivery.  But a few fun impersonations and a stellar Cher cameo do not a movie make. You'd be better off the just watching the end credit performance of Super Trouper on youtube.

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN is available to rent and own. It has a running time of 1hr 54m and is rated PG.

EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE


Zac Efron is absolutely perfect as US serial killer Ted Bundy - a man who appeared kinda ordinary looking on photos but whom so many women described as charismatic and handsome. That charisma and handsomeness lured them into a false sense of comfort, and at least 30, to death and dismemberment.  Not that we see much of that in a film that is superb in its period detail and at showing the charming side of Bundy, but shies away from showing what the judge in this case calls his utter lack of humanity. The result is a lopsided film that does a disservice to his victims and (of course, this matters far far far less) to the audience.  Yes, we DO need to see his charm, but we also need to see the horror. Perhaps the problem is that the film is based on the memoirs of his fiancée, so she wouldn't have known that stuff, but my goodness, the director Joe Berlinger sure does having directed the multi-part Netflix doc on Bundy. So why not work with Michael Werwie, the adaptor of those memoirs, to show the parallel story of Bundy's interiority.  Otherwise, the movie as it stands, feels odd, and the final scene confrontation between Bundy and his long-time fiancee feels unearned and fake. Similarly, director Berlinger could easily have contrasted the sunny, warm-toned courtroom scenes, presided over by an avuncular and wry John Malkovich with a more gritty, nasty reality - a reality that contrasts with and interrogates Bundy's psychopathic charm.  Sadly, all we're left with are some good performances in a misguided film.

EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R in the USA and 15 in the UK. It is on release in Netflix worldwide except the UK where it is available on Sky Cinema On Demand and in cinemas.  It played Sundance and Tribeca 2019. 

DONBASS


Sergey Loznitsa's DONBASS is a strange surreal examination of the Russian agitprop and invasion of east Ukraine in 2014. This might seem like a niche arthouse topic but given all our concern with potential fake news, bots, twitter accounts and whatnot influencing our elections in the West, the film has a horror show urgency to it. 

It opens with people running through town fleeing troops, but it turns out that they're extras being directed in a video shoot to create a fake news blast. This is the kind of maddening fakery that occurs throughout the film to create a feeling of sickening unmooring from the truth. Later on a rich businessman is shaken down by local troops.  He owns his car? Fine. Prove it by handing it over to the local militia to use for their war effort.  All of these short stories add up to a sense of Kafka-esque craziness.  But then, every once in a while, one of these crazy stories in interspersed with one of simple suffering and its jarring and all the more moving.  There's one particularly awful one where we're taken inside a small, dark, damp shelter housing many families. Our guide is a smart sparky kid proudly showing us his "room" - the upper bunk bed in a room full of many such beds, with damp trickling down the wall, and everyone dressed in multiple layers of clothes to keep warm.   The overall impact is brutal, provocative and compelling. This is must-watch cinema. 

DONBASS has a running time of 121 minutes. It played Cannes 2018 where Loznitsa won the Un Certain Regard directing prize.  It opened last weekend in the UK in cinemas and on streaming services. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

STEEL COUNTRY AKA A DARK PLACE


STEEL COUNTRY is a genuinely bad film, and all the worse for wasting the talent of lead actor Andrew Scott - the talent behind SHERLOCK's Moriarty and currently popular as the love interest in Phoebe Waller-Bridges' TV comedy FLEABAG.  A movie that should be a character-driven detective thriller becomes a boring, cliche-ridden murder without the mystery, pivoted on a performance hamstrung by a bad script and a strange choice of accent. 

Scott plays a rubbish collector is a poor American town with a learning disability and thus a slurring accent. He becomes obsessed with the disappearance and then death of a local boy and starts to literally tootle through people's rubbish to get to the truth.  We're meant to sympathise with him and hate the locals who are so prejudiced against this odd man that they think he did it. But the problem is that the character IS genuinely sinister. Just look at the way he obsesses over his Baby Mama, constructing a weird fantasy around her, refusing to acknowledge that she doesn't want him. I'd be applying for a restraining order stat.  

That said, the movie is beautifully shot by Marcel Zyskind, and builds towards a genuinely moving (if unsurprising) confrontation between our protagonist and the dead boy's mother.  Scott's genuine quality shines through here.  And we're about to move toward a rather emotionally satisfying conclusion until director  Simon Fellows (GOD THE FATHER) and debut screen-writer Brendan Higgins balls it up with an absurdly out of character, tonally jarring, and absurdly melodramatic ending. 

