Sunday, November 17, 2019

FROZEN II


I walked into FROZEN II expected nothing more than a cynical shameless cash-in on the success of its predecessor.  I knew Disney wouldn't have the balls to give Elsa a gay love interest so it didn't seem as if the story had anywhere to go. But I have to say that all my cynicism was overturned. FROZEN II is a beautifully told, technically stunning, deeply moving film, and one of the best I've seen this year. What's more, having heard a post-film Q & A with director Jennifer Lee, I can happily report that none of the character evolutions have been organised to be safe or commercial - rather to be true to the much-beloved characters and how they might feel at this "second act of a Broadway play".   A classic example of this is with the storyline of Kristoff. As the movie opens, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is grappling with how to craft the perfect proposal for Princess Anna (Kristen Bell).  But the writers actually went so far as to create and screen test a version where Anna proposes to Kristoff. The objection wasn't conservative, but that after a movie's worth of his efforts, it felt mean not to let him do it.  Similarly, when it comes to Elsa (Idina Menzel), I'm no fool - of course Disney isn't going to let her be out gay. But Jennifer Lee did make the good point that she's not actually ready for any relationship yet, because she's still at a weird place.  If the first film was about Elsa learning to accept that she can't hide who she is and isolate herself, the second film is about her moving away from just being almost pathologically grateful to be accepted by Arundel, to being genuinely happy in her own environment.

So that's the basic story arc. I loved the way the writers put it.  We have Anna as a fairytale princess and Elsa as a mythic archetype.  And as in the first film, we have to have Anna pull Elsa back from a classic mythic tragic fate, but we also have to respect that each has their own world.  To come to this resolution, we need to allow them to explore their back story. Why doesn't Anna have magic powers? Why were their parents out in a storm on a ship? To find out, the sisters, Kristoff and Olaf head north from Arundel to explore an enchanted forest that contains a dam that stops Arundel being flooded.  In doing so, we get a beautiful story that lightly but earnestly essays the dangers of not respecting nature, and the difficulty of confronting a colonial exploitative past. At the emotional level, there's a beautiful story about not being ashamed to depend on others, and how people from very different backgrounds (indeed, genres!) can come together to balance each other out, without demanding conformity.

All of which sounds terribly profound and earnest, and it is. But it's all dressed up in the most wonderful comedy and musical numbers. Olaf the snowman has a show-stopping old fashioned musical number that had the little children laughing.  Kristoff gets a parody 80s rock ballad that had the adults crying with laughter.  And the big number of this piece - "Into The Unknown" is just as beautifully crafted and penetrating as anything in the first film. I laughed, I cried, and was transported into the most dazzlingly created autumnal world.  I simply cannot wait for FROZEN III!

FROZEN II has a running time of 105 minutes.  It goes on global release on November 22nd. 

LE MANS 66 aka FORD V FERRARI


I absolutely loved LE MANS 66 - a superbly made character drama centred around a beautiful friendship played out against the world of motor racing, where the "pure" fans are up against the soulless commercial users.  

The film stars Christian Bale as Ken Miles - a true pure racer. He's one of those people born with the talent to really understand a car and to be able to test it and improve it through sheer engineering knowhow and hard work.  He's also a totally unglamorous Brummie, with an inability to play the corporate game and bullshit people.  As much as I loved SENNA and all the glamour of racing, there's just something wonderful about seeing a guy who's not conventionally gorgeous or charismatic do just as well through sheer talent.  I didn't know I needed a hero who was a cheeky sweary Brummie constantly drinking a cup of tea.  But I did.  And it's just so delicious hearing his old-fashioned swearing - and his sheer joy when he races the perfect lap. God only knows what American viewers will make of Miles calling his son a "dirty stop out" or singing H-A-P-P-Y though.  And the scene where he comes off the track at Le Mans to be told his cup of tea is waiting and to hear him respond "thanks Chaz" is just a thing of brilliance!

Miles' friend and colleague is Carell Shelby, played with an almost Clintonesque drawl by Matt Damon.  He was at that point the other American to have ever won Le Mans, and when forced to retire for health reasons, he created a boutique sports car manufacturing company.  Shelby is everything Miles isn't - charismatic, able to schmooze corporates, but both share their true love of racing.  We never doubt that they truly love and respect each other, and that they bring out the best in each other. It's a pleasure to be in their company.

The conflict comes when the bankrupt Enzo Ferrari, the third pure racer in this film, refuses to sell his company to Ford because he knows they'll put commercial interests above racing.  So Henry Ford II, in a fit of pique, decides to create a racing team to beat Ferrari at Le Mans just to humiliate Enzo Ferrari. He doesn't actually give a shit about racing and neither does his oleaginous side-kick Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).  In fact, they are so obtuse that when Ken Miles finally gets to Le Mans, and manages to get a wondrous four lap lead on the field, they actually ask him to slow down so that all the Ford cars can finish together! It's a truly humiliating thing to ask, and shows an utter disregard for Miles' achievement.  Bizarrely, it's the man who we think is going to be the villain of the piece at the start - Ferrari - who literally tips his hat to Miles, out of appreciation of his artistry.

This film succeeds because everything about it is just right.  The script - from Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller and director James Mangold - is perfectly constructed and rooted in authentic relationships and emotions.  For sure, the racing scenes are exhilarating and beautifully recreated. You can almost smell the petrol coming off the screen. But all this would mean nothing if we didn't absolutely care about Miles and Shelby.  It's also not a film that allows us to have easy one-dimensional portraits. As I said, Ferrari starts off as a rude tricksy tyrant but ends as just a kid who loves cars and truly appreciates them. Henry Ford II - who for the most part is a corporate arsehole - has a moment of almost childlike wonder at a car and an almost pathetic wish that his daddy had seen the GT40. Characters with smaller roles seem real and rounded.  Miles' wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) is supportive but strong and no-nonsense, with a real generosity of spirit.  And the acting is uniformly good. Bale should get all the awards, but I even loved Damon. There's a quiet moment near the end of the film where he's deeply distressed. He gets into a sports car and revs the engine. The sound of the engine is soothing to him - a car addict.  It's both terrifying and necessary. There aren't any words - it's all on Damon's face.  This is good stuff indeed.


LE MANS 66 has a running time of 152 minutes. The film played Toronto, Telluride and London and was released in the UK and USA this weekend.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

THE IRISHMAN - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Closing Night Gala


Who killed Jimmy Hoffa? Does anyone care? Martin Scorsese sure does. He spends three and half arse-numbing hours answering who and why. We only put up with this because it's Scorsese. And even then barely just.  If created for theatrical release, then this film is just too long.  It could easily lose twenty minutes of its opening hour and thirty minutes of its closing hour. Once Hoffa's dead, do we really care about his assassin's lonely old age?  I would argue that the indulgence Netflix afforded Scorsese is a hindrance here.  It has allowed him to be baggy where a conventional studio would have demanded a sub-180 minute cut.  Still, this is a Netflix release so I guess people will watch this at home over a few evenings. If so, that's a shame because Scorsese is at the top of his game when it comes to his visual style, choice of music, kinetic editing, and brilliant evocation of mood and era.  This film really does deserve to be seen on a big screen, for all the physical discomfort that arises.

