Saturday, October 21, 2023
Sunday, October 15, 2023
Behind the lens, production design did wonders with what I suspect was a small budget. I loved the grungy, vibrant, rotting, exciting, space of The Kitchen. It felt real somehow, and something worth fighting for, which is really important. This also felt disturbingly like the present - maybe because the budget to do anything too radical wasn't there - maybe because the film-makers were making a point - maybe because I am so familiar with the shooting locations I knew exactly where they were. Isn't it funny how people wanting to create the future always come back to my beloved brutalist notorious Barbican Centre? I also really loved the aural landscape of this film - the richness and diversity of hearing a cappella gospel; bass-thumping EDM; and classic tracks from Lord Kitchener. But films start and end with scripts and this one needed another pass.
THE KITCHEN has a running time of 104 minutes, is rated R, and will be released on Netflix in 2024.
ANATOMY OF A FALL has a running time of 152 minutes and is rated R. It played Cannes 2023 where it won not just the Palme D'Or but also the Palme Dog! It went on limited release in the USA this weekend and opens in the UK on November 10th.
POOR THINGS has a running time of 141 minutes and is rated R. It played Venice and London 2023. It will be released in the USA on December 8th.
CHICKEN RUN: THE DAWN OF THE NUGGET is rated PG and has a running time of 97 minutes. It opens on limited release in UK cinemas on December 8th and then on Netflix globally on December 15th.
Saturday, October 14, 2023
THE END WE START WITH has a running time of 96 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2023. It will be released in the USA on December 8th and in the UK on January 19th 2024.
The film is inspired by, rather than an actual adaptation of, Martin Amis' troubling novel of the same name. Glazer strips away Amis' fictionalising to give us the stark truth of the Auschwitz concentration camp, informed by years of research and access to the site's archives. His film is actually filmed on location, with a replica of the camp Commandant's house built a few hundred yards from the original. There is a deeply authentic and disturbing sense of being in the presence of banal evil - in the landscape we have seen so many times in documentaries and in testimony from SHOAH.
The power of this film lies, I think, in the way in which it is meticulously constructed and the conceptual choices made by Glazer. The film is best described as working on three levels at once: the visual story; the sound design; and the score.
The first level is the visual story. This is almost entirely that of the Hoess family with much of the action taking place in their house, breaking only as Rudolf is sent to Berlin for a temporary reassignment. We are ensconced in the every day rhythms of the family - kids getting ready for school or playing in the pool - mother tending to her beloved garden or gossiping with her friends - servants laying the table. As Hedwig Hoess' mother arrives for a visit we realise just how well this working class couple has done under the Nazi regime. The daughter of a cleaner is now the matriarch in a luxurious villa, with servants, mink coats, jewels. Hedwig has her pick of the luxury items stolen from Jews and despite a rather provincial ugly look clearly has a liking for finery. As for Rudolf he is what his children claimed - a loving father with a fondness of horses. They swim in the lake and paddle in their canoe.
All of this is depicted with a natural casualness and intimacy that is afforded by strong performances from Christian Friedel (Babylon Berlin) as Rudolf and Sandra Hueller (TONI ERDMANN) as Hedwig. These performances are also enabled by a novel system of fixed cameras that allowed the performers to move through the villa more freely and stay in the moment.
The key point of the visual narrative that we see the camp walls and the chimneys and the endless smoke but we never actually see the horrors behind those walls. (As such, this film would work well as a companion piece to the similarly formally audacious and haunting SAUL FIA.) This gives the film a kind of deliberate claustrophobia and a tension born of a false division between the idyllic family life and its surroundings. Indeed, the only time we break away from the perspective of the Hoess family is when Glazer uses thermal imaging to show a little Polish girl - almost like the heroine of a fairy tale - leaving a trail of apples and pears for the prisoners in the camp at night. It's as if her innate humanity and goodness can only be shown as the negative of the Nazi evil that we see in broad daylight.
This fake isolation is corrected by the second layer or element of the film which is Johnnie Burn's sound design. Because while we may not see the camp and its victims explicitly, we hear them constantly. We hear the rumble of trains arriving and the screams of families being separated. We hear gunshots and horses rearing and panicked people. Most horrifyingly, we hear the incinerators burn. To be fair we also see this in our peripheral vision - the orange lights at night as another selection is made. And we see the impact of this sound - of this actual immersion in murder - on the family. One of the daughters sleep walks. The mother-in-law comes to visit and then flees, unable to stomach the sounds and smell of burning. Rudolf, we later find, has some kind of stomach problem. And even if his conscious mind does not acknowledge the horror, his body is revolting against it. Strangely, it is only the wife Hedwig who seems to exhibit no horror, who is only angry when she thinks she might have to leave "this paradise".