STEEL COUNTRY AKA A DARK PLACE has a running time of 89 minutes. It was released last week in the USA and is now available in the UK, in cinemas, and on streaming services. 

LORO


Paolo Sorrentino's latest film LORO (THEM) is a film about the obsequious corrupt parasites that tried to make money during the reign of the abominable Italian President Silvio Berlusconi.  Infamous for amassing a media empire, then using the presidency to protect himself from prosecution and taxes, Berlusconi was a glutton for money and sex.  Moreover, in many senses he was the precursor and pioneer for a new breed of businessman turned populist demagogue - with a line leading from him via Orban to Trump.  Accordingly, one might have expected an urgent and excoriating film treatment from Italy's premier arthouse film-maker, Paolo Sorrentino.  After all, Sorrentino has form!  His nonpareil take-down of Italian Prime Minister Andreotti, IL DIVO, is one of my all-time favourite films.  And his bizarre surreal TV series THE YOUNG POPE is a similar, if fantastical, take-down of the corruption in the Vatican and its links to contemporary Italian politics. 

Imagine, then, my disappointment in finding LORO to be a rather toothless affair. Worse still, baggy, directionless, dare I say it? Dull!  Maybe this is a result of the format that I watched - a still over-long 150 minute compression of what were originally two separate feature films released in Italy last year.  But that still doesn't excuse this highly disjointed, weird final product.

The film opens with its focus on a sleazy low-level businessman who wants to move into the orbit of "him".  He pimps out pretty much every woman he knows, including his partner, for advancement.  He courts one of Berlusconi's mistresses. And makes a final expensive gamble - filling a villa with prostitutes and drugs and dance music - hoping to tempt Berlusconi to this apparently all-summer long bunga bunga party.  This section is really dull. It feels like a succession of beautifully shot living tableaux, set to moronic dance music. Endless shots of scantily clad women.  At some point you ask yourself when the depiction of sexual exploitation is itself exploitative - when the depiction of vacuous people is itself vacuous. 

It's only about an hour into the film that we meet Silvo, as played by the always charismatic Toni Servillo. The disappointment is that Silvio is shown in an almost sympathetic light. He's out of office and out of the good graces of his wife - showing a vulnerability that's disarming.  As the audience, we delight in him flexing his con artist muscles, persuading a random Italian housewife to buy a non-existent flat that she can't afford. THIS is the movie I wanted. A movie that explained Berlusconi's brilliance and charm and ruthlessness. But it's just that one scene.  Finally his wife breaks away and in this desperation he finally falls for the bait in the villa next door. But after so much moral corruption on show, he hardly seems worse than the rest of them. And maybe that's Sorrentino's point?  We get the President we deserve, resemble, need to enable us?

LORO has a running time of 150 minutes. It is currently available to watch in cinemas and on streaming services in the UK and Ireland.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

US


I loved loved loved Jordan Peele's horror-satire GET OUT.  Everybody did.  And we were all hot with anticipation for his new film, US, already allegorical in its title, expecting a damning indictment of contemporary US racial politics. What we get is a film that is visually interesting and full of cinematic references, but less tightly controlled and messaged than GET OUT, far less scary and far less funny.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it's a noble failure. Because if a horror film can't scare me - a notorious wimp when it comes to this stuff - then it's a failure. And perhaps more importantly, it really fails for me as a politically provocative film. It feels as if Peele was throwing a few ideas against the wall - or maybe the film started out as saying one thing on the first draft but then  ended up being rewritten to try and say another on successive drafts - that it feels ill developed, or maybe over-developed.  Too many of its key visual images don't really go anywhere for me.

So let's wind it back.  The film begins with a flashback to mid-80s America where a young African American girl gets lots inside a funfair hall of mirrors and emerges never quite the same.  It's also the time when America is engaging in its ill feted "Hands Across America".  As someone contemporaneous with lead character, I only vaguely remembered this, and I wonder how far modern viewers will know or care about this apparently pivotal but to my mind ill-chosen metaphor. Fast forward to the current day.   The little girl has grown up to be the mum in a middle-class black family going on holiday to that same coastal resort. They appear to be the victims of a home invasion horror by a family of doppelgängers. Incompetent doppelgängers at that.  And then they realise that it's not just them but everyone in America. Because a bunch of "tethered" doppelgängers previously populating America's hidden underworld of prison cells and tunnels has staged a rebellion.  Of course there's a final act twist but when you figure out half way through who is and isn't getting killed quickly it's pretty obvious what that is. 

