Wednesday, July 31, 2019


James Kent (TESTAMENT OF YOUTH) returns to our screens with another earnest, deeply felt, beautifully staged, but ultimately un-engaging wartime drama. This time, we're in Hamburg in 1946 during the British occupation of the city they bombed. Jason Clarke - by far the best thing in this film - plays the only really fascinating character - a tight-lipped British officer, turned humane by his brutal experiences of war, struggling to communicate with his wife since the death of their son.  The wife is played by Keira Knightley taking a million steps back from her more challenging and interesting performance as COLETTE to play the kind of role she did before - very posh, very repressed, very superficial British woman. She acts out at her husband's coldness and grief by at first being hateful to the Germans she blames for her son's death, and then having an affair with one of them - the moody, soulful, pretty architect, now houseboy played by Alexander Skarsgard. I've commented before at how uncomfortable I feel when an affair with a third person merely exists to cause self-reflection and evolution for the protagonist. Skarsgard's character is used here in more way than one, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth at the film's resolution. I came to the conclusion that I couldn't believe it because the husband seemed to be operating on such a deeper plane of intelligence and profundity than his wife.  The result is a rather obvious, predictable film, with a hammy lead actress performance and a so-called passionate love affair at its centre than fails to catch fire. 

THE AFTERMATH is rated R and has a running time of 108 minutes. The film was released earlier this year and is now available to rent and own. 


As both a huge fan of test match cricket and Tolkien, it was a rare week to watch both THE EDGE and this biopic.  If the former was frustratingly tame, the latter didn't disappoint. In fact, it rather impressed as a study of a young smart, kind boy, orphaned at an early age, shamed into being the scholarship boy at an academically strong school, finding lifelong friends along the way, and ultimately both loves of his life - philology and his wife. We meet young Tolkien as an orphan, at a smart school in Birmingham, running with a super smart group of boys who must restrict their fantasy life of writing poetry or imagining worlds to their second life - the first aim is a profession.  The film beautifully captures the delicate class balancing act of the scholarship boy, living in a boarding house, courting the lodger's daughter.  He seems to take intellectual conversation for granted, casually cutting her off from discussion of Wagner when she desperately needs the outlet. We are subtly aware that the options for her - a similarly bright and talented woman - are slight because of her class and sex. As the boys move to university - Tolkien to Oxford - we discover that he nearly flunked out but was rescued by a philology don who allowed him to transfer courses of study.  I hadn't realised that this was the case, but thank goodness! But all too soon, war breaks out and the friendships of youth are tragically curtailed - whether by death or the traumas that estrange because they are unutterable.

All of this is sensitively and handsomely told, with Nicholas Hoult capturing both Tolkien's earnestness and his sense of child-like fun.  Lily Collins is superb in her few pivotal scenes, and together, this as her performance in LES MISERABLES show that she has real talent when challenged with good material. But best of all for the fans, we see everything that makes Lord of the Rings so unusual in fantasy literature. For here is an author who has actually fought in battle - knows the terror and fear of the jobbing ordinary soldier - the importance of camaraderie - and can describe the fear on the eve of battle.  It's not for nothing that Aragorn tells his men, scared at venturing into Mordor for the final battle, that there is no shame in turning back, that he understands their concern.  It's not for nothing that Frodo never recovers from his injuries - mental or physical - that his fellow friends always feel separate and unappreciated. So much of fantasy literature focuses on great heroes and high colours and banners. Tolkien focuses on the ordinary man, and this film shows why. 

I also enjoyed the film for the nostalgia it created in me. I suppose it's somewhat shocking to see how little things change, but I was also a scholarship girl at a private school, painfully aware of class privilege and the need to maintain one's financial aid.  I sat the same exams as Tolkien to get into Oxford and went to the college next door to his. The nervousness around college exams, the getting into trouble for seemingly petty violations, the mentoring by inspiring, exacting but eccentric dons - it all rang so true. And so thankfully did the establishment of lifelong friendships. It truly is a place out of time. 