So we have the visual story of what is happening with the family - and then we have the sound design telling us what is happening just outside of our vision. Both of these are scrupulously real and researched and cognitively dissonant. It's the dissonance that makes the film so hard to watch and so haunting. The third element of this astounding film is Mica Levi's score. This can only be described as the element that gives us the emotional response to the dissonance - to the truth of Auschwitz and of Hoess descending the final staircase into immorality. It's a score like something out of a horror film, or how one might imagine Dante's Inferno to sound. It's aurally invasive and unreal and abstract and in some ways cathartic. Amidst this gentle family life, and off-screen constant rumbling machinery of murder, we need something that sounds like, and allows us, to scream in horror.
Part of me wishes Glazer had not broken our entrapment in this nightmare to show us footage of the modern Auschwitz museum. I feel the film may have worked better to not give us that escape, rather to mire us in hell. But this choice does not undercut just what a monumental achievement of cinema this film is. It is by far the most formally brave, and provocative film I have seen this year.
THE ZONE OF INTEREST has a running time of 106 minutes. It played Cannes 2023 where Mica Levi won the Soundtrack Award, Jonathan Glazer won the FIPRESCI prize and the Grand Prize of the festival. It also played Toronto, Telluride and London 2023. It opens in the USA on December 15th
Friday, October 13, 2023
BLACK DOG has a running time of 96 minutes and had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.
ONE LIFE has a running time of 110 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2023. It opens in the UK on January 1st 2024.
Thursday, October 12, 2023
AD 33; Jerusalem. The apostle Thomas has a twin brother called Clarence who believes in knowledge, not faith, sells weed, and is deeply in debt to the local gangster. In yet another cockamamie scheme, Clarence thinks he will become an apostle too, to gain their protection, but they soon see through his schemes, with Thomas pouring scorn upon him. So Clarence decides to become a "new" messiah, replicating Jesus' "tricks" and raising the money from his believers to pay off his debts. Problem is, this newfound praise and money affords Clarence the opportunity to do something even more radical: to be good.
Jeymes Samuel (THE HARDER THEY FALL) may well be the most frustrating writer-director currently working. I had hoped his sophomore film, THE BOOK OF CLARENCE, would exhibit more tonal consistency and discipline than his debut feature, but my word this film is just as indulgent. All of which is disappointing because Samuel is clearly highly cine-literate, with a penchant for the excesses of spaghetti westerns and biblical epics. He clearly has a good imagination and no shortage of big ideas. But this film is neither consistently funny, nor ideologically radical. I was hoping for something funny and zany and gonzo - something approaching the dangerous dark satire of THE LIFE OF BRIAN. Instead, I got a film that was surprisingly straightforwardly pro-religion. What’s even worse is that in its serious moments, in the final half hour, we get some actually rather earnest and good acting from LaKeith Stanfield and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. But all of that is wasted when Jeymes Samuel can’t help inserting cheap gags. Dear lord this man needs a good producer, or editor, or mentor or something. Something to pin him down and get the best out of him.
THE BOOK OF CLARENCE has a running time of 136 minutes. It played London 2023 and will be released in the USA on January 12th.
Wednesday, October 11, 2023
NYAD is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 121 minutes. It played Telluride, Toronto and London 2023. It opens in the USA on October 20th in cinemas and on November 3rd on Netflix.
So let’s start with the sci-fi conceit. Writer-director Garth Davis (LION) has no track record in writing sci-fi, and maybe no interest in writing sci-fi, and it shows. He is, however, adapting a book by Iain Reid which may get into this in more depth. What we get on screen is the story of a woman, Hen, who has fallen out of love with her husband Junior, then falls in love with his AI Cylon replacement instead. This is a tale an old as time, or at least as old as Martin Guerre (better known to western audiences as that Richard Gere film SOMMERSBY). If you want to get into the nuances of how this might play out with AI alternates, then I would once again urge you to watch Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica remake. By contrast, FOE isn’t really interested in mining those nuances.
