Monday, August 27, 2018


I sat down to watch RED SPARROW with limited expectations given the poor reviews and controversy surrounding the Jennifer Lawrence spy thriller.  But I found the film to be beautifully cast and acted, superbly photographed, evocatively scored, with a script that was intelligent and provocative and a directorial eye that rightly forced us to address all of the darkness inherent in the #metoo movement. I have since read some of the reviews and it feels as though many people are utterly missing the point of this slippery film.  But I would urge you to watch it, and to keep your wits about you and your loins girded.  No other film better speaks to our times.

The movie opens in contemporary Russia where Jennifer Lawrence's prima ballerina Domenika (shades of BLACK SWAN - Darren Aronofsky was originally attached to the film!) is savagely injured on stage and her career ruined.  Facing eviction and no means of supporting her sick mother (Joely Richardson - saying more with one look than many actresses with pages of screenplay), Domenika is lured into working for her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts - a dead ringer for a young Putin), the Deputy Director of the Russian secret services. He essentially pimps her out to an oligarch, deliberately putting in the way of sexual assault. When Domenika then becomes witness to that oligarch's murder she is given the non-choice of being assassinated herself, or joining the Russian SS4 spy school and essentially continuing her career as a spy/whore for her country.  Her specific mark is an American CIA agent based in Budapest, played by Joel Edgerton, who is running a mole in the Russian secret service. Her task is to seduce him and get the name of the mole. Meanwhile, she runs a side-con, offering him the information that a senior American official is selling state secrets.  

Let's start with the unequivocally good stuff. This is a movie that looks gorgeous. Every detail of the shabby 70s looking Budapest and Russian apartments contrasted with the ornate Russian government offices and ballet theatres is sumptuous and evocative, creating a world that I utterly believed in.  The cinematography and editing is similarly superb - particularly in the opening scene that intercuts the ballet accident and a spy meeting in Gorky Park that goes wrong. Even that name is evocative - and this is a film that clearly knows and respects the history of its genre, complete with a final handover scene straight out of SMILEY'S PEOPLE. Moreover, with the exception of a few very violent set-pieces this is not really an action movie at all. It's a genuinely tricksy intelligent spy thriller that has you genuinely guessing as to which side Domenika is on, and who the mole is.  It has the confidence to make its audience work hard, and to confirm a theory with a simply subtle smile between two characters rather than with heavy-handed exposition. 

And now to the controversy. RED SPARROW is a film about how men exercise power over women, subtly, obviously, through coercion or outright aggression, and more often than not through sexual violence.  This sexual violence graphically shown and so it should be  - to show the sheer fear of a woman physically assaulted by a powerful man - and to contrast with how Domenika slowly takes back that sexual and intellectual power from pretty much every man in the film.  It is - then - a film that doesn't shy away from showing scenes of rape, attempted rape, and sexual manipulation and humiliation. But each time, there is a power shift.  And how refreshing to see a woman's sexual power explored on film by an actress who was firmly in control of the film's development and her own nudity.  In other words, this isn't - per many reviewers - a sexist film - but a film about sexists.  It's a film about a woman's political awakening. And that couldn't be more relevant. 

RED SPARROW has a running time of 140 minutes and is rated R. The film was released in cinemas in March 2018 and is now available to rent and own. 


The OCEAN'S films - when they work - work because they show us a group of people who are all friends in real life, having a really good time getting up to no good.  The original Rat Pack oozed cool and elegance - they created an exclusive guy's club but had the generosity to let us inside for 90 minutes. The cast of the Stephen Soderbergh remake may not have all been best friends in real life, but the relationship between Brad Pitt and George Clooney was real enough, and they all did genuinely look like they were having a blast. Moreover, they were lucky enough to be filmed by Soderbergh with a deliciously luxe, cool, 70s infused kinetic energy, and to have a soundtrack of Dave Grusin-y goodness.

The problem with this new all-girl remake is that it fails to deliver that spark, that fun, that attractive glamour.  I didn't believe these girls were actually friends or had any kind of relationship.  The movie had no tension. It had only one genuine laugh. And at its centre - the message was rather cold. 