Of course, no-one really cares who killed Jimmy Hoffa anymore.  I don't know many people of my generation who know how powerful he was in 1960s America, or the mystery surrounding his death, let alone those younger than me.  Scorsese's screenwriter Steve Zaillian seems to acknowledge the problem a couple of times in his screenplay, as aged up versions of characters try to explain to younger interlocuters that Hoffa was the second most powerful man behind the President - a powerful Union leader who could make or break a political campaign, and whose multi-billion pension fund could and did bankroll the mafia. He disappeared in 1975.  Everyone acknowledges it was a mafia hit.  You don't threaten mafia funding and survive. But the precise facts around who did the job remain unsolved. The Feds have their suspicions. But we'll never know. This film, however, posits a theory based on the late-in-life confession of long-term mafia hitman Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran.

And so this film tells us the story of The Irishman, beginning with not one but two framing devices. The outer device shows us Sheeran (an aged up Robert de Niro) narrating his sins to what we'll later find out is a Catholic priest - his sole visitor in a nursing home, given that Sheeran has alienated his family.  This reminded me a bit of AMADEUS - having the murderer confess, but not particularly seek atonement, to murdering a man who was purportedly his friend.  Because Sheeran wasn't just a mob hitman - he was also sent by the mob to be Hoffa's protection. Their relationship was one of trust and intimacy, even sleeping in twin beds like Burt and Ernie. It certainly makes the killing emotionally brutal.

The framing device within the framing device is watching Sheeran on a road-trip from Philly to Detroit with his mentor, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives. This is meant to be a trip to a wedding, but it becomes apparent in the final third of the film that Bufalino is going to call on Sheeran's higher loyalty to him than to Hoffa, by making him kill Hoffa personally. "I have to put you in this" he says.  

And then finally, we get to the meat of the film, which is a linear re-telling of Sheeran's story from the time he met Bufalino to his life in the nursing home. He starts of as a truck driver who steals for the mafiosi, then starts driving for them, then "painting walls" aka murdering people, and providing protection for Hoffa. The fact that Sheeran even makes it to the nursing home is already a gag, as time and again, we see darkly humorous subtitles telling us how various mafiosi were brutally killed shortly after the action we're witnessing. Sheeran is literally the last man standing.

The resulting story is - as I said - baggy in its first and especially final hour - but when it's solidly in the meat of its 1960s and 1970s storyline it's as pacy and compelling and stunningly put together as anything Scorsese has ever done.  The way in which he frames a shot, or explicitly moves a lens as if its our eye panning a room, or jump cuts from a violent shot to a stylish lounge scene - the way in which he uses incidental music - it's just another league from the other films at this festival, or on release, period.  The performances are also tremendous, and I have to say the subtle use of CGI de-ageing tech is an absolute success.

For me, the star of the show is Joe Pesci. His performance is so quiet, so powerful, so menacing, and so controlled.  He can condemn a man to death with the slightest, barely noticeable, nod of his head. It's also interesting to compare him with Harvey Keitel as the even more powerful Angelo Bruno. He barely says a word in the entire movie. The two characters are quiet, understated and petrifying.  Contrast this with Al Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa - perfect casting as Hoffa needs to be (at times) bombastic, to contrast with the mafiosi's quiet menace. Hoffa's problem is a complete lack of self-awareness. Even when they're all turning on him, he just doesn't get it. He still obsesses over "my union".  He doesn't understand he sold it to the mafia years prior.  But this isn't one of those pastiche Pacino large performance. Sure, Hoffa has elements of that. But he can also be quiet and fragile. There's also a lovely contrast between Hoffa, who's downfall is that he's so emotional, seeing the benefits of that in a beautiful family life. He's even close to Sheeran's daughter Peggy (lovely facial acting in an almost wordless and thankless role).  By contrast, Peggy instinctively withdraws from her father and Bufalino.  They are left alone.  As for De Niro, his performance is strong, as we come to expect, but his character is in some ways the least interesting of the "big three". I would nominate Pesci for the awards, every time.

In smaller roles, and I really can't state this highly enough, can we get some awards love for Stephen Graham as the dangerously explosive mafiosi Tony Pro?  There are a couple of scenes where he has to go toe to toe with Pacino's Hoffa at his most powerful and domineering and my god, Graham's Tony Pro gives as good as he gets.  Graham is in no way outclassed by Pacino, and Pacino is pretty fucking classy.  Best Supporting Actor? No doubt.

THE IRISHMAN is rated R and has a running time of 209 minutes. The movie played New York and London 2019. It opens in cinemas on limited release on November 1st in the USA and November 8th in the UK, and will be released globally on Netflix on November 27th.

JUDY & PUNCH - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Twelve


Debut writer-director has created something really wonderful in her strange fable JUDY & PUNCH. It's set in a vaguely medieval world but reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman in its ability to comment on contemporary issues through the lens of fantasy.  I loved its wit, its intelligence, and its ultimately rather wonderful message about the wisdom of women and outsiders.

The film stars Mia Wasikowska (ALICE IN WONDERLAND) and Damon Herriman (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD) as the eponymous puppeteers, whose theatrical show is the deeply politically incorrect one from our youth. The puppet Punch beats up his wife Judy, and the policeman who comes to break things up, and the dog who tries to steal his sausages.  Charming! And amazing that this was still considered acceptable children's entertainment in my childhood. The plot turns on Punch being violent in real life too, and apparently murdering his wife in a rage. But she's rescued by outlaws who turn out to be just a bunch of skilled people who caught the suspicion and paranoia of the bigoted villagers. 

It's truly wonderful seeing the submissive but talented Judy come into her own and discover her power as the film progresses. It's also wonderful to see Punch portrayed with empathy if not excuses. He's a deeply frustrated man and an alcoholic. As the film progresses one sense that he actually does love Judy - just not as much as he loves himself.  And in the wider depiction of the village, there's something darkly funny but also desperately sad about how it seems to get a certain kind of political madness that has infected our times.

The beauty of this film is that it never lets the message overwhelm the characters and the plot.  This isn't an allegory but a character-led, moving story.  Moreover, it features a really powerful performance by Herriman which at times evokes Heath Ledger's Joker. 