TOLKIEN has a running time of 113 minutes and is rated PG-13.  It is available to rent and own. 


Barney Douglas' documentary THE EDGE is an indispensable watch for ardent English test match cricket fans with impressive access to the main players in one of the most successful but also controversial period's in the team's history - its rise to top ranked test team in the 2009-2013 period and then the acrimonious fall out with its star player Kevin Pietersen. The problem it that the film never asks the difficult question of its interviewees, and allows them to set their own narrative. Perhaps this was the price of gaining access, but ultimately it makes for quite a frustrating viewing experience for those of us truly fascinated by the fracas, who've read all the autobiographies and followed by long-running psychodrama intimately.

So - for example - we have Jonathan Trott being hugely brave and honest, discussing his nervous breakdown during the 5-0 whitewash in Australia during Mitchell Johnson's epic series in 2013.  This is fantastic documentary stuff. But wouldn't it have been even more insightful and hard-hitting, had Douglas not asked Andy Flower (interviewed elsewhere) to talk about what he felt management did wrong in not picking up the signs of his mental stress earlier. I saw him in the hotel lobby the day before the match at the Gabba and as a manager myself, I would never have let him come into any form of work, the state he was in.

Or when Stuart Broad talks about turning to James Anderson and seeing Trott in despair - why not ask why they as senior players who'd played with him so much, hadn't done more. Or even pick up the accusations Kevin Pietersen made in his autobiography that they - with Swanny and others - had created a toxic bullying culture of younger players (and himself). Is it enough just to let Broady deny he made the KP parody account? Why not ask Strauss and Flower why more investigative action wasn't taken?  

Maybe when interviewing Monty Panesar, who speaks of stress eating alone in his room, they could've asked him - or Steve Finn - what is was like to be a young man in that dressing room,  or the dressing down you'd get if you dropped a catch. Why not interrogate further the idea, lightly alluded to, that Monty felt he'd become a figure of fun, not taken seriously by the crowds or his team-mates. 

And as for Kevin Pietersen, who likes to depict himself as a bullied outsider, why not ask why he feels he was singled out. After all, it was a cosmopolitan team - why not ask what he feels he did to contribute to that. Did he feel he deserved special treatment?

So the movie is good as far as it goes, and adds to the increasing voices of players telling their sides of the story.  But the inability to have the interviewees cross-examined, or even interact with each other on screen and debate some of the thornier issues, is a real problem.  

In terms of production values, this movie has come on leaps and bounds from Douglas' first effort, WARRIORS. The score in particular is superb as the animation inventive.  Both add energy to a film that's basically a bunch of talking heads, and in general you have to say that Douglas helps to make a complicated story concise and clear.  I could've done without Toby Jones somewhat hyperbolic narration though.

THE EDGE has a running time of 95 minutes and is rated 15 for strong language. It is available to rent and own on streaming services in the UK. 


A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a really fascinating, beautiful film full of references to films and novels that I love. And so, despite it being about 45 minutes too long for what is, in effect, just GET OUT for white folks, I can't help but have a soft spot for the film. It's directed by Gore Verbinski who made the amazing RANGO, and this film is similarly cine-literate.  We are highly aware that he loves Kubrick, and Thomas Mann, and Visconti, and Russian Ark, and dark fantasy horror from the likes of Lynch and Del Toro.  And as with all of those, it's deeply aware of the dark gothic medieval fairy tales that underpin all of our worst fears.  It's a film where every piece of art direction is meticulous and every framing choice an echo of an iconic forbear. 

