Sunday, April 09, 2017


One of the most wonderful experiences of attending the San Francisco film festival was watching this fascinating film about film music in one of the theatres at the Dolby Laboratories - experiencing a visual and audio quality rarely seen in a commercial cinema. To be sure, this documentary didn't really warrant a screen that would've done a big budget action movie justice, but the sound quality was much desired.  Over 90 minutes, the film-makers give us an amazing insight into the history and current state of composing for film, including a quite dazzling access to composers including the pre-eminent Hans Zimmer.

The impression one gets is that movie composition has changed from writing and conducting a traditional orchestral score to something more akin to a polymath enterprise - creative originality; running a vast team of people; and enough IT knowledge to produce the music.  It's the middle part of that that really surprised me - these composers are essentially front-men for a team that includes people who will supplement their creative work, produce scores, and sometimes conduct so that they can be in the mixing booth ensuring the overall mix of the work produced.  And now they are supplemented by a new breed of conventional rock star turned composer bringing a new feel to the scores they create.


THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES is a wonderfully funny, socially aware comedy starring The Daily Show's Jessica Williams as a smart, funny playwright struggling to find professional success and love in contemporary New York. Written and directed by Jim Strouse (GRACE IS GONE), the movie has wit, courage and infectious optimism.  

Williams plays Jones as a confident, opinionated but never obnoxious young woman of talent and flair.  As the movie opens she's teaching kids theatre and helping them work out the issues in their lives while papering her wall with rejection letters for a play that she's writing.  She's also trying to get over her ex boyfriend (LaKeith Stanfield) while starting to date Chris O'Dowd's loveable but slightly banal app developer.  By the end of the film she's found fulfilment on both fronts, even though the ending places female friendship ahead of relationship success.

The bare bones of the plot sound quite simplistic - and indeed the stuff of many romantic comedies. And poor Chris Dowd effectively plays the loveable schlub that he always plays. But as with LANDLINE, the focus here is on the female friendships and in exploring familiar movie plotlines with greater authenticity, audacity and sexual honesty.  In all that, it's Jessica Williams who carries the day.  The result is a film that is hugely funny and heart-warming but that isn't a memorable classic. 

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES has a running time of 85 minutes and is not yet rated.  It played Sundance and the San Francisco film festivals and does not yet have a release date. 


Christmas 1996 - A young beautiful girl called JonBenet Ramsay is found strangled and beaten in the basement of her parents home in Boulder, Colorado. The murder captivated the public imagination thanks to its salacious elements - a fabulously rich father; an ex-pageant queen younger mother who had pushed her daughter into that world that so puzzles outside viewers with its questionable practice of sexualising little girls;  tales of a kidnapping gone wrong or a sexual predator breaking in; and then the attention focusing on the family themselves. Twenty years on, the murder remains unsolved although a slew of anniversary TV specials have thrown up a number of theories.  The reality is that the scene of the crime was so massively compromised by incompetent policing that we'll never know. However, the consensus of opinion seems to be that the kidnapping note was implausible, as was the likelihood of an outside intruder. One particular TV special suggests that the son may have accidentally hit the daughter, and the parents were more or less involved in a cover up. 

CASTING JONBENET comes at the case from a strange angle, and one that may not satisfy true crime fans who are fascinated by the case.  Australian director Kitty Green goes back to Boulder and sets up a casting process to recreate scenes from the murder and investigation. In doing so, she interviews people from the local area and has them do line readings of the same scene.  She also captures their own relationships to the case - whether knowing individuals related to it, or experiencing some of the same facets of the case in their own lives. The result is a compelling film that tells us something about how people remember a major public event and insinuate themselves into it.  And in its final scene that has the actors simultaneously act out various interpretations of the night's events, the film powerfully conveys the impossibility of knowing.

Saturday, April 08, 2017


THE CAGE FIGHTER is a deeply engaging but frustratingly problematic film from director Jeff Unay. As I watched it I thought it was a compelling lo-fi drama along the lines of THE WRESTLER. Joe Carman is a charismatic gentle giant with a loving family who want him to give up fighting Mixed Martial Arts because of its clear toll on his health and the fact that it takes him away from his sick wife.  But he seems to be motivated by the need to prove himself against a younger upcoming fighter, up until the point that he meets him in real life and realises that he's just mortal.  As I was watching it I admired the depiction of a good but conflicted family man, and the movie's willingness to subvert the classic underdog sports story ending.