So here are some of the things that I thought the film might have been trying to say. At first I thought, maybe the doppelgängers are there to remind a gentrified black family about their roots and essential blackness rather than living a life of boating.  And then I thought, ok the trapped bunnies are slaves, and the tunnels are like the underground railroad. But then white people were being stalked too so I thought ok so not so much about racial politics? And then we got all this weird shit about "god invented this system and then ran away" and  I was like ok this is some Nietzchean god is dead everything is permitted shit. In the end I didn't really care. And I wasn't scared.

Have an idea. A good simple scary idea. And see it through.

US has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated R.  The movie played SXSW 2019 and is now on global release. 

VITA & VIRGINIA


VITA & VIRGINIA is a beautifully crafted film about the love affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West that inspired the former's wonderful fictionalised fantastical biography Orlando, and the stunning film that launched Tilda Swinton's career. Indeed for many people, including myself, that film and the book may be our only knowledge of Vita, making this film a fascinating and unusual tale.  

The first thing to say about the film is that the script, based on her own stage play, by Eileen Atkins, is very good, and serves to describe why Vita was so fascinating and larger-than-life, and just how dangerous and transformative that love affair was to someone as mentally fragile and hyper-sensitive as Virginia. The film implies that the married Virginia was hitherto frigid and that the pansexual promiscuous Vita was her first successful lover.  They truly loved each other. But Vita simply does not have it in her to be in love with one person at a time, and this revelation ruins but then liberates Virginia.

The second thing to say is that the film looks marvellous, despite its presumably slim budget. Shooting on location at Knowle House helps, but so does the dreamy cinematography, the stunning wardrobe - particularly for Vita and her mother - contrasted with Isobel Waller-Bridge's anachronistic score. I loved just looking and hearing this film. I also loved director Chanya Button's attempts to lightly use CGI to take us inside Virginia's imaginative world.

What I didn't love - and what ultimately drew me out of the picture - was the way in which Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton as Virginia and Vita respectively used very arch period English accents for their roles. It felt so studied and performative and rehearsed that maybe a more naturalistic upper class English accent might have been less intrusive.  Given that the director went for a radical use of music I was surprised she didn't give her actresses notes to be more naturalistic here too.

The result of feeling somewhat alienated from my lead actresses is that I was far more drawn to the other characters. Isabella Rossellini is absolutely magnificent as Vita's society matron mother - conveying with a withering look more contempt than a screen can hold!  More seriously, I found the two cuckolded husbands far more fascinating than their wives.  Peter Ferdinando (HIGH RISE) was just unbelievably sympathetic as Leonard Woolf - the  marvellously supportive husband who just wants to keep Virginia safe - from herself as well as Vita - to enable her writing - and to make her happy.  And the most fascinating character of all is Rupert Penry-Jones' Harold Nicolson - the bisexual diplomat who loved his wife enough to give her her sexual freedom (as he also demanded) so long as she only loved him. It's an absolutely tragic portrait of a modern relationship in which love is not conditional on sexual but emotional fidelity. 

VITA & VIRGINIA has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated 12A for modest sex, sex references and nudity. It played Toronto 2018 and opened the BFI FLARE Film Festival 2019. It opens in the UK and Ireland on July 12th.

BENJAMIN


BENJAMIN is an autobiographical romantic dramedy from writer-director and British comedian Simon Amstell.  Set in contemporary London, the title character is one-time feted young film director filled with anxiety about his second feature, and too scared to receive the love that young singer Noah is offering.  It's a strange mix of awkward British dating and soft satire on the media types the cling onto the indie art scene.  I found the rom-com bizarrely uninteresting. Maybe this is because Colin Morgan (most recently seen as Bosie to Rupert Everett's Wilde in THE HAPPY PRINCE) gives a very low-key performance.  So much so that in early scenes the combination of his Northern Irish accent, anxious mumbling, and the background noise of the nightclub scene meant I was struggling to follow what was happening.  In fact that this sort of indifferent lighting and direction stretches to the rest of this presumably very low budget film.  On the other side of the romance Phenix Brossard's Noah is similarly a bit of a one-tone fantasy waif. In the words of Benjamin's best friend Stephen (a scene stealing Joel Fry - Game of Thrones' Hizdahr), Benjamin just likes boys who are "well lit and weak".  If that's not your thing, this may not be your thing.  And so the movie wends its way along its slight running time at a slow ambling pace.  There's an attempt at satire, mostly in a cameo from Game of Thrones' Ellie Kendrick as a dancer.  It's funny but it's no Nathan Barley.  All in all, this film is highly missable. 