JUDY & PUNCH has a running time of 105 minutes. The film played Sundance, Sitges and London 2019.  It will be released in the UK on November 15th. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eleven


I don't think Marielle Heller's A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD is a well-made film.  The script, from Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, doesn't seem to know how to get the movie started.  It feels like we get two or three starts.  And then it's full of cliches - like a hard-boiled news editor that kicks her star writer's self-pity with angry curses.  The biggest cliche of all is the cynical broken man (journalist Lloyd Vogel) being healed by a manic pixelates dream girl, sorry a hooker with a heart of gold, sorry, a beloved children's TV show host!  Everything else about the film is mediocre.  The cinematography is weak - look at the night shots outside of the hospital that just aren't lit properly.    There's nothing visually imaginative about the film in terms of framing or sound design. Honestly, the only vaguely interesting things are the animated versions of New York and Pittsburgh inspired by the Mr Rogers show.

For all that, this is a strangely effective film.  Rather than giving us a conventional biopic of Mr Rogers (as in the fantastic documentary WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR) what we are shown is the impact Mr Rogers had on people.  Lloyd Vogel is thus a stand-in for us, the post-modern cynical audience.  Vogel tries to find an angle on Mr Rogers but there isn't one to be found. He really is a very patient, kind, caring, thoughtful man.  He's also impervious to cynicism. And as we see him repair Lloyd's broken relationship with his father, we too ponder those imperfect and painful relationships of our own, and long for the wisdom and care of Mr Rogers in our own lives.  It's no surprise that I cried at this film, and that the three people I watched it with also cried. None of knew Mr Rogers from our own British childhoods, but his message of compassion, kindness and care were meaningful.

To that end, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is almost the inverse of Pablo Larrain's EMA.  The latter was a beautifully made film about an awful person that left me cold. The former is a mediocre film about at outstanding character that moved me deeply.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD has a running time of 107 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2019. It will be released in the USA on November 22nd and in the UK on December 6th. 

TWO OF US - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eleven


TWO OF US isn't the showiest or flashiest film in this year's London Film Festival but is has to be one of the most beautifully acted, cleverly constructed and deeply moving. It's all the more impressive as it's director Filippo Meneghetti debut feature, and displays a lot of subtle style. Take for example his use of camera shots through peepholes in doors - or the way in which he uses a subtle flashback/dream sequence at the start - or the sound design around an overheating frying pan as a woman lies in a stroke on the floor, hidden from view. This is a confident director who knows how to frame a shot and stage a scene. 

The film centres of Madeleine and Nina, two old women who have been in love and together for 20 years. The only problem is that Madeleine cannot find the courage to tell her grown children, especially the son who blames her for not loving his father enough. So the women maintain two apartments, across the hallway from each other.  One is empty, and one is their home.  But the kids think that Nina is just their mother's neighbour and friend. 

This charade is blown out of the water when Madeleine has a stroke, and is then brought home with a carer. She slowly restores mobility but cannot speak.  Poor Nina finds herself cut out of Madeleine's life, and indeed her home.  Increasingly frustrated she tries everything she can to insinuate herself back into Mado's life, and when the kids suspect, to track down Mado in her nursing home.  Even more moving, we see the strength of love, and how a severely restricted Mado struggles to physically find Nina and be with the woman she loves.

The resulting film is wonderfully observed and deeply affecting. I absolutely believed in the strength of Mado and Nina's love, and in the uncomprehending anger of the children. Martine Chevallier is superb as Mado but this is really  Barbara Sukowa’s film. Her Nina can be tender, angry, clever, defeated - but always, always in love.  There's nothing more beautiful and sympathetic than that. 

TWO OF US has a running time of 95 minutes.  The film played Toronto and London 2019.  It does not yet have a commercial release date. 

EMA - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eleven


EMA is the most frustrating movie I've seen in a long time. As directed by Pablo Larrain (JACKIE), photographed by Sergio Armstrong (THE CLUB) and scored by Nicolas Jaar, this is a film of rare beauty and vitality.   The visuals are arresting, the dance scenes captivating.  For much of the film we are trained on Ema's face at the centre of the screen, contemplative, confronting.  This film looks and feels like a masterpiece.  And for its first hour I was convinced it was going to be.  Something has gone horribly wrong. The boy, Polo, that Ema and her husband (Gael García Bernal) adopted somehow set a fire on her sister, and they ended up sending him back.  Each parent is full of recrimination and they say truly brutal things to each other. Ema is also subject to outright prejudice and bullying from her work colleagues. There's something about a "failed" mother that provokes judgmental attitudes in people beyond the criticism that a father faces.  Up until this point I was fully on Ema's side. The problem is that as the movie progresses, without spoiling anything, we discover that Ema is a narcissistic, childish, reckless woman.  She didn't provoke feelings of sympathy in me but feelings of judgment, horror and fear.  All the matters is what she feels and needs - no matter how many adults or children are manipulated and endangered in the process.  And the ending of the film, which honestly is so absurd, felt as though it was rewarding this behaviour.  So you get to the end of the film and think, what a waste of so much talent and creative brilliance on a subject as absurd, unsympathetic and frankly bizarre as this. 

EMA has a running time of 102 minutes. The film played Venice, Toronto and London. It does not yet have a commercial release date. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

THE STREET - BFI London Film Festival 2019


THE STREET is a fascinating but half-examined documentary about the gentrification of East London, and the impact this has on the local low-income community. The word "community" is a deeply charged one here. Many of the interviewees who live or work on Hoxton Street clearly see their community as being "English" - Caucasian, multi-generational East-end residents. They don't hold with "poncy" foreign food or vendors who "can't speak English properly". This is transparently racist. Later in the documentary, we are given half an explanation of why this strength of feeling might exist: with social housing in such short supply, and homelessness on the rise, being held back in a queue for housing because a newly arrived immigrant family has taken in causes "strong feelings".

The good news is that the director, Zed Nelson, does not blame immigrants - indeed at many points he shows them to be contributing to the local economy and actively helping the community by organising soup kitchens. Rather, he gives us three villains of the piece - the Conservative government's austerity policies that cut welfare and increased homelessness; the property developers converting derelict existing buildings into luxury flats; and the seemingly oblivious Nathan-Barley-esque invading trust-fund hipsters. I have no problem with Nelson focusing on these groups, although the picture is more complex, as his own documentary shows. It turns out that the art gallery previously shown as pretentious employed a dynamic young British-African woman called Khadija who died tragically in the Grenfell fire. At her memorial service we see a new kind of community gather, no less heartfelt or valid than the old Hoxton community.

My only issue with this doc was its reluctant to call out LOCAL and therefore Labour Party politicians for allowing rampant re-development. As much as it might be easy for progressive film-makers to finger a Tory government, it's the local government that determines local planning consents and negotiates the proportion of any new development that is social and affordable housing. The dirty secret that isn't brought to light is that the left-wing council in Hackney WANTS gentrification because it increases the tax base and reduces the welfare bill.