But when the lights came up and the director came on stage it became clear that he viewed this film as a documentary and that the film we had seen on screen was an actual family. This was something of a shock because to my eye, it felt like a lot of the scenes had been staged. For interest, one in which the director follows the fighter's daughters to a car lot and they express their concern about their father's fighting. So in retrospect, what seems to be happening here is that we're watching some kind of documentary where key scenes have been re-staged. The Q&A also raised questions about objectivity. It was clear that the director and star are close friends and that their families have spent a lot of time with each other.

I guess my concerns don't invalidate the good time I had watching the film - they just left a bad taste in my mouth. They raised provocative questions about how we classify a documentary and what burdens are or should be placed on the film-maker to speak to just where the reality/fiction line has been drawn.  From my perspective, as good as this film is, I would hate to see it enveloped in the kind of controversy that affected CATFISH and I would hope that the marketing campaign addresses these concerns directly to avoid that. 

THE CAGE FIGHTER has a running time of 83 minutes and is not yet rated and does not yet have a commercial released date. 


I liked the ideas in MARJORIE PRIME far more than the film itself.  The ideas surround the nature of memory and AI.  In a near future, AI has developed to the point that grieving people can buy a "prime" - a lifelike robot who can learn to remember your family memories. As the film opens, we have an old lady called Marjorie (Lois Smith) who interacts with a younger avatar of her dead husband (Jon Hamm).  What's fascinating is that she is teaching him their shared memories but chooses to alter some of them - making his proposal more romantic so that that becomes his version of events. And then, as her memory fades and he becomes her factual record, it's the fake memory that becomes the shared history.  Marjorie's daughter (Geena Davis) is initially horrified by the concept of her mother having a relationship with a Prime, while her husband (Tim Robbins) sees it as a boon.  But as the film develops, we see the two of them have their own relationships with Primes and the position shifts as they too start to re-interpret history through shared but altered memories.  Most impressively, in the final scene of the film, we see the Primes themselves interact and share those memories, moving further away from the truth.  The film, then, raises important and nuanced questions about the nature of shared memory and the ethics of altering it. Should the truth be privileged or is it better to tell white lies that comfort people?

The problem with the film is that it reads like a didactic treatise rather than a living and breathing drama. Matters aren't helped by the fact that director Michael Almereyda largely keeps the action in the closed confines of the family home, paces the film slowly, and does little with his camera. To that end, the movie feels like a filmed stage play, and it is indeed based on a play by Jordan Harrison. I found myself admiring its ideas and some of its performances but deeply deeply bored.  

MARJORIE PRIME has a running time of 98 minutes and is not yet rated and does not yet have a commercial release date.  It played Berlin, Sundance and San Francisco. 

Thursday, April 06, 2017


THE STUDENT is a tough, challenging, brilliant and depressing film about the battle between scientific knowledge and rising religious extremism that is colouring debate around the world.  Set in contemporary Russia it focuses on a teenage boy who suddenly adopts extreme religious views that manifest as homophobia, misogyny and creationism. This puts him in opposition with his high school science teachers and fellow students who wear revealing clothes and have sexual relations with each other. It also earns him a disciple in the form of teenage boy who is in love with him, provoking a strange and ambiguous response in the protagonist.  What's fascinating is seeing the response of those around him. His mother is exasperated but powerless. The high school kids take compromising videos of him but it doesn't seem to come to much. The science teacher is driven to near madness. But the liberal consensus is depicted as powerless to resist. The authority in the movie is the headmistress, often shown in an office beneath a picture of Vladimir Putin.  She sides with the pupil, noting that even in America, the government allows the teaching of creationism.

The resulting film is a damning indictment of religious extremism and the lack of backbone in liberal society to resist it. It's also a fascinating depiction of an aspect of contemporary Russian society, but poses difficult questions to western viewers about how far such currents are gaining ground in our own countries. I found it to be fascinating, disturbing, compelling, strange and yet too familiar by turns.  Not to be missed. I would also give special praise for the director who manages to take a stage play out of the theatre where so many of them stay and give it a real visual flair and dynamism. 

THE STUDENT has a running time of 118 minutes and is not yet rated.   The movie played Cannes and London 2016 and opened last year in Estonia, Belarus, Russia, Italy, France and Greece. It opened earlier this year in Hungary, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. It opens in the USA on April 21st and in Poland on May 19th.