BENJAMIN has a running time of 85 minutes and is rated 15 for very strong language and drug use.  The film played the BFI London Film Festival 2018 and is now on release in cinemas and on demand in the UK and Ireland.

Monday, March 11, 2019

CAPTAIN MARVEL


CAPTAIN MARVEL is a game of two halves. I found the first half of the film utterly tedious, failing to fire with its buddy comedy and alien politics, but the second half to be really moving and powerful and wonderful.

The film starts with Brie Larson (ROOM) playing a human with superpowers and amnesia, being trained by a beefed-up Jude Law to fight as part of a Kree special forces unit against their hated Skrull enemy.  She crashes to earth sometime in the mid 1990s - well before the events of the current Marvel series - and tries to uncover the mystery of how she got her powers with the help of a friendly government agent called Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and her old best friend Marie Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).  Turns out she was a kick-ass fighter pilot called Carol Danvers working for an inspirational woman called Mar-Vell (Annette Bening) who - turns out - was an alien who invented the original tesseract - a kind of super-energy source McGuffin that has wound its way through these films. And so Danvers and her sidekicks have to protect the tesseract from - they think  - the evil terrorist Skrull - especially their leader Talos played by Ben Mendelsohn in full evil villain guise.

Like I said - the first hour of this film seemed pretty tedious to me. I don't really engage with CGI filled alien planet fight scenes, especially when I don't care about either side. I also didn't really care about the early scenes on 1990s Earth other than some pop tune nostalgia.  I could see that the directors wanted to create a kind of buddy movie road-trip odd-couple comedy between Carol and Fury but I just didn't respond to it. I could see Samuel L Jackson trying to be funny but didn't laugh - and it didn't feel like anyone else in the cinema was laughing either. 

Where the film began to ignite for me was in its second half, broadly where we get a major plot twist regarding one of the characters. This allows that character to actually become the one driving the witty deadpan humour and the heart of the second half of the film.  I also really loved the relationship between Carol and Marie - which also takes place in the second half of the film. In fact, you could easily have played it as a gay relationship co-parenting a child, and I wonder if this film will achieve cult status on that level.  

Finally, its in the second half of the film that a lot of the feminist groundwork done in the first half pays off - it's where we see Captain Marvel as a hero who's main skill is obstinacy in the face of bigotry. She doesn't need a wise male mentor to give her advice or permission. She doesn't have a crisis of confidence. And she doesn't have a love interest (male or female apparently).  She just gets the job done, no mess, no fuss. This is refreshing in its straightforward empowerment but does make Captain Marvel a fairly unengaging superhero. She's the strong smart ethically grounded woman who basically never does anything wrong, never has any doubts, and doesn't really need her friends. Accordingly, it's no surprise that the MVP of this film is a cat. 

CAPTAIN MARVEL has a running time of 124 minutes and is rated PG-13. It is on global release. 

GREEN BOOK


I started watching GREEN BOOK minded not to like it. Sure, I think both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are fine actors, and I love biopics. But I had been awed by Spike Lee's BLACKKKLANSMAN and swayed by articles arguing that GREEN BOOK's more old-fashioned anodyne depiction of 1960s race relations was regressive and worse still potentially racist. How could the story of an incredibly talented African-American musician be centred on the story of his white driver?  Wasn't this just another tale of a white person coming to enlightenment at the expense of a wise black side-kick?  Wasn't this THE HELP, or DRIVING MISS DAISY?  All of this criticism was heightened when GREEN BOOK surprisingly won Best Picture at the Oscars, ahead of BLACKKKLANSMAN, THE FAVOURITE or even ROMA. Wasn't this just another example of the Oscars proving themselves to be old fashioned and out of touch?

Well yes and no. Is GREEN BOOK better than the BLACKKKLANSMAN? Clearly not. That is a movie that balances comedy and righteous anger with such perfection and fury that it sears the imagination.  But GREEN BOOK *is* a handsomely made, more delicate film, that in its suspiciously easy rhythm hides a rather subversive look not just at race relations but also homophobia. It's beautifully acted and constructed, incredibly watchable, and really quite lovely.  

Mortensen plays real life Italian-American nightclub bouncer and all-round swaggering macho-man, Tony Lip. (Interestingly the real life Tony turned up as an actor in THE SOPRANOS many years later.) Down on his financial luck, he takes a job chauffering Dr Donald Shirley (Ali) on a tour of the deep south.  It is made very clear to Tony that he's not being hired for his driving skills - Shirley's management expect racial violence in the South and need Tony's muscle. And so what develops is a really lovely and convincing odd-couple buddy road movie. Tony's rough, crude manner is contrasted with Shirley's courteous, gentlemanlike manner.   Over time, Tony becomes less racist, although it seems like he was already rather pragmatic on the issue of homosexuality.  