THE STREET has a running time of 94 minutes.  It is playing at the BFI London Film Festival 2019 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

JOKER


JOKER is such a hyped movie - both positive and negative - that I felt I needed to watch it and form my own views before I drowned in the commentary.  I also recognise the irony in me now adding to that cacophony of praise and outrage.  But for what it's worth, these are my thoughts.

Todd Phillips has - with his production designer and cinematographer - created a really evocative view of late 70s/early 80s pre-Giuliani New York.  His Gotham City is full of filthy streets, piled-up garbage bags, sleazy sex shows and petty crime.  There's discontent and inequality. Thomas Wayne is proposing he fix the mess, bringing his business acumen to bear as Mayor, but he's not the shining beacon of decency we've come to expect.  He has little sympathy for the "clowns" who haven't managed to make anything of their lives.

In the midst of a city on the edge, we find Arthur Fleck. A mentally ill man who has delusions and narcissistic personality disorder. He also has a kind of Tourette's where he laughs at inopportune moments.  He works as a clown, and aspires to be a stand-up comedian, but he clearly has no gift for comedy, or even simple human relationships. Beaten up; dismissed from his job; feeling abandoned by his father; and mocked by his hero - a late night TV show host, Arthur snaps. But his violence isn't the anarchic chaos of Heath Ledger's Joker. Rather, it's targeted vengeance at those he thinks have wronged him. Twice in the film he has a chance to kill people who have been nice to him and he doesn't.  So his mental illness does not exculpate him from charges of murder:  he very much knows right from wrong and chooses to cross the line anyway. 

Joaquin Phoenix is superb in the role of Joker, although his career best remains in THE MASTER. He physically transforms - losing weight, making himself small and twisted, showing us a desperation and anger - a desire for connection and adulation, and an anger that the world simply doesn't "see" him.  Robert de Niro is also good as the late night host: in a  final confrontation with Joker he is admirably cool, perceptive and interrogatory, asking the questions and making the points that the audience might well want articulated. I certainly did.  But the other characters are very thinly written. Poor Zazie Beetz has very little to do as the Joker's neighbour and purported love interest. Similarly Frances Conroy as Joker's mum has little to do other than deliver a single brutal line.  

No, this is very much Phoenix's film. And at times I found that claustrophobic and actually a tedious. I think Phillips wants it to be claustrophobic He wants us to be immersed in the Joker's head.  But I just didn't want to be there. I found it (rightly) uncomfortable. The fundamental structural issue with the film is therefore, for me, that Phillips has made Joker the protagonist, and therefore wants us at minimum to understand his descent into violence, and at most to empathise with it. And I don't want to empathise with it - I find it almost irresponsible too - and therefore I also didn't want to spend time understanding it.  I felt Robert de Niro spoke for me when he accused Joker of just making excuses.  Yes life sucks for him, it sucks for many, we don't all shoot people.

There's another structural issue in this film: the unreliable narrator. I quite like a good unreliable narrator drama, but I felt this was so obvious and heavy handed as to be patronising.  I know Joker is imagining his relationship with his neighbour, I don't need Phillips to show me this in flashback scenes that cut between Joker with her and without her.  I also think you get to a point where you start doubting everything.  Did Joker really dance on the car bonnet for his radical minions at the end? Or was he just driven straight to the asylum?  Is Bruce Wayne really a shit and is Gotham City really so grungy or is this just Joker's projection?  Was Joker's mum really delusional or was she actually just gaslit by Wayne?  There are so many of these choose-your-own-interpretation moments that at some points it all just collapses in on itself, and I found mysel not caring. In the words of one of my friends, mocking this unreliability, "Maybe Joker just commits suicide in the fridge and everything after is just a dream".  

My final major issue with this film is the same one I had with Noah Baumbach's MARRIAGE STORY.  I get that great directors are cineliterate and inspired by the greats of history. But simply to recreate an iconic style from a single past director isn't enough. Baumbach makes a great late 80s Woody Allen film.  Phillips had made a great mash-up of TAXI DRIVER and KING OF COMEDY. But it isn't enough. In his interpretation of Batman, Christopher Nolan took all that cinema history and added his own originality to make something truly pioneering. Joker features a great performance and great design, but it just isn't that. 

JOKER is rated R and has a running time of 122 minutes. It is on global release.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

I AM (NOT) A MONSTER - BFI London Film Festival 2019


Nelly Ben Hayoun's I AM (NOT) A MONSTER is - to be frank - a bunch of pretentious wank. She's apparently trying to discover the origins of knowledge by doing lots of expensive superficial things like flying to Ethiopia and seeing the bones of "Lucy" and asking the museum director if this is the origin of knowledge, or flying to the British Museum and looking at the Rosetta Stone and asking the curator if this is the origin of knowledge. And this sums up exactly what's so frustrating of this documentary - she gets such brilliant access to some really smart and knowledgeable people and COULD have made a documentary that was focussed and discursive and fascinating.  Her adoption of Hannah Arendt as a philosopher-muse, does open up the beginnings of some really vital questions about our contemporary flirtation with authoritarianism. Time and again in this doc we see an eminent philosopher or political theorist begin to discuss what Arendt might have made of this time, only to have Ben Hayoun cut away to some utterly juvenile project involving a puppet that looks like Arendt.  Arendt deserves better - these museum curators and philosophers deserve better - and we the audience deserve better.

I AM (NOT) A MONSTER is screening in the BFI London Film Festival Documentary Competition. It has a running time of 98 minutes. It does not yet have a commercial release date.


LOST LIVES - BFI London Film Festival 2019


Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt have, in LOST LIVES, created a film of such simplicity but no less power for that. It is based on a book crafted by a handful of journalists listing all the lives lost in the Northern Ireland Troubles, whether from the IRA, the Unionists or journalists and bystanders caught in the crossfire.  Each entry lists who that person was, how they died, and how it affected their loved ones.  In this film, Lavery and Hewitt select a representative sample of lives and have famous actors from either side of that contentious border read out those tragic stories.  The actors include Kenneth Branagh, Ciaran Hinds, Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea and James Nesbitt.    These narrations are set against archive footage of the people who were killed, newsreel footage, interviews with their family from the time - a collage effect that essays quickly the impact that death had on their family and community.  The cumulative impact is intense, provocative, and so much more devastating when we realise that lives are continuing to be lost into 2019. It focuses the mind, and personalises the horror.  This is a beautifully curated, vital, and important film - especially at the current political juncture. 