The movie opens with a young American financier called Lockhart (Dale DeHaan) being sent to Europe to extract his company's errant CEO.  Instead of getting him out, he's involved in a weird car accident that results in him becoming an increasingly unwilling patient in the sanatorium. (Echoes of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain!) He's schmoozed by the chief physician, Volmer, played by a deliciously oleaginous and sinister Jason Isaacs with a hilariously perfect German accent. And he's fascinated by a young girl called Hannah (Mia Goth) who seems pre-naturally innocent. As the film unravels, Lockhart gets more bodily and mentally fragile, as he tries to understand why the bizarrely passive patients are ageing and desiccated despite taking "the cure". We get to predictably sinister and fantastic territory but it all takes so very long that I found myself wishing that the movie had had more discipline rather than trying to throw every single image and every single idea onto the screen. Nonetheless, it's a noble failure. A movie full of wondrous moments and cine-love, that just needed a more disciplined hand at the tiller. 

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is rated R and has a running time of 146 minutes. It was released in 2016 and is available to rent and own. 


THE HOUSE WITH THE CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is a surprisingly entertaining and warm-hearted children's fantasy film based on the book series by John Bellairs, iconically illustrated by Edward Gorey. It's brought to the screen, again surprisingly, by R-rated film director Eli Roth, displaying a soft centre in this funny, handsomely made film.  It stars Owen Vaccaro as young orphan in the 1950s who goes to live with his eccentric uncle (Jack Black) in the titular magical house. Lewis' Uncle Jonathan and his neighbour/best friend Mrs Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) teach young Lewis magic, with which he summons the ghost of his uncle's old enemy (Kyle MacLachlan). We then get a magical showdown that's really more about a profound lesson - that holding onto memories of our loved ones can go too far - that sometimes it's healthy to move forward. 

The resulting film is genuinely funny and as improbable as it may sound, I really loved the banter between Jack Black and Cate Blanchett!  The movie is also beautifully designed. The house is filled with so many uniquely designed clocks, victoriana and gothic furniture, as well as sofas that act like puppies, and garden topiary that throws up!  The costumes are gorgeous - particularly those of the always immaculately put together Mrs Zimmerman.  Most of all, despite all the crazy special effects, this really is a movie that has a lot of heart, and none of its whimsy is unused or superficial. Lewis' wordplay, his love of the word "indomitable" in particular - is ultimately profound. And watch out for that Magic Eight Ball. 

THE HOUSE WITH THE CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is rated PG and has a running time of 105 minutes. It is available to rent and own. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019


I absolutely loved everything about Sebastian Leilo's remake of his Chilean female-led drama, GLORIA. Julianne Moore give a characteristically strong, charismatic, nuanced performance in the titular role - playing a character rarely seen on screen - a middle-aged woman who is sex positive and living every inch of her life to its fullest. I applaud the messages of this film - that you can be a strong woman with a full life, who doesn't need but is open to a sexually and emotionally fulfilling relationship - and that it's better to walk away from something that is second best. And I am in admiration of both Moore and her lover, played by John Turturro, for being vulnerable enough to show what sex is actually like in one's middle-age, and the complications of relationships with grown children.  The talent behind the lens is just as impressive. Sebastian Leilo has a sure measure of pace, balancing lighter moments of expressive freedom with darker more intimate moments of sadness and self-doubt. The score, by Matthew Herbert, is stunning, combing traditionally orchestrated music with phenomenal electronic almost 80s sci-fi synth moments, let alone the wonderful disco music that Gloria loses herself too.  Finally, the cinematography from Natasha Braier is marvellous in capturing both with its use of colour, light and framing, the different moods that Gloria goes through - whether strong, suffering, free or constrained. This really is a tour de force and deserves to be seen as widely as possible. 

GLORIA BELL is rated R and has a running time of 102 minutes. The film played Toronto 2018 and was released earlier this year in the USA. It's just about still on release in the UK in cinemas and is available on streaming services. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019


Anthony Maras' directorial debut, HOTEL MUMBAI, is a beautifully handled thriller focusing on the Taj Hotel during the 2008 Islamist terrorist attacks on Mumbai. As so many others, I watched the events unfurl in real time on the TV, and in general I think it's better to approach such topics in documentaries. Fictionalised attempts can feel cheap or exploitative. Which is not to say that this movie entirely avoids kitschy moments. There's a very heavy handed point made about how a Sikh can be mistaken for a muslim by a racist white posh woman.  There's an even worse O Captain My Captain moment when the staff of the ultra-luxe hotel volunteer to stay back and help the guests through the ordeal.  But other than those two very quick moments of cheap emotion, the movie actually handles itself with dignity, intelligence and empathy.