Okay, so grant the movie the grace of parking the sci-fi conceit to one side. How does it play as straightforward relationship drama? We are on stronger ground here thanks to strong lead performances from two very talented actors: Saoirse Ronan (LITTLE WOMEN) as Hen and Paul Mescal (ALL OF US STRANGERS) as Junior. But when two people drift apart simply through over-familiarity and isolation - when there is no actual dramatic event that brings them into free-fall (not even in this sci-if conceit) then what are we left with? Two hours of mild bickering and mild make-up sex. It just ain’t enough to fill a near two-hour running time.
This is all a tremendous shame as the crew is as impressive as the cast. I loved cinematographer Matyas Erdely’s sepia-toned interiors and drought-scape exteriors. I really loved the score by Oliver Coates, Park Jiha and Agnes Obel. In fact, it’s the score more than anything in the writing that reminds us we are in a sinister, dystopian sci-fi film. I also really loved some of Garth Davis’ visual flourishes, when they sporadically occur. There’s a great scene near the end which, without spoiling it, involves a vacuum and plastic, that was absolutely visually arresting. It just wasn’t enough to save me from boredom.
FOE has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R. It opens in the USA on October 6th and in the UK on October 20th.
Tuesday, October 10, 2023
MAESTRO has a running time of 129 minutes and is rated R. It played Venice and London 2023 and will be released on December 20th on Netflix.
Monday, October 09, 2023
I guess there's some interesting stuff here about the social pressures of the wellness industry making you second guess your own instincts. But we've seen this done better, darker, nastier and frankly funnier before. The only real saving grace of this version is Riz Ahmed, who is really very funny indeed.
FINGERNAILS is rated R and has a running time of 113 minutes. It played Toronto, San Sebastian and London 2023. It goes on limited release in the USA on October 27th before being released on streaming on Apple TV a week later globally.
DEAR JASSI has a running time of 132 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2023.
ALL OF US STRANGERS has a running time of 105 minutes. It played London 2023. It goes on release in the USA on December 22nd and in the UK on January 26th.
Martin Scorsese is an iconic masterful film-maker and his latest film, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is perfection in every frame. The problem is, to quote the King in Amadeus, there are too many notes. Scorsese's film is three and a half hours long and could easily have shed an hour of its running time and lost none of its narrative coherence, political importance or emotional resonance. I fear that Scorsese has become a victim of the lack of discipline afforded to directors funded by streamers. He has lost sight of what it feels like to be a cinema audience asked to endure nearly four hours of a beautifully crafted but lugubrious narrative. Maybe he should just admit that - as much as he advocates for cinema - this is just meant to be viewed on Apple TV over consecutive nights as a kind of self-curated TV series.
The film takes place in Osage County, Oklahoma and tells the true story of a series of horrific murders that took place in the inter-war years. The Osage discovered oil on their land, and became ludicrously wealthy thanks to head rights to the leases. But the white man could not abide this upending of the racial order, and just as he took revenge on the black middle classes in Tulsa, he took revenge in Osage. Osage were often placed under a kind of conservatorship so they couldn't freely spend their wealth, they were ripped off by white merchants, and finally they were married and murdered for their head rights.
This film and the excellent book upon which it is based by David Grann focuses on the story of one family, while making it clear that there were many other murders. Mollie Burckhardt is one of four sisters, whose mother will eventually leave them her head rights. Mollie falls for Ernest Burckhardt, whose uncle "King" Hale poses as a friend of the Osage while plotting to make sure that all of that inheritance flows to his nephew. The tragedy of the tale is seeing how far Ernest betrayed the woman he loved, and his own children, because "I sure do like that money". Eventually the crimes become so heinous, that, with the help of substantial Osage lobbying, Washington cannot ignore them. The nascent FBI is called in and justice is served of a sort.
The structure of this film is broadly speaking two hours of family life and murder followed by 90 minutes of police and courtroom procedural. I feel we could have lost a lot of time from both but particularly the latter section. That said, as I said, everyone is on top form here. Robbie Robertson's score (his last) is kinetic - Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is beautiful; Lily Gladstone is magisterial as Mollie and Leonardo di Caprio and Robert de Niro are compelling as her husband and his uncle respectively. I just felt zoned out by the end of it, and the final epilogue of justice lost its impact, which is a tremendous shame.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON has a running time of 206 minutes and is rated R. It played Cannes and London 2023. It goes on global release on October 20th.