LOST LIVES has a running time of 93 minutes. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

THE PAINTED BIRD - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eight


Writer-director Václav Marhoul has created, in THE PAINTED BIRD, the first undeniable masterpiece of this year's BFI London Film Festival. It's a film of rare courage and stunning cinematography. I couldn't write this review last night. I had to sit to sit with the film for a while. And even now I feel somewhat incapable of describing how I feel about it other than to say that it is unique, powerful, unflinching, and devastating.  Every scene feels so deliberately and carefully shot. The black and white photography so stunning. And yet the content is so brutal. 

The movie is based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski.  You might have heard of him as the man who wrote the novel upon which Peter Sellars stunning BEING THERE was based. However, before that, he was a literary sensation in America, thanks largely to this book.  When he published it he claimed they were his memoirs of being a small abandoned Jewish boy trying to survive the Holocaust in Central Europe. However, he was exposed as a liar. His book was made up of episodes taken from other works published in Polish but unavailable in the West.  Despite this, many of his early supporters, including Elie Wiesel, continued to support him after he was exposed, because his book contained an essential and controversial truth:  that while the Holocaust was perpetrated by the Nazis, the peasants of central Europe were no less anti-semitic and violent. This is also something that comes across powerfully in Claude Lanzmann's  SHOAH.  Of course, making this point today is very contentious. Poland recently passed a law making it illegal to accuse the Polish of being complicit in the Holocaust. One wonders whether this film will be released there, or indeed in Hungary and Ukraine.

Anyway, all this so much context to what is a brutal but also beautiful film about the worst of humanity. It depicts central European peasants living in World War Two but effectively in circumstances unchanged since the Middle Ages. It's a harsh rural life without electricity or cars or running water.  Intellectually these people are riddled with superstition and prejudice. They indulge at minimum in anti-Semitic brutality. At worst in incest, bestiality and child sex abuse. The Catholic priest (Harvey Keitel) offers platitudes but throws our poor protagonist into the most severe danger (Julian Sands), knowingly, in a harsh analogy to the current child sex abuse scandals.  What kindness the boy experiences is fleeting. A Nazi soldier lets him flee in a deeply moving and enigmatic performance by Stellan Skarsgard. Later, two Soviet soldiers take him under their wing - again a deeply moving performance from Barry Pepper.  In general, it almost feels like the men with guns are at least better to him because they operate according to some kind of rules, whereas the peasants are just living in some kind of wild west brutality that's beyond reason.

THE PAINTED BIRD has had a lot of attention because of some people walking out of screenings because of the graphic scenes of violence, and indeed sexual violence. And yes that's tough, but it's endurable. The far more emotionally difficult segment is at the end, seeing this innocent boy turned murderer because he has been so brutalised by events. The final scene, of a boy etching his name into the frost, is by far the most perilous to watch. 

THE PAINTED BIRD has a running time of 169 minutes.  The film played Venice, Toronto and London 2019. It does not yet have a commercial release date.  For those who want to know more about Kosinski check out James Park Sloan's superb biography.

GREED - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eight


GREED is a witty satire undone by heavy-handed politics and a Chekhov's Lion last act twist that is so obvious and absurd it can only be described as a Marxist masturbatory fantasy. It's a movie whose politics were perfectly in keeping with the anti-capitalist Millenarian rabble up the road on Trafalgar Square, with a similar level of intelligence and nuance. I didn't learn anything about Phillip Green and his ilk that I - and anyone else who reads a newspaper - didn't already know. And I didn't need a lecture on fast fashion at the end of the film. I also didn't need a very reductive version of how fast fashion exploits workers.  Those seeking a more nuanced view of what those jobs are worth to Asian women, and how they are empowering themselves, should watch MADE IN BANGLADESH instead.

That said, if, and it's a big if, you can ignore the final fifteen minutes of this film and Winerbottom's unsubtle politics, there's a lot to like about GREED.  Steve Coogan is very good as a preening narcissist. To use a line from the film, "but you're playing yourself, so it doesn't need to be method." Shirley Henderson is absolutely class as the mogul's Irish mother, both as a young woman and as a grandma.  There's something very convincing about her tirade at the priggish public school headmaster patronising the Irish immigrant. And some of that immigrant drives ring true to my family's desire to make good. Ambition is different/fiercer/stronger when you've been locked out and kicked down. But it's David Mitchell as the biographer writing McCreadie's life story who gets all the best lines, and one wonders how much of that was written by Winterbottom or ad-libbed by Mitchell. I also really liked a sub-plot about McCreadie's feckless daughter filming a reality show, with real-life reality star Ollie Locke. There's some really great social commentary here. Shame it gets so obvious when it comes to its immigrant and anti-capitalist politics. 

GREED has a running time of 100 minutes.  It played Toronto and London 2019 and will be released in the UK on February 21st 2020.

EARTHQUAKE BIRD - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eight


I walked into EARTHQUAKE BIRD expecting a cool, subversive, erotic thriller. What I got was a really banal, mediocre movie that I've already half-forgotten.  The problem is that it doesn't have the courage of its convictions. It's neither a high art emotional drama/character study of a woman dealing with grief and obsessive love.  Nor is it a psychological melodrama along the lines of BLACK SWAN in which a woman is gaslit and turned mad by her creepy lover.  Nor is it a straightforward schlocky 1980s thriller of the BLACK RAIN variety.  It just....sort of....is. This is a great disappointment given how surprisingly good Wash Westmoreland's last film, COLETTE, was. This very much seems like a step backward.

Anyway, what's it all about?  Alicia Vikander plays a quite literally buttoned up Westerner called Lucy who has settled into Japan and almost perfectly assimilated into the culture.  She falls for a handsome noodle cook/moody photographer called Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi). The problem is that he seems to also be attracted to Lily (Riley Keough) - a new arrival, and apparently the stereotype of a crass ex-pat.  At first, Lucy condescends to Lily but soon becomes jealous of her.  This all ends with a mysterious disappearance and a police cell, but I promise you, you really won't care.  Not that it's bad.  My goodness, Vikander seems to be speaking very good Japanese, and Keough is compelling in yet another of "sexually available" roles.  But there's no real bite here. Nothing to really hook us in.  Hugely disappointing.

EARTHQUAKE BIRD has a running time of 107 minutes and is rated R. It will be released on November 1st in the USA and November 8th in the UK in cinemas and then globally on November 15th on Netflix.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

WALKING WITH SHADOWS - BFI London Film Festival 2019


WALKING WITH SHADOWS is a fascinating film set in contemporary Nigeria about what happens when an apparently happily married man is outed as gay. The man in question is Ebele/Adrian (Ozzy Agu). He realised he was gay and had an affair as a younger man but also realised he risked losing his family and status if he pursued it. So he gets married and has kids, and suppresses his feelings until his wife receives an anonymous phone call.  It's interesting seeing how Adrian copes, but I was far more interested in his wife Ada's reaction. Perhaps in England one's first reaction wouldn't be to get an HIV test, but apparently that seems a credible threat in Nigeria. In the most fascinating scene of all, the wife is invited to lunch with a group of polished and poised women. At first we wonder if she's going to be mocked and excoriated because of the gossip circling the town. But no, it turns out they're all married to gay men, and have come to terms with being so, because at least they are still financially supported. The resulting film is moving, relatively well acted and shot but most of all of interest as a social portrait of queer acceptance, or lack thereof in Nigeria. 

