Wednesday, December 14, 2022


Hollywood  loves a movie about movies so THE FABELMANS will probably win a ton of Oscars. Michelle Williams gives one of those Oscar-bait performances that's big and tortured and involves her crying for at least fifty percent of the movie in a performance that felt really mannered and fake to me.  This kind of torpedoes the whole film for me, and even without that it's just dull. It's actually worse than AMSTERDAM, which I watched on the same day, because while AMSTERDAM was incoherent, it at least contained flashes of brilliance. By contrast THE FABELMANS is far better made. It's coherent, it's well acted, it looks great, it's just a polished grown-up film. But it's so dull and predictable and blah.  It's just the same old story Spielberg always tells - about the loss of childhood innocence and the trauma of divorce - usually featuring a station wagon and a cute kid sister -  except this time in the guise of a biopic rather than an adventure film. 

The movie focusses on the marriage of Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Williams). He's a really decent guy, with increasing corporate success. But she's a frustrated concert pianist who spends the entire film battling depression and in love with Burt's best friend Bernie (Seth Rogen).  Her unhappiness dominates the family dynamic and puts unrealistic pressure on their son Sammy (Gabriel Labelle) to pursue his dreams of film-making: he is told by both his grand-uncle and Bernie that if he doesn't pursue his art he will break his and his mother's heart.

So the other half of the movie is seeing Spielberg, sorry Sammy, come of age in a school rife with anti-semitism, and make his first tentative steps into the film industry. Contrast the straightforward, polished, frictionless, lifeless way in which prejudice is treated here versus the grungy, nasty, altogether more impactful way in which it is depicted in AMSTERDAM.  At one point in a high school scene I felt the jocks were about to break out into a song and dance number, a la WEST SIDE STORY.

This is the problem with Spielberg. Even when telling the story of his own life he can't avoid smoothing over all of the spiky edges and making something soupy and syrupy and glossy.  

THE FABELMANS is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 151 minutes.


What a glorious failure AMSTERDAM is! A film that is indulgent, incoherent, tonally uneven and not as whacky as it thinks it is.  And yet, and yet, there's something noble in its square-on look at racism, fascism, class snobbery and misogyny - a film that shows us clearly what war actually does to vital bodies - at the same time as attempting a JULES ET JIM romance combined with a Coen Brothers'esque caper. Writer-director David O Russell is more than ever himself - for all his brilliance and over-reach. This film is absolutely his.  I found flashes of brilliance within it. And in a month where Germany convicted men of fomenting a far-right coup, the central message remains important.

Christian Bale channels Kramer from Seinfeld in his role as Burt, a World War One veteran with a glass eye and a fondness for self-medicating with gonzo drugs. Burt is balanced out by Harold, a black lawyer who oozes charm, calm and confidence in a much-needed straight performance from John David Washington.  The third partner in their friendship is Valerie Voze, a daring, courageous artist played with elan by Margot Robbie.  The three live a bohemian life in post-war Amsterdam, helping vets recover from their horrific injuries, until the boys return home to New York.  

Fast forward to 1933, where the film opens, and a glamorous rich young woman (Taylor Swift) is murdered shortly after asking our boys to investigate the suspicious death of her father, their commanding officer. So begins a shaggy caper in which we discover that a bunch of fascist sympathisers are trying to manipulate a US general (Robert de Niro) into launching a veteran-backed military coup. Sound too fanciful? It really happened. 

The resulting film is, as I said, a mess. But it's a well acted one with some amazingly funny set-pieces and a truly sinister slippery turn from Rami Malek and Mike Myers as a British spy standing out among the bit parts. The film also looks fantastic, with stunning production and costume design and a dreamy sepia tinted warm glow thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki's lensing. I don't know what this film truly is, genre wise. It doesn't coalesce. But I'm glad it exists. 

AMSTERDAM is rated R and has a running time of 134 minutes. It is streaming on Disney plus.

Sunday, December 11, 2022


MRS HARRIS GOES TO PARIS is a three-star film turned into a four-star film by the both delightful and moving central performance from Lesley Manville, as well as some sharper than expected writing.  I came to the film for whimsy and froth but thanks to Manville we get something deeper and more acute in its diagnosis of post-war class snobbery.  

Manville plays a post-war cockney cleaning lady who is taken for granted and grifted on by her rich employers (Anna Chancellor - magisterially awful).  Good and ill fortune (not least her war widows pension) give Mrs Harris the money to go to Paris and buy a couture dress from Christian Dior - her heart's desire. She has to contend with the snobbery of the Dior saleswoman - an equally haughty Isabelle Huppert, but soon wins over the ladies of the sewing room, the models, and the accountant (EMILY IN PARIS' Lucas Bravo) with her good humour, good heart and ready cash.

Naturally, she gets her dress, and is the agent of romance, and all against a soft sunlit Paris that is creamy-delicious to look at.  But there's always the dark backing of reality and Mrs Harris is no fool. She knows when she's being condescended to, and to see her face crumple when a certain character pigeonholes her as a servant is to have your heart break.  The genius of Mrs Harris is that, amid the whirlwind, she never loses herself. She is proud of what and who she is, despite society's attempts to make her feel less than. And I've never felt a delightful ending more earned and joyous. 

MRS HARRIS GOES TO PARIS has a running time of 115 minutes and is rated PG. It is available to rent and own.