Let's break it down. The movie opens with Sandra Bullock playing the late Danny Ocean's sister Debbie. As in the Clooney version, she gets out of jail with a plan for a heist and assembles the gang to pull it off together with her best friend and sidekick Lou (Cate Blanchett in biker chic mode).  There are some surprisingly big names in the ensemble cast and then a smattering of younger musicians in there - Rihanna, Awkwafina - presumably to attract a younger more diverse audience. So much of this film feels made on a spreadsheet by the finance department calculating to maximise revenue. The con is that the girls will get a fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter playing herself with an Irish accent) to insist that a Hollywood star (Anne Hathaway satirising herself) wears a $150m Cartier necklace to the Met Gala.  From there, the girls will make the actress eat a dodgy bowl of soup, throw up it the bathroom, and have the necklace switched with a 3-D printed fake.  Their jewellery expert (Mindy Kaling) will break up the necklace and the girls will wear different parts of it out. 

All of this sounds promising enough as a basic heist story. The problem is that the girls have no fun together.  Only Anne Hathaway really has any fun with it.  The script contains no tension or wit - and why you'd give such a major project to a first time screenwriter - Olivia Milch - is beyond me. I don't care if she's the producer, she's out of her depth, and the soggy, mediocre script sinks the movie. Then you later on pedestrian direction from Gary Ross (THE HUNGER GAMES) and a really mediocre repetitive score from Daniel Pemberton (ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD). The result is a film that can't really be truly bad given the talented cast, but one that simply fails to ignite. The final nail in the coffin is that this film has no heart. In the first movie we forgive Danny his criminality because he's charismatic and fun, but most of all because he wants to win back his girl.  In this film, his avatar is setting up a treacherous ex (Richard Armitage). This lends a subtly petty and nasty undertone rather than a loving glow. 

OCEAN'S 8 has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film was released in cinema's this summer. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018


SUBURBICON is a much-maligned film - so much so that I put off watching it for quite some time. I see the issue with it. Despite his earnest liberal pose, George Clooney has created a film in which the story of a black family victimised by racists in 1950s America is treated as a counter-point to the main story of a white family torn apart by lust and murder. He doesn't condescend to give his black characters names, personalities, an inner life, agency.  They are cookie-cutter martyrs.  In fact, Clooney doesn't even look that interested in what they're going through, other than that a climactic race riot can provide an opportunity for his actual protagonist to mask a murder.  One has to ask oneself how a director who is also an activist could be so tone deaf to his own implicit racism.  Maybe it's just another example of the inability of rich white old men to "get it".  

The problem is that if we write off all of SUBURBICON because of Clooney's racist mis-step, we ignore the evident artistry of its main  plot. In fact, one could imagine someone putting the film through FinalCutPro, taking out the black neighbour side-plot, and coming up with a very finely produced, nasty, subversive, little suburban thriller.  The tragedy of SUBURBICON is, then, not that it's a bad film, but that it's a good film with a side-order of tone-deaf sub-plot. 

So let's get to the main film. It's a Clooney directorial effort based on a 1980s script by the Coen Brothers, whose sensibilities he has absorbed over many years of working for them as an actor. He has reworked the script with producing partner Grant Heslov to create a dark tale of lust and greed. As the film opens, its protagonist Gardner (Matt Damon) is living with his wife and son Nicky as well as his sister-in-law (both sisters played by Julianne Moore).  In an early and tense scene of home invasion, the wife is killed, after which Gardner takes up with the sister, who creepily dies her hair to look like the dead sibling.  This - and other "red flags" raise the suspicions of an oppressively charming insurance fraud investigator played by Oscar Isaac, and we realise that Gardner is in cahoots with two mobsters.

This kind of complex caper, with crosses and double-crosses, small-time crooks and venal men, are common in Coen Brothers movies. But this is not one of their dark comedies. Rather, it's a relentlessly vicious film, centring as it does on a small kid who sees and is victimised by violence and coercion. To that end, I thought Clooney handled the tension and the violence very well - walking just the right balance of holding our gaze vs exploitation.

I also loved Clooney's visual style in this film, his scrupulous use of vintage design - not just clothes and the way the houses are dressed - but the logos on the beauty parlour window and the brochure for a military school - the deep dark oppressive browns of Gardner's office. Everything is just right.  He also knows how to frame a shot.  Matt Damon, broken nose and glasses, trying to intimidate his son, with an absurdly lit fish-tank behind him. In many ways, I think this is Clooney at his most deliberate and controlled and I loved it. And of course Julianne Moore is superb. In other words, there's a lot that's really superb in this film if - and it's a big if - you can overlook the serious political mis-step. 