WALKING WITH SHADOWS has a running time of 90 minutes. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eight


MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND is an absolute must-see doc for anyone who loves cinema. It's a fascinating primer on all those behind the lens talents who create the soundscape of the films we watch.  With admirably clear organisation director Midge Costin takes us through the history of sound in cinema, from the silent era, to those mono sound-tracks with unimaginative off-the-shelf sound FX, to the rise of stereo, then quadrophonic sound, to the modern age. We hear from all the greats - whether those who commissioned or created the sound. I was delighted to see Barbra Streisand given real credit for how she pushed the studio to give her the time and money she needed to get the sound just right on her version of A STAR IS BORN.  We hear from her, as well as pioneers such as David Lynch, Lucas, Spielberg and Lassiter. And as for the talents in the sound business, we begin with Walter Murch of APOCALYPSE NOW fame, then onto Ben Burtt from STAR WARS, and onto the contemporary men, AND women, who create the sounds that pique our imaginations.

Not only was the history of sound fascinating, but I also loved the final segment which took us through what each individual part of the sound spectrum did - from recording voices in production, to adding in sound effects, to ambient environmental sound, to the score.  If you ever wondered what ADR was, or what a foley artist did, this is your film.  You also get to see what re-recording mixers do.

I learned so much from this documentary, but what was really wonderful was just feeling the passion and talent of all the interviewees.  This is why I love movies about making movies!  They simply reignite my passion for this craft, and make me appreciate all the more the unsung heroes who make it happen.

MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND has a running time of 94 minutes. The film played Cannes, Tribeca and London 2019. It will be released in the USA on October 26th and in the UK on November 1st.

KNIVES OUT - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eight


KNIVES OUT isn't a bad movie. The luscious production design, the all-star cast, the three, count 'em, three laugh-out-loud moments are truly funny.  But I had expected so much more from writer-director Rian Johnson than just a straightforward old-fashioned slow-paced closed-house murder-mystery. I had expected some of the subversion of his debut modern high-school noir BRICK. I had expected at least some of the piquancy of a Wes Anderson movie, whose production design (THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS anyone?!) he so clearly apes.  But no. Oh no. What I got was a murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie but less well penned.  I guessed the first hour twist in the first five minutes, and the second hour twist in the first ten minutes of that hour. At least the second hour was more pacy. The first hour was so slow and dull that if I hadn't been trapped in the middle of the row I might've left.  I didn't understand the resounding laughter of the audience who were clearly having a good time. Maybe they just read less murder mysteries than I do and so were genuinely surprised at the ending?  I also really didn't like the heavy-handed political point that the film was trying to make. Ooooh look at all those exploitative rich white dick-heads bested by a warm-hearted immigrant.   What a waste of Christopher Plummer, of Michael Shannon, of so many others.  What a pain to sit through Daniel Craig's piss-poor Poirot pastiche and his Southern drawl.  The only real interest was seeing relative newcomer Ana de Armas do a great job as the "help" and protagonist of the film.  As a closing comment, it's interesting that I love detective fiction and thought Rian Johnson did a mediocre job with this. And I really liked LOOPER, but my husband who actually does life sci-fi, thought THAT was mediocre.  Maybe Rian Johnson just makes mediocre sci-fi movies that anyone who really loves the genre sees right through?

KNIVES OUT has a running time of 130 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2019. It is released in the USA on November 27th and in the UK on November 29th.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Seven


Writer-director Céline Sciamma has been creating beautifully acted, intimate portraits of female friendships since WATERLILIES, which was also the first movie in which I saw, and was impressed by, Adele Haenel. In her latest film she gives us another film by women, about women.  Set in the 18th century, it stars Noemie Merlant as a portrait painter called Marianne, commissioned by a Countess (Valeria Golino) to capture the likeness of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel). The only problem is that the likeness must be captured in secret: Heloise doesn't want her portrait to be painted as it will be sent to her future husband in Milan.  So the two women start to go for walks, and over the first hour of the film form an uneasy friendship.  It's only when the Countess leaves for five days in the second hour of the film that their closeness can be expressed as love.  But this is not just the story of a life-defining week of love. Huge kudos also to Luàna Bajrami playing the servant girl Sophie, trying to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy using old wives' herbal remedies and finally a backstreet abortion.

This is a film with very little interest in men. Apart from a sailor or servant at the start and end of the film, they rarely feature.  Rather this is a film about the impact that men have on women, and the spaces they try to create for themselves to provide support, friendship and love. The Countess is imprisoned in a deserted manor house, desperate to return to her beloved Milan.  Heloise is being forced into an arranged marriage. Marianne cannot fulfil her promise as a painter because the Academy won't allow her to paint male nudes and so learn anatomy, or submit pictures in her own name. And Sophie has to take increasingly desperate steps to not fall victim of her own biology.

As a result, the hinge of the film is a deeply evocative scene half way through the movie, where our three heroines go to a kind of women's meeting on a heath. As they sing and dance around a fire at night, it almost feels like a kind of witches coven - but in the best kind of way. It's a place where women can bond, have fun, let loose, express emotions they had kept suppressed, and seek. The result in a deliberately paced, evocative, intimate film about women viewing women, loving them, supporting them, and daring to snatch moments of happiness within the constraints of the patriarchy.  

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE has a running time of 119 minutes. It played Cannes where it won the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay.  It also played Telluride, Toronto and London. It opens in the USA on December 6th. It does not yet have a commercial release date in the UK.

THE TWO POPES - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Seven


I realise that all reviews are subjective reactions, but this will be even moreso than normal. I can't pretend to review a film about the two living Popes without referencing my own complicated history with the Catholic Church and deep feelings about both characters. What I can say is that director Fernando Meirelles (CITY OF GOD) and writer Anthony McCarten (DARKEST HOUR) have created a movie of rare compassion and good humour. The only criticism one might make is in the asymmetry of its interrogation - more of which later.

As the film opens, we see the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedictus XVI aka the old Cardinal Ratzinger.  We see this in brilliant visual-kinetic form, with quick cutting and sumptuous production design taking us into the theatre of the College of Cardinals and their ancient rituals.  It's an election fought between doctrinaires and reformers, and the conservatives win. Ratzinger is depicted then and throughout as vain, power-hungry, in love with the trappings of his office. He is German - so comes from the rich heart of the Catholic world.  His rival, the future Francis I, is a reformer, modest by nature, from the periphery of Catholicism - the poverty of rural Argentina.