I rather like the delicate way in which profound issues are handled.  The risks attendant on Shirley's homosexuality are handled in a single scene, and seeing Ali cowering naked in a bathhouse conveys so much so swiftly.  I also like the way in which Shirley's conflicted position vis a vis his own race is portrayed: like Nina Simone he is more comfortable in the world of classical music but forced to play popular music because that's what the market expects of him.  Moreover, Shirley defies all racial stereotypes much to Tony's disappointment, but also earning him the mistrust of his fellow African Americans. I even like the way in which the movie shows the differing styles of racism across America.  It may have been more explicit in the South - with bars on entrances, where you can eat, where you can sleep, whether you can be out after dark. But that doesn't mean that the north is a nirvana.  The subversive racism - the epithets, the subtle refusing to drink from a black man's cup - it's all still there. 

GREEN BOOK is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 130 minutes. The movie is on global release.

Monday, March 04, 2019

ON THE BASIS OF SEX


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become something of a cult figure among today's "woke" youth. She is often portrayed as The Notorious RBG on t-shirts and memes.  Seen as a champion of progressive values, and most particularly women's rights, her newfound fans are putting faith in her longevity to prevent a conservative takeover of the court.  Her legacy, marriage and mind were all celebrated in the recent, superb, RBG (reviewed here) which featured many interviews with her family. At the time, I commented how refreshing and perhaps surprising it was to see RBG as a young woman, in contrast to her current familiar image. 

This new film, written by RBG's nephew, focuses on that young smart woman and how she established herself as one of the pre-eminent sexual discrimination lawyers.  It opens with Ruth as one of a handful of female students attending Harvard Law School, sees her forced to switch to Columbia to support her husband's career, rejected by all the major law firms, and almost as a second choice, become an academic.  Her lack of appellant experience becomes alarmingly clear when she takes on a landmark legal case that the ACLU hasn't the time for - defending a MAN who has suffered from discriminatory legislation.  She works in partnership with her tax lawyer husband Marty, preparing a brief and then arguing in front of the appeals court, leading to a classic final act stirring speech that wins the day. In a final, rather deliberately emotional scene, we see a young RBG climb the steps to of the Supreme Court to argue another landmark case, transitioning to the present day Justice.

As directed by veteran Mimi Leder, this movie has a charming and handsomely old fashioned feel of telling a character driven story patiently and building toward a set-piece finale. The script is just fine - and perhaps best in using Ruth's daughter as a provocation toward more strident and direct action. By contrast, the motivations of the dean of Harvard Law School who at once lobbied to admit women but then is seen as so sexist remain frustratingly opaque. Felicity Jones makes only a cursory attempt at RBG's accent and neither she nor Armie Hammer as Marty seem to age much, even as they acquire a teenage daughter.

And yet for all these faults, I still found this a fascinating and satisfying film, with enough provocative angry-making insults to our heroine, and a sense of purpose and triumph at the end.  It makes a nice pair with the aforementioned documentary - although if you only have time for one, I would still go for the doc, for its wider scope and greater insight.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX has a running time of 120 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film is on global release.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART


THE LEGO MOVIE 2 is a delightful, visually inventive, wonderfully funny movie that kept me thoroughly entertained. I have no idea whether kids would find it as funny as so much of the humour was knowing and seemed aimed at adults with a familiarity with the latest MAD MAX film, for example.

The film picks up where the original movie left off. The conceit is the same.  We have a framing device of a kid playing with lego. The adventures he acts out become represented in animated form in the lego world.  As the first movie ends, the kid sister shows up with her giant duplo bricks - a threat to his intricately built lego world. This sets up the conflict in the second movie. Our band of lego heroes led by awesome nice guy Emmett (Chris Pratt) have to band together to find the duplo invaders led by "TheQueenofWhateverIWannaBe" (Tiffany Haddish). Along the way we get a nice time travel story and of course a touching resolution about playing together.

I laughed till I cried watching the film. The Mad Max spoof - the arrogant angst of Lego Batman - the visual hilarity of Duplo world - another superb scene-stealing cameo from Richard Ayoade as a lego ice cream cone - annoyingly catchy pop songs that are knowingly telling you how annoyingly catchy they are - there's nothing not to like here.  But as I said - it just all feels so adult. I would be interested to hear how kids responded to it. 

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART has a running time of 107 minutes and is rated PG. The film went on global release last weekend. 