We begin as the terrorists come into Mumbai by boat, the soothing, seductive voice of their handler in their ears, telling them of the glory that awaits them, and how the infidels in Mumbai deserved no mercy.  His voice will be a persistent and sinister presence in the film, goaded the boys into atrocities, gloating at the overheard horror he has unleashed. It's chilling at the end of the film to learn that he's still at large.

We then see the train terminal attack reported on the news, and a particularly well constructed scene in the tourist cafe, so well choreographed as to be shocking, even when we know exactly what will happen.  But the majority of the action happens in the hotel. Ironically, it begins because the staff let in ordinary Mumbaikars fleeing the terror elsewhere in the city. The attackers come in with them.  

This is where the film really needs to weave together multiple strands, and it does so with aplomb. We have the front desk staff forced to call guests and make them let the terrorists into their rooms. We have the head chef and waiter (Anupam Kher and Dev Patel) guiding the guests into an exclusive and therefore well hidden VIP lounge.  We have Armie Hammer as an American tourist who has to get back to his suite to his baby and nanny.   And we have Jason Isaacs as a russian oligarch. Both of these men will become hostage targets. 

I thought this was an excellent film insofar as it was tense, well orchestrated but also even handed. We care about and spend as much time with the staff as with the western guests. We understand the pressures the cops are under.  And we even spend time with the terrorists while never crossing the line of making them sympathetic.  There's something so authentic and piercing about these guys who've never seen a flush toilet before, or tasted pizza, wreaking havoc in a luxury hotel - a world they are jealous of and feel excluded from - its sumptuous luxuries symbolic of the indulgences they claim to be against. And all the time, the evil voice, guiding them to murder. 

HOTEL MUMBAI is rated R and has a running time of 123 minutes. It played Toronto 2018 and opened in the USA in March 2019. It opens in the UK on September 27th.


SHAZAM! is one of the goofier of the seemingly endless parade of comic book adaptations that crosses our screens, and it's so asinine I could barely watch through to the end.  It begins with 40 minutes of tedious exposition before we get to meet the superhero. Apparently there's an old wizard (Djimon Hounsou in a thankless role) who hands out superpowers.  He tried giving them to the bad guy when he was a kid but then withdrew them causing his resentment. Said bad guys grows up to be Mark Strong in another thankless role. He's just another disposable bad guy, indistinguishable from the next.  Remember when bad guys were awesome like Jeremy Iron's Scar?  Right.   Anyway, the person who actually gets the good superpowers is an orphan called Billy. His superpowers involve being bullet proof, and stuff to do with electricity, and becoming a beefy adult played by Zachary Levi (THE MARVELOUS MRS MAISEL).  You then get the classic plot of guy goes through life-changing event, alienates all his friends, before third act redemption. Apparently this version is meant to be funny and moving because the friends in question are a bunch of unwanted kids. I thought the whole thing was hammy, predictable, dull and overlong. Didn't laugh once. Didn't care about any of the characters. Sad to hear there's going to be a sequel. 

SHAZAM! is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 132 minutes. 


In the wake of watching and obsessing over HBO's superb CHERNOBYL I thought I'd check out thew new film by Thomas Vinterberg - KURSK: THE LAST MISSION aka THE COMMAND.  As with Chernobyl, it's a tale of tragic loss of life in a Soviet/post Soviet system that is riddled with poor quality equipment, poor maintenance, bad decision making, cover ups, and honest working class men betrayed by their superiors.  In this case, the men are submariners running a test exercise in the Barents Sea. This may be 2000, over a decade after Chernobyl, but it's a similar story - an initial accident confounded by an unwillingness to do the right thing immediately. The Russians don't have rescue vessels of their own, having sold them for hard cash (they were taking rich tourists down to see the wreck of the Titanic.)  And when the British and the Norwegians offer help, the Russians refused at first - an unforgivable delay.