We quickly move Benedictus to his moment of crisis. The Church is beset by scandals over the Vatican Bank, and most heinously the child sex abuse scandal.  It was Ratzinger's role in covering this up, in his role prior to being Pope, that made me cry when he was chosen.  He struck me as more concerned to save the reputation of the Church than to protect innocent children. And then of course he shocked us by announcing his retirement!  Not entirely unprecedented but shocking all the same.

This decision, and his alleged conversations with his chosen successor, form the meat of the film.  I have no idea if the two men met on such terms, or if Ratzinger ever had a change of heart that made him advocate for a reformer. I severely doubt it. But as presented, this is a deeply moving relationship.  At first, Ratzinger keeps his motives to himself, and keeps Francis at a distance, literally backing away from a hug.  But as the conversations develop we suddenly realise that we are moving into the sacrament of confession, mutually performed by the two priests.

It is posited that Francis is motivated by penance - for his collaboration with the totalitarian regime in Argentina when head of the Jesuit church there.  After this he has a change of heart, of conscience, is stripped of his power, and becomes a liberation theologist in the poorest parts of Argentina.  From conservative to quasi Marxist is quite the leap.  As Ratzinger so eloquently puts it, Francis must accept the mercy he believes the Church should embody.  He is absolved.  In this part of the story, told movingly in flashback by a simply marvellous Jonathan Pryce, I was equally impressed by Juan Minujin as his younger self. 

We then move to Ratzinger's confession. I am not sure what Mereilles' motivation was, but here is where we get the asymmetric interrogation. While we go through the emotional grind with Francis, we barely here Ratzinger's confession. The film almost skips over his handling of the child sex abuse scandal as if too appalled to go there or maybe - just maybe - too respectful of the office and its previous holder to accuse a Pope?  He too is absolved, and seems relieved. This is far less satisfying.

We then move to the film's final act.  Francis is elected, eschews the "cabaret" and sets about changing the Church. He speaks to climate change, reaches out to the poor, to refugees in Lampadusa.  And we are led to believe that his friendship continues with a comedy watch of the world cup final between Germany and Argentina at the end.

Overall, I found this to be a profoundly moving film, especially as regards the depiction of Francis.  When he is elected and moves to the balcony to make his first ever speech as Pope, I had tears in my eyes.  And yes, I know that Ratzinger was given an easy ride, but I would like to think that everyone is capable of redemption, forgiveness, and peace, and if this indeed why and how the previous Pope retired it brings me genuine happiness. I just wish I could believe it. 

TWO POPES has a running time of 126 minutes and is rated PG-13.  It played Telluride, Toronto and London 2019. It will have a limited theatrical release on November 27th before being released on Netflix on December 20th.

THE AERONAUTS - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Seven


Despite my cynicism at another of those classy awards-bait earnest turns from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, I am overjoyed to report that THE AERONAUTS is an absolutely captivating film, with characters that I deeply cared about, stunning visuals, and a wonderful message.  In these dark times, it's just so refreshing to have a film that's all about how science benefits humanity, and that it's worth risking your life for.  It's also refreshing to have a film featuring a strong female lead who doesn't confirm to society's misogynistic template of where she should find fulfilment and happiness. A couple of times I feared the film might want to give us a schmaltzy Hollywood ending but it resisted.  Science is enough! We don't need hokey romance.

So what's it all about? THE AERONAUTS is based on the memoirs of the real-life meteorologist James Glaisher, who in the 1860s flew a hot air balloon to 37,000 feet, breaking by far the previous record, and gathering all sorts of useful and wondrous scientific data.  In real life, he did it with a co-pilot who was male, but the film posits that his pilot was a female - Amelia Wren, who had flown with her now deceased husband Pierre.  In this version of events, while Glaisher (Redmayne) is a keen scientist, he lacks practical experience and very much needs Amelia's help.  Amelia (Jones) is a talented pilot but also a pragmatic entertainer.  She realises that she almost has to be a circus performer entertaining the crowd.  Throughout their journey, it's Amelia who is in control, both technically and emotionally. And this really is her story more than James'.

I really loved how the aeronautical experiment takes place in real time, with the height and time passed showed in a graph on screen. The production design, including this device, is all stunningly beautiful, and the cinematography and vis-effects are wondrous, and never feel fake.  The film really filled me with the excitement of being above the cloud line, I was alive to every twist and turn, and felt the excitement of every challenge. 

So kudos to all involved behind the lens - especially director and co-writer Tom Harper (WILD ROSE), to co-writer Jack Thorne (WAR BOOK), cinematographer George Steel (WILD ROSE) and production designers (David Hindle and Christian Huband). 

THE AERONAUTS has a running time of 101 minutes, and played Toronto, Telluride and London 2019. It will be released in the UK on November 6th and in the USA on December 6th.

Monday, October 07, 2019

PREMATURE - BFI London Film Festival 2019


Ayanna (Zora Howard) is a naive bookish teenager bound for liberal arts college in the Fall.  But before that, her summer is upended by a chance encounter with Isaiah (Joshua Boone) that turns into a full-blown summer love-affair that - interestingly - she instigates.  He's older than her, and she loves his passion for music and ideas. She feels confident enough to open sexually and intellectually, sharing that she writes poetry.  It's intense and overwhelming, and ripe for a reality check when Isaiah's white ex-girlfriend shows up, or every time he gets into an argument with her friends over politics. The way in which both parties deal with the rift speaks to Ayanna's relative and understandable immaturity.  There's a third act twist that's beautifully and responsibly handled, and navigated, as the entire film, with real authenticity and nuance. And as we leave the couple at the end of the summer, there's a lovely ambiguity as to what will happen next.

I really was interested in the relationship, thanks mostly to Zora Howard's beautiful acting and writing. It also helps knowing she was pivotal in crafting the film alongside debut director Rashaad Ernesto Green, so that the explicit sex scenes don't come off as exploitative. But the really beautiful thing in this film is the backdrop to the relationship - our window into contemporary Harlem, in sunkissed 16mm - the way in which young people debate politics, or simply just hang out in launderettes, and the beautiful support system that young black women and their mothers have to provide for each other. 