FREE SOLO


FREE SOLO is a truly exhilarating and beautifully edited documentary about the famous free solo mountain climber Alex Honnold and his assent of a nearly 3000 foot rock face called El Capitan.  Don't know what free solo'ing is? Neither did I. It turns out it's the bonkers activity of clambering up a vertical mountain with nothing but a pair of specialist trainers and your hands covered in chalk.  No ropes. No safety.  If you slip you die.

As someone who is extremely risk averse I've always sought out docs about mountaineers and people who take on extreme risk. I'm fascinated about why they do it? Is it a kind of addiction to the thrill?  Are there just some people who see a big rock and think I must get to the top of it? And what is the price they pay in terms of sustaining relationships? We get all that in this doc.  

It turns out that Honnold has a mix of two unique features. First, apparently his amygdala doesn't get as fired up by the kind of high-jinks that would get you or I excited. So he genuinely biologically needs a bigger thrill to feel alive. Second, we get glimpses of a slightly odd childhood, wherein he constantly had to prove he was a winner to his demanding mother, and potentially his dead father.  And there were no hugs and no uses of the L word. It's not hard to see why this super bright geeky kid would then veer toward an almost isolated lifestyle in which he seeks more and more impressive and risky feats of climbing.

As the doc opens we meet Alex living in his van eating food straight out of a saucepan.  Amazingly a lovely young woman called Sanni falls in love with him and is willing to tolerate the fact that he could die on any climb and has trouble expressing his feelings.  It's hard to know whether I was happier when he completed his mammoth ascent or spontaneously told her he loved her when she called him at the top!

But the real joy of this film is the glimpse we get into the sheer technical mastery these climbers employ. Seeing a man map out a 3000 ft ascent millimetre by millimetre - movement by movement - is just impressive. I'm not massively into climbing, but it was absolutely gripping. You really have to admire the directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, for how they preview the tough bits of the climb, and use graphic effects to make us familiar with the how the climb needs to go, so that when we follow Alex doing it, we are utterly invested in his success and aware of where the greatest peril lies. Even though I knew the outcome I was on the edge of my seat, super-stressed, catching my breath.  The landscape photography was amazing, the use of drones and cameramen at stages on the climb gave us a wonderful insight into how it took place - and the exhilaration at the top was amazing.  I simply cannot recommend this documentary enough.

FREE SOLO has a running time of 100 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film played Telluride and Toronto 2018 and was released in the USA and UK last year. It is available to rent and own in the USA and will be released in the UK in early March.  The film has been nominated for many awards including an Oscar and has won - among others - the Toronto people's choice award and a Bafta.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS


Theatre director Josie Rourke turns to the big screen with a surprisingly good historical drama focussing on the period between Mary Stuart arriving in Scotland in 1561 at the age of 19, and her abdication and flight to England 7 years later at the age of 26. We then get a coda of her execution nearly 20 years later. Accordingly, those looking for a detailed examination of the Babington plot will go unrewarded. This is, I feel, rightly an interrogation of why this woman with such a strong claim to both the thrones of Scotland and England, could neither hold onto one, nor claim the other.  

In answering the question, screenwriter Beau Willimon draws parallels between Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, Wales and Ireland. He posits a three-fold answer.  First, Elizabeth I transforms herself, politically speaking, into a man.  Rather than making herself vulnerable to a husband's control, she forgoes the joy of motherhood to rule uncontested, and in a manner that her court can accept.  By contrast, Mary is made weak by the ambitions of her husband, his father, and her half-brother.  Second, Elizabeth I is exceedingly lucky in her loyal, skilful and ruthless advisor, Lord Cecil, whereas Mary is ultimately betrayed by her courtiers, not just once but many times.  Finally, the film seemingly argues that Mary's own character was to blame - not least her wilfulness in marrying Darnley, and her arrogance in condescending to Elizabeth I even as she begs for an army to retake her crown. 

As one might expect from the show-runner of HOUSE OF CARDS, the script is a really good and pretty factually accurate depiction of the civil turmoil in Scotland during Mary Stuart's reign. The principal objections to Mary's rule are that she's a woman, and a Catholic.  Her protestant half-brother James' regency is thus preferred by some. Radical cleric John Knox preaches against her alleged infidelity and her allegiance to Rome.  And even those apparently on her side - her Catholic Stuart cousin Henry Stuart, whom she marries, is angry when she won't make him her successor.  Willimon deftly shows Mary manoeuvring and being outmanoeuvred, until finally she has nowhere else to run except England.