LANDLINE is a laugh out loud relationship comedy set in the mid-90s from direct Gillian Robespierre starring stand-up comedian Jenny Slate (THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE).  It shows us a close knit family dealing with the fall out from two affairs, and focuses heavily on the female relationships and reactions with that.  

The parents are played by Edie Falco (THE SOPRANOS) and John Turturro (THE NIGHT OF).  He's a failed novelist having an affair with a woman who provides the praise his wife fails to.  And while the movie gives his crisis some time, the main focus is on the complicated and moving reaction of his wife.  Of the children, the eldest is Dana (Slate) - a quirky and bubbly girl who has just become engaged to her long-time boyfriend Ben (Jay Duplass) but has an affair with her old flame Nate (Finn Wittrock).  I love that the writers of the film dare to give us in Dana what could be, and for some will be, a fairly dislikable character.  Dana can come across as spoiled and unthinking in her actions.  The writers are trying to make the point that women who have affairs are typically portrayed less sympathetically than men who do - and I get that - but it felt to me as thought the pendulum may have swung too far the other way. After all, if the mother gets a psychologically complex and fully explored reaction to her husband's affair, why can't Ben get more than a montage?  The family is rounded out by simultaneously the wisest and dumbest member of the family - little sister Ali (newcomer Abby Quinn).  She's a bright high school student who often seems the most emotionally mature of all concerned, but she's also making dumb choices in the name of rebellion. I found this section of the film the most fascinating and authentic, and Quinn to be the true star of the film.

LANDLINE is beautifully observed and has a light touch in recreating the 1990s.  It's constantly laugh-out loud funny and has some fantastic sight gags. I had a fantastic time watching despite my reservations of its treatment of the male characters. As I said, I get the need for balance in portrayal of female and male characters, but it just felt as though it had moved too far in the other direction for my liking.

LANDLINE has a running time of 93 minutes and is not yet rated. The movie played Sundance and San Francisco 2017 and opens in the USA on July 21st.

Sunday, April 02, 2017


GET OUT is a confident, subversive and visually assured horror movie from debut feature director (and longtime stand-up comedian) Jordan Peele.  It tells the story of a young African American man called Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) whose girlfriend (Allison Williams - GIRLS) takes him home to meet her parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) for the first time.  As with all the best horror, there's a deep and subversive commentary on social conditions here.  And in the case of GET OUT, Jordan Peele is trying to tell us that the most insidious form of racism is that is secretly practiced by liberal educated rich white people - the people who vote for Obama and donate to the ACLU but don't actually want their daughters to date black men.  The director also seems to be sending a message to his fellow African Americans - a message warning against complacency about race relations. And this message is embodied in Chris' hilarious best friend Rod, who warns him against going to his girlfriend's parents house in the woods early on, and is instrumental in helping Chris as her parents turn out to be quite literally using the silver spoon of privilege to subjugate him.

This tale of modern day racial slavery is, then, deeply profound and provocative, but this film is also hilarious and frightening by turns.  It's quite astounding to see a debut director handle the tonal shifts with such aplomb, not to mention the impressive production design of the oppressive house and his eye for framing a visually iconic shot. The cast all deserve praise, although it was particularly interesting to see Allison Williams subvert her GIRLS character's preppy self-absorption in this film. But the subversive nature of this film is many faceted. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the most hated of bureaucrats and petty power brokers - the TSA - turn out to be good guys here. 

Ultimately, GET OUT feels like exactly the right movie for our times - in which the happy surprise of Obama's election is over-turned by the surprise victory of Trump - and in the wake of the #blacklivesmatter movement.  It entertains us but also reflects the deep fractures in American society.  And this may well be why the film continues to do so well at the box office.  

GET OUT has a running time of 104 minutes and is rated R.  The movie played Sundance 2017 and opened earlier this year in the USA, Canada, Philippines, Greece, Singapore, Estonia, UK, Ireland, Denmark, Kuwait and France. It opens on April 7th in Indonesia, Lithuania and Norway; on April 20th in Sweden, Hungary, Malaysia and Turkey; on April 28th in Poland; on May 4th in France, Australia, Switzerland, Chile, Germany, Portugal and Finland; on May 11th in Russia; on May 18th in Hong Kong, Italy and Spain; and on June 15th in Brazil.