THE WOMAN KING is a curiously old-fashioned and satisfying action epic that brings to an untold (at least in the west) story of the Dahomey empire the same kind of sword and sandal grand sweep of films like GLADIATOR.  Director Gina

Prince Bythewood (THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES) proves to be an impressive helmer of large-scale battle sequences. Cinematographer Polly Morgan conjures up majestic landscapes and the visceral heat of the red-earthed soil.  And Terrence Blanchard gives us a score that both has orchestral majesty and the bone-stirring war-cries of native songs.  This is a film to stir us and impress us.  Just look at Viola Davis' newly jacked physique. She and her female warriors look every inch the part.  But this film also gives us real emotion and doesn't shy away from the terror of war, far beyond the typical machismo of male-led films.  When Davis' General Nansica relates how she was the victim of rape, we are with her in her trauma.  When her deputy Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and her newly trained warrior Nawe (Thuso Mbedu) are captured, we feel their peril.  Maybe this isn't such old-fashioned film-making after all.

The only thing that lets this film down is its rather wooden dialogue from screenwriters Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, and a rather thinly drawn set of antagonists in John Boyega's King and his wife. What the film posits is a callow king who is torn between taking the riches of slavery (his wife's advice) and standing up to the neighbouring Oyo tribe and diverting his own economy toward palm oil production (Nansica's advice).  Sadly the King does little but look aggrieved and his wife is a caricature rich spoiled woman.  The film could've done more to show her motivations, given that her position is actually the one that the Dahomey empire took.

THE WOMAN KING is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 135 minutes.


I sat down to MR MALCOLM'S LIST wanting to love it and left bitterly disappointed. I sat down to EMILY resenting its premise and yet loved it! Two costume dramas. Both directed by feature film debutantes.  So very different in style and ambition.

First the premise.  I hate when we have to explain genius. When we have to explain why Grammar school boy Will Shakespeare wrote so beautifully by arguing that he was actually an aristo.  When we have to explain why Emily Dickinson could write with such passion and fervour though barely leaving her virginal solitude.  The same goes for Emily Bronte. She in unknowable - her slight life barely explaining the enduring power of her savage, dark, brooding masterpiece Wuthering Heights.  And so it is tempting to modern minds to graft onto her slender biography a torrid sexual affair that speaks to her knowledge of love denied.  I hate this stuff.  But I also loved this film.

Emma Mackay plays Emily Bronte as a smart young woman full of energy and mischief and intellectual curiosity but hemmed in by Victorian provincial rectitude - not to mention the symbolism of confined corseted clothing. She loves her family but is perhaps envious of her brother being able to try his talent as an artist and writer, and angry at his dissipating himself on drink and drugs. The film posits a sexual awakening with the new curate (Oliver Jackson Cohen), who respects her intellect, encourages her to write, but is unwilling to throw off convention in continuing their love affair. 

The film is written and directed by Frances O'Connor, an actress who costume drama fans will remember for her spirited Fanny Price, quite unlike anything in Jane Austen's actual Mansfield Park. Here, she reimagines Emily Bronte as a proto-feminist proto-modern writer in a manner that feels entirely plausible and authentic. She is helped in realising her vision by Nanu Segal's stunning landscape cinematography and most particularly by Abel Korzeniowski tremendously inventive, all-enveloping, stunning score. But mostly this is about Emma Mackay, showing once again her talent and ability to bring sensitivity, intelligence and spirit to any role she touches. 

I hope to see more from both O'Connor as director and Mackay as actor. You'll know why when you get to a tour de force central scene at a seance where both Mackay and O'Connor conjure up a feeling of such intense grief and compassion and such spectral fright as to show two women really harnessing all their artistic power. This is film-making to seek out and applaud.

EMILY is rated R and has a running time of 130 minutes. It is available to rent and own.


is a regency Austen-esque self-proclaimed rom-com that is actually devoid of sexual chemistry or satire.  It sits upon the screen like a dead fish, plodding faithfully to its entirely predictable conclusion, under-written and limply acted. The only exception to this turgid tedium is Zawe Ashton's arrogant but vulnerable Miss Thistlewaite, who drives the plot and the only real attempt at comedy.  

The plot, such as it is, is out of a Sweet Valley High novel. Mr Malcolm is a fastidious but rich bachelor - think Mr Darcy.  He snubs the superficial Miss Thistlewaite so she decides to lure him into falling in love with her friend Selina, before Selina rejects HIM with her own list. The problem is that Selina and Malcolm are actually ideal for each other, and Miss T is also exposed as a snob for not accepting the courtship of Captain Ossory, who is beneath her in the social pecking order. 

I love Austen. I love Austen inspired rom-coms both high-brow and low. I love Bridgerton!  So I should be the ideal audience for this film.  I was in its corner. The indie costume drama is a rare thing and one cast in a refreshingly colour-blind way even rarer. I sat down to watch it hoping it would be brilliant.  I suspect the faults lie in two directions, as director Emma Holly Jones conjures up some lovely use of landscape and interior.  First of all, Suzanne Allain's script, based on her own novel, is very dull indeed. Second of all, Freida Pinto is hopelessly miscast and/or underwritten as Selina. She is meant to be independent of mind and a grounded, vital foil for Mr Malcolm (or so I infer).  Here she comes across as meek and milquetoast as Fanny Price.  Plus there was zero chemistry between her and Sope Dirisu's Mr Malcolm. I couldn't have cared less whether they got together or not. We get further with Theo James's Captain Ossory romancing Zawe Ashton's Miss Thistlewaite but that story isn't given time to breathe. Also, not to sound ageist, but I don't understand why a film about two young twenty-somethings is cast with late thirty-somethings?

Overall, one to avoid.

MR MALCOLM'S LIST is rated PG and has a running time of 117 minutes. It is available to rent and own.