I also loved everything about the costumes and make-up in this film - beautifully contrasting the more formal opulence of the English court with the more intimate less gaudy Scottish court.  Make-up is also used with great effect to contrast Mary's insistence that she rules as herself - a strong-minded Catholic woman - and Elizabeth subsuming herself into the image of the Virgin Queen  - a theme also explored to great effect in Shekhar Kapur's superb ELIZABETH.  Max Richter's score is wonderful and I love how Josie Rourke weaves music into the foreground, particularly in the character of Mary's favourite, David. That said, Rourke can't direct a battle scene for toffee.

Historically, of course, the two Queens didn't meet. Or if they did, there's no strong evidence for it. And the director nicely hints at this in the opening moments of their meeting, as they struggle to find each other throughly gauzy sheets, giving the meeting a fantasy quality.  There is some evidence to hint at Darnley's bisexuality, if not that he slept with David. Mary's tolerance for David's cross-dressing seems anachronistic.  And of course Mary probably spoke with a French accent.  But aside from these dramatic inventions, I DO think that the film gets at something more profoundly true about how both of these women approached being Sovereign and why ultimately one prevailed and the other did not.  And that's the greater purpose of cinema, after all. We also get a typically superb performance from Ronan as Mary - but perhaps more surprisingly, a really emotionally powerful, stunning performance from Robbie as Elizabeth - one that really does steal the film.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that I would love to see Robbie portray Elizabeth in a series of films. 

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS is rated R and has a running time of 124 minutes.  The film is on release in the USA and UK.

THE SOUVENIR


THE SOUVENIR is writer-director Joanna Hogg's personal memoir of her time as film student in London in the early 80s and a love affair she had with a charming but dangerous older man.  Set largely in a meticulous recreation of Hogg's Knightsbridge flat, we are introduced to the fictionalised Julie (Honor Swinton Burne) as a naive, privileged, earnest and desperately vulnerable young woman.  At first, her relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke - finally finding a role to flex his muscles in) seems innocent enough, although the age gap is troubling, as is his domineering personality. But we, as Julie, as her parents, are lulled into a sense of complacency by his posh accent and apparent Foreign Office job. Soon we discover that all is not as it seems - earlier in fact than the alarmingly innocent Julie. It starts with him cadging a tenner, and ends with a kind of emotional domination and abuse, centred around a character twist that I won't reveal.  The tension of the film lies first in knowing whether Julie will gather the strength to leave Anthony, and second in whether her mother (played by Honor's real-life mother Tilda Swinton) will intervene.  

As in her previous, outstanding, films  - UNRELATED and ARCHIPELAGO - Joanna Hogg creates these wonderfully tense, nuanced, naturalistic chamber pieces where characters are trapped in seemingly ordinary conversations but so much is going on in their interior lives - so much is unsaid - and the stakes seem so high. Tom Burke is absolutely superb as Anthony, in the most difficult role of creating a character at once despicable, but also pitiable, who we have to believe is charming enough to be loved. Honor Swinton Burne is not called upon to show such range, but is convincing in playing a shy young woman. If THE CROWN needs to cast a shy young Diana they need look no further. And stealing the show, we have a deliciously funny cameo from Richard Ayoade with one of the most quotable lines in film. I'd repeat it here but it gives away too much plot!

Kudos to Joanna Hogg, whose idiosyncratic scripting and shooting style got the best out of a new actress and creates a slow-build tension and genuine emotional involvement in the lives of these characters.  One must also comment on how she captures particular visuals - a shot of the Grand Canal (perhaps one of the most hackneyed scenes and yet so beautiful and apparently fresh here) - or a disagreement in a hotel room that's so emotionally difficult to behold that we see it reflected in a mirror.  This film really is unique, disturbing, beautiful and melancholy.  I cannot wait to see the second part. 

THE SOUVENIR has a running time of 119 minutes and is not yet rated.  The film played Sundance 2019 where Joanna Hogg won Grand Jury Prize - World Cinema - Dramatic.  It will also play Berlin 2019. It does not yet have a US or UK release date. 

ROBIN HOOD (2018)


Otto Bathurst's remake of the Robin Hood myth is a dismal effort. His directorial style is sub Guy Ritchie - all mockney bovver without any of Ritchie's kinetic energy or wit. The resulting film is a CGI heavy mess, full of dull action scenes and bad performances acting out a worse script.  Lead actor Taron Egerton has none of the charm or glee of his KINGSMAN role playing "Rob".  Eve Hewson is very pretty as his working class girlfriend Marion, but she has to also play a woman who thinks her boyfriend died in the crusades, only to find him inconveniently alive while she's shacked up with Jamie Dornan's Will Scarlett. Neither she nor the script betray the requisite emotional depth or range to pull off that storyline.  And WTF is Dornan doing here? Recent turns on UK TV show he's actually a very good actor.  He's definitely playing well below himself here. The same can be said of Ben Mendelsohn doing that evil villain thing he's done countless times before, not least in ROGUE ONE. He looks bored doing it, so it's no surprise we're bored seeing it. As for F Murray Abraham - magisterial in AMADEUS - he's utterly anonymous here.  Avoid at all costs.  