Michael Mann (HEAT, THE INSIDER) returns to our screens with an execrable biopic of the iconic Enzo Ferrari. It is a film that pays no respect to history, cultural specificity or the ethics of what one chooses to show on-screen of real-life horrific crashes.
In Mann's version of Ferrari's story, as written by Troy Kennedy Martin (THE ITALIAN JOB!) we focus on the year 1957. Mann and Kennedy choose to make this a make or break year for the company, whose road car sales are insufficient to subsidise the racing. The notoriously paranoid, selfish, dictatorial Enzo Ferrari needs to bring in outside financing and give up control in order to compete with the advances being made in England and Germany. Films need stakes, so Mann/Martin argue that Ferrari must win the Mille Miglia road-race to attract investors. Yeah I guess.... But Ferrari was constantly in trouble and flirting with investors.
Similarly, while Enzo may have transferred some assets to his wife's name for tax and political reasons, I cannot imagine he was walking around like a proto-feminist claiming they built the company together, and the book does NOT suggest that she was the business strategist behind the throne. This all sounds like modern retconning to give Penelope Cruz something to do other than scream hysterically. Enzo WAS in fact a notorious womaniser and misogynist. The film only hints at how horrific he was.
The truth of the film lies in how devastated both parents were at the death of Ferrari's only legitimate son Dino, and how Enzo kept the existence of his illegitimate son secret from his wife for many years. It is not known how Laura finally learned about Enzo's mistress Lina Lardi, or of the existence of Piero, but it is true that Piero was only legitimised after Laura died. This was not, as the film implies, because of some cash-for-bungs bribe that Laura paid Enzo, but because of the constraints of the Italian legal system.
Now to move from history to drama. Is the film emotionally involving? No. Because the acting is terrible. Adam Driver is miscast as Ferrari. He is way too young. The Commendatore was 59 in 1957. Driver is not yet 40. He looks not yet 40 with a fake belly and a bad hair dye job. He looks nothing like Enzo - fine - Enzo has a very specific face. But he doesn't move or walk or talk like a c60 year old provincial Italian. Would it have killed them to either a) cast an Italian or b) someone who could do a passable Italian accent?
But this problem of bad acting is way worse when we consider Shailene Woodley's attempt at Lina Lardi. Her accent is so appalling it isn't even Italian-adjacent. I was reminded of Jodie Comer's note perfect accent-work in THE BIKERIDERS and left with the cruel realisation that Woodley is simply a YA film actress over-promoted and best-forgotten.
Finally, we have Penelope Cruz - the only decent performance in the film but one that is for sure Spanish not Italian, and so at odds with the real woman as to be laughable. It's as if there is nothing of merit or interest in Laura's betrayal and pain unless she's a porto-modern boss bitch.
All of this I could have forgiven had the racing been good. And to be fair, most of the footage of the testing at Monza, and the road racing in the Mille Miglia is really well done with great recreations of the historic vehicles rebuilt with the help of the Ferrari factory. Kudos to Mann and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (MANK) for that. My only issue here is the very distinct choice Michael Mann has made to show very graphic crash footage, not just of Castelotti but also of Guidizzolo. As one of the few audience members who knew exactly what was coming, I was in fear once I saw the Monza crash. It's strange to say but in the history of motorsport films we have rarely if ever seen a frame by frame replay of an horrific crash, especially one involving civilians. Think of FORD VS FERRARI where Christian Bale simply disappears over a hill. Or even the way in which Asif Kapadia handles the crash in SENNA. But Mann shows no such finesse here. He does not leave anything to our imaginations. I found it pretty exploitative. I might have forgiven the choice, or understood it better, in a better film. But in such a trashy, melodramatic, soapy film, it felt cheap, and frankly disgusting.
FERRARI has a running time of 130 minutes. It played Venice and the BFI London Film Festival 2023. It will be released on December 25th in the USA and December 26th in the UK.
Sunday, October 08, 2023
Saturday, October 07, 2023
HIT MAN has a running time of 113 minutes. It played Venice, Toronto and London 2023.
Friday, October 06, 2023
MAY DECEMBER is rated R and has a running time of 113 minutes. It played Cannes and London 2023.
THE KILLER is rated R and has a running time of 118 minutes. It played Venice and London 2023 and will be released on Netflix on November 10th.