PREMATURE has a running time of 86 minutes. It played Sundance and London 2019 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL - BFI London Film Festival 2019


Stanley Nelson (BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION)  has created an impeccably constructed, and arguably definitive, documentary biography of the iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. His film, MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL is both musical and personal biography and benefits from incredible access.  On the musical side, we have talking heads from band members, music historians and contemporary musicians who were deeply affected by his work - most articulate of all is Carlos Santana. On the personal side we have very moving interviews with his lovers.  What comes across is a nuanced and clear-minded picture of a musical genius struggling with his own demons.  The movie never shies away from telling about his jealously abusive relationships, his drug addiction, and neurotic anger.  As his first and most significant lover, Francine says at the end, one wonders how such a violent man can create such beautiful music.  You also feel very deeply how much Miles was loved to the end, even while people acknowledged how difficult he was to deal with.  The result is a deeply compelling, moving and elucidating film that brings unparalleled depth to our understanding of this musician. For example, I had never truly appreciated how far his later works were laying down the foundations for hip-hop and garage until this film. And insofar as his struggle was part of the wider struggle of black men to get respect in white America - and his humiliations unshielded by his wealth and fame - one would hope that this film would have some appeal beyond jazz aficionados.

MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL has a running time of 100 minutes. It played Sundance 2019 and was released in the USA in August. It is playing the London Film Festival and does not yet have a commercial release date for the UK.

MARRIAGE STORY - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Six


Writer-director Noah Baumbach has created, in MARRIAGE STORY, the best Woody Allen film since the late 1980s. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about a director so closely replicating the technique of another even if it's a technique I so admire and it's done so well.  But if I push that slight queasiness to one side, I have to admit that MARRIAGE STORY is one of the most authentic, heartfelt and beautifully acted relationship dramas I've seen in some time, and I hope that Baumbach, Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern are duly reward with award nominations.

The story is a deeply personal and relatable one.  It's based on Noah Baumbach's own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, and acted by Scarlett Johansson in the midst of her own divorce.  Two fundamentally decent good people find they cannot live together anymore.  The husband - a theatre director - feels that his wife, his star actress - has cooled sexually, resents her for his having been married and faithful in his prime, and so has an affair.  The wife resents the fact that her career has been subsumed into his, that he so steadfastly considers them a New York family when she wants to go back to LA, that she's never given the chance to direct.  In the most trenchant line of the film, her lawyer points out that when he wants something it's a debate, but when she wants something it's just a discussion.

They begin the divorce process hoping not to involve lawyers. They have precious little money to split - the only real contention is custody and specifically where their primary home will be - are they a New York or LA family. But as she files for divorce when shooting a pilot in LA, as her kid was born in LA, he's in school there while she shoots the pilot, it all seems to go in her favour. Moreover, she hires a no-nonsense cut-throat lawyer played by Laura Dern, while he hires a decent lawyer played by Alan Alda. This all winds through - we get an absolutely superb, unrelenting, vicious, heart-wrenching, set piece argument - and the case is settled. The irony being that if he'd agree to just spend a year in LA in the first place they might never have gotten divorced in the first place.

I really love this film. There's something so honest about their mutual resentments, about her need to break free, about his complete lack of awareness.... There's also something so tragically well-observed in how the expensive lawyers think it's all about victory, and are actually social friends outside of the courtroom, and don't really care about the clients at all. There's a wonderful moment of subtle acting near the end when her lawyer has managed to squeeze out another concession from him, but a concession she even wanted, and when the lawyer says "you won!" you can see her wince.  

This is Scarlett Johansson operating at a level we haven't seen before - establishing herself as a truly gifted and mature actress. And in combination with her surprisingly tragicomic, charismatic performance in JOJO RABBIT - this truly is her year.  And I guess I'm overall pleased that someone is giving us complicated adult dramas of the calibre of late 80s Woody Allen, even if it isn't Woody himself. 

MARRIAGE STORY has a running time of 136 minutes and is rated R. The film played Venice, Telluride, Toronto and London. It will get a limited theatrical release in November before being released on Netflix on December 6th.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

JOJO RABBIT - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Five


JOJO RABBIT is an absolute triumph - trust the people who voted it People's Choice at Toronto! Don't listen to the critics who are so scared of laughing first at what is, after all, a rightly difficult subject.  Because JOJO RABBIT is not just an hilariously brilliant satire on mass hysteria and fanaticism. It's also a deeply moving film that doesn't shy away from showing us the consequences of racism and totalitarianism, even while giving us hope that sheer human compassion will ultimately prevail.

The conceit of the film is that young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten year old boy who has been indoctrinated by the Nazis and is so fanatically devoted to Hitler (Taika Waititi) that he imagines him to be his imaginary friend.  Meanwhile Jojo's wonderfully funny but straightforward mother (Scarlett Johansson) doesn't hesitate to criticise "Shitler" and forces Jojo to see the consequences of his actions, all the while loving him. When Jojo gets injured at his Hitler Youth summer camp, run by the brilliantly funny but ultimately much more profound Captain K (Sam Rockwell) he has to spend his days at home, and it's there that he discovers his mum is hiding a teenage Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic. And so we discover what happens when an indoctrinated boy faces an actual human being that he has learned to hate.

I went into the film expecting a black comedy in the vein of THE PRODUCERS and it is one of the funniest films I've seen in years. The physical comedy of Rockwell and Rebel Wilson - even Alfie Allen in almost wordless role.  Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo officer with his goons Heil Hiterling away. And most of all Taika Waititi as Hitler, delusional and jealous of Jojo's new friendship.

But what makes this film great is its subtle intelligence and profound humanity.  Take for example the opening credits using a German-language Beatles track over archive footage of Hitler Youth screaming for their Fuhrer.  This beautifully makes a point about mass hysteria and how easily crowds can be led. It also contrasts with beautifully with a German-language Bowie track at the end, the ultimate icon of individuality and nonconformity.

Or take the example of Waititi's Hitler - largely goofy but in one point of anger ranting and raving as the Fuhrer did when he worked himself  up in a hysterical fit - and it's genuinely and rightly scary. When Waititi as director wants to pack a punch he does - a pivotal scene is absolutely breathtakingly painful to endure. And Waititi also knows when to misdirect, making us think one character is in danger when another is.  Or take the altogether subtle moment when a joke about mass Heil-Hitlering becomes morbid and desperate because a Jewish girl has to force herself to do it.  And finally consider the responsibility of Waititi in not allowing us to turn our heads from the horror of war and genocide - and the fact that all hilarity aside, we are shown and told of the gravity of the situation.

For me, JOJO RABBIT is a success because it so beautifully finds the balance between satire and profound emotion - because it never shies away from its responsibilities in tackling the subject matter, while also allowing us to triumph over evil through laughter. The film tells us twice that to dance is to be free, and to express our joy and hope and happiness. I think laughing does much the same. I am reminded of that brilliant youtube meme that rebus a clip from THE DOWNFALL, with Hitler losing his shit that a Polynesian Jew is playing him in a film.  I laugh because I am free to laugh. In the words of Jojo, "Fuck you, Hitler."

JOJO RABBIT has a running time of 108 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film played Toronto and London 2019 and will open in the USA on October 18th and in the UK on January 3rd 2020.