ROBIN HOOD is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 116 minutes. It was released last year and is now available to rent and own.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?


CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? is a lovely film about a rather unique story that works essentially as a two hander between its award-winning stars, Melissa McCarthy and the ever-glorious Richard E Grant.  McCarthy plays one-time successful biographer Lee Israel, who has fallen out of fashion and into alcoholism and squalor.  One day she chances on a genuine letter from Fanny Brice of FUNNY GIRL fame, and through small steps begins to make money by forging letters from famous writers with just the right amount of wit and salaciousness to fetch the very highest prices.  To do this didn't just need a loose grasp of ethics and a facility with vintage typewriters but genuine literary taste and skill. One of the saddest moments of the film is when Lee realises that this is her most popular work in years, and it's not even in her voice. Of course, soon the collectors start to realise that her work is fake - she's "finding" too many letters, and some question whether Noel Coward would really have been so overt about his homosexual advances.  The FBI contact her dealers, and she has to get her fellow alcoholic, the roguish, charming Jack Hock to fence the letters for her, making him an accomplice.

What I love about this film is the genuine chemistry between McCarthy and Grant as Israel and Hock and the contrast between her misanthropy and his boyish charm and glee.  Underneath both there's a story of expectations dashed and a live that hasn't lived up to their hopes - and in Hock's case in particular the sadness over fading looks, the inability to talk one's way out of travel. Both are victims of a faster, prettier world.  And while aware that their schemes are wrong, don't really see the harm in it. It feels like a schoolyard jape, just like the prank calls they make.  The final scene between the two has a quiet pathos - self-awareness, of mortality, crime, art.  The reality of what they did and are. It's desperately moving.

I also love the beautiful recreation of early 90s New York and the milieu of those bookshops that deal in first editions and collectibles. There's a certain look and indeed smell to those stores (I frequent them!) and this film somehow just captures that particularity and person. 

Finally, I admire the light touch, but never evasiveness, with which screenwriter Nicole Holofcener and director Marielle Heller treat Hock's dying of AIDS, and indeed both characters' homosexuality. The result is delicate, elegant, and more moving for it. 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME has a running time of 106 minutes and is rated R. The film played Telluride, Toronto and London 2018. It was released last year in the USA and is currently on release in the UK.

MARWENCOL


This isn't a review of the new much-derided film WELCOME TO MARWEN starring Steve Carell, but rather a review of the 2010 much-loved award-winning documentary on which that film is based.

Mark Hogancamp was an apparently normal guy living in a small town.  But he was also recovering from alcoholism, a talented artist, and a secret transvestite.  One day he was in a bar and a bunch of nasty bigots beat the crap out of him because he admitted he liked wearing women's clothes.  The resulting injuries were so severe his face had to be reconstructed and he suffered brain damage. But this being America, the money ran out for treatment, despite the fact that Mark was still evidently traumatised. 

Mark couldn't draw anymore because his hands shook too much.  So he created a world of his own in which to recuperate and live a life that HE controlled.  He did this with barbie dolls, and later one-sixth size models, dressed in world war two uniforms, peopling a Belgian village called Marwencol.  Mark created stories for these models - some standard WW2 stories - some that were clearly helping him play out and deal with his attack - some expressing his desire for love - some expressing his desire to freely dress as he would wish. 

Mark didn't just create his stories but photographed them using an old camera, without a light meter. He didn't even think of himself as an artist.  But the resulting images are beautifully staged and framed. The attention to detail is astonishing. The ability to create images that speak to us emotionally profound. And then of course, there are images that are just plain weird, and move us because they evidently reflect Mark's life and attack.  Not to mention the endless patience of his friends - especially the women - who have to deal with Mark turning them into love interests or victims of the Nazis!

This documentary is a beautiful, short, moving insight into the life of a man battling his own demons, but also dealing with a cruel world, sublimating it all into the most surprising, stunning, wonderful art.  It's a gorgeous, if sometimes, weird world, and a truly unique film. 

MARWENCOL has a running time of 83 minutes and is available to rent and own. You can also buy art and merchandise at here.