Vinterberg's film is a straightforward and earnest affair.  He does well at capturing the claustrophobia and camaraderie of the submarine and Matthias Schoenaerts (Vinterberg's FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD) is really superb as the charismatic protagonist. The film feels less authentic and more broad-stroke heroes and villains when it gets out of the submarine.  Max von Sydow is straightforwardly the bad guy as the Russian admiral who refuses help.  Colin Firth is straightforwardly decent and square-jawed as the British naval officer trying to help. It's a shame that the script doesn't quite allow for any convincing character building.

KURSK: THE LAST MISSION is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 117 minutes. It played Toronto 2018 and was released in the USA last month and in the UK this week.

THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Five

One of the film's I really wanted to see at last year's BFI London Film Festival but couldn't fit in was Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen's THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT.  It stars Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård as super smart trader/techies who want to construct a straight-line pipe from New York to Kansas that will enable to trade milliseconds faster than their rival, played by Salma Hayek. The film's name thus comes from the tiny amount of time that can result in massive profits - the time taken for a hummingbird to flap its wings. 

The resulting film is really odd, even for someone like me who works in the City. It's a very slow build. Jesse Eisenberg does his thing of arrogant smart guy, and that's become dull.  Skarsgård by contrast is playing against type - from hunk to bald programmer - and isn't convincing at all. And Hayek's is the hammiest, silver-wigged boss since Meryl Streep in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.  And yet, as much as I really wouldn't recommend this film, by the time I rolled into the final half it did build up a certain manic energy and tension, seeing Eisenberg push himself physically over the edge, and Skarsgård pulling off double-crosses.  There's a point at which Eisenberg is waving a chainsaw. Did it jump the shark? I honestly don't know. By that point the movie was operating on such a plan of surreality - completely unbelievable and yet bizarrely compelling.  I still don't quite know what just happened here. 

THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT has a running time of 111 minutes.  It is available to rent and own.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019


THE DEAD DON'T DIE is an unashamedly indulgent movie who's success relies on the audience wanting to be in on the joke.  I went along for the ride and found it to be uproariously funny, silly, shaggy and joyful - and hands down one of my favourite films of 2019.  This isn't a film for those over-obsessed with tight-plotting, consistent pace or an aversion to jump the shark moments. But as I said, if you go with the silliness, there's a lot of fun to be had.

The film opens in small town USA, reminiscent of original Twin Peaks. There are some slow-witted nice cops, played by Bull Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny. And there's policing a dispute between Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) and MAGA-supporter Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi).  There's pace is lackadaisical and their hearts decent.  It soon becomes apparent that polar fracking has caused the earth to move off its axis resulting in whacky daylight hours and a zombie apocalypse. The rest of the film sees how our heroes cope with the impending doom ("kill the head") - not to mention the newly arrived Scottish mortician with hardcore Samurai skills (Tilda Swinton). 

We get lots of references to George Romero, including an update on his consumerist satire, as zombies wonder round in desperate search of wifi.  We also get a hopeful message about how "the children are our future". But mostly this is a film of supreme visual comedy - a shot of Adam Driver pulling into a diner parkway in a tiny red convertible Smart car - a shot of Tilda Swinton applying 1980s New Romantic makeup to a corpse - or a re-animated Iggy Pop hunting for coffee.  

Any film is worth watching that gives us even one of those things. So yes, I get all the critics and I see the film's weaknesses but I just dont' care, because when it delivers it's absolutely hilarious!

THE DEAD DON'T DIE is rated R and has a running time of 104 minutes. The film played Cannes 2019 and was released in the USA in June. It opens in the UK on Friday.