SUBURBICON has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated R. It is available to rent and own.


THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES is a deeply frustrating film. On the one hand, it's a must-see for any connoisseur of Welles' work, showing us line drawings, pastels, paintings that Welles made throughout his life - never before seen sketches of faces, Christmas cards, lovers notes. Never intended to be seen by a wide audience, the thesis of director Mark Cousins (STOCKHOLM MY LOVE, I AM BELFAST) is that these pictures can tell us about how Welles saw the world - his preoccupations, his literal points of view, and illuminate our understanding of his films. The most useful thing that Cousins does is curate those drawings and juxtapose them with the settings in which they made - Morocco to New England and everything in between.

The problem with the film is that we are never left to contemplate the images for ourselves. Instead, we have the incessant, lilting voice of Cousins with his - to be generous whimsical - to be harsh - indulged and narcissistic voiceover - interpreting them for us. Personally, I found his voice intrusive and his imagining of some kind of personal relationship wince-inducingly embarrassing.   I mean, who on earth is Mark Cousins to be addressing Welles in some fictive first person interrogation, explaining to him what a mobile phone is.

I came to the conclusion that what I wanted was not this film but a coffee table book, handsomely produced, of a curated selection of Welles' art as shown in this film, with a few concise captions for context.  Luckily, those of you close to Edinburgh can approximate just that by visiting an exhibition of his work at the Summerhall Festival. Or you can watch this film on mute so it doesn't become THE VOICE OF MARK COUSINS.

THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES has a running time of 115 minutes.  The film played Cannes 2018 where it won the Golden Eye - Special Mention.  It is currently on release in the UK and USA - in cinemas and on streaming services. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


Here's a funny story.  Well not really.  A while ago the documentarian Lauren Greenfield made a short doc called KIDS+MONEY and I reviewed it on this site. The post got insane numbers of hits. Disproportionate to any other post. And when I looked at the stats of how people were coming to that post, let's just say they were evil evil people. I took the post down.  Her doc had nothing to do with what they were looking for, but it was disturbing in its own way. Because it showed just how far young kids were becoming materialistic and money obsessed - superficial and blighted by a hunger for wealth that could never be satiated.

A while later I reviewed Lauren Greenfield's 2012 doc THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES. The subject was the same - about the insidious corruption of greed. But in this case it focussed on a rich couple building a gargantuan mansion in Florida on the eve of the Global Financial Crisis.  I can never remember the wife getting into her limo and taking her kids to a McDonald's drive-thru.  Because they should grow up in a massive mansion but with no actual care or attention.

So now we come to her next feature length doc - GENERATION WEALTH - which continues and expands upon these themes. Following up on interview subjects she met when teens in Hollywood and trying to examine the impact that extreme wealth has on kids' sense of self and morality.  She puts herself in that same cohort - she is after a private school kid, layering on her training as an anthropologist, in order to make sense of her childhood.  With shocking vulnerability, she admits to feeling sensitive about not being able to afford fancy clothes, or being dropped a block away from home because she was ashamed of it.  

I've seen some interviewers object to this personalisation but I found it really fascinating both of itself here and as context for her career.  I found the scattershot organisation of the film far more frustrating.  It's as though the film is a series of individually quite interesting ten minute segments, but all thrown in the air and assembled in no particular order.  I felt very strongly having watched this that it needed a lot more context from expert talking heads explaining the phenomena rather than just showing lots of different superficial people. We just needed a few social anthropologists and critical theories to talk more about the influence of TV and social media, and political and financial analysis. And I mean actual financial analysis rather than from some German monetarist on the run.

GENERATION WEALTH has a running time of 106 minutes and is rated R. It played Sundance and SXSW 2018 and was released in the USA and UK this July in cinemas and on streaming services. In the UK you can watch it on Sky and Curzon Home Cinema, for example. 


It feels as though the German occupation of the Channel Islands is rather under-represented in the output of British films about World War Two. Maybe it's because it doesn't fit in with the narrative of a the last bastion of resistance, the last nation unsullied by Nazis in Europe.  At any rate, here we are, with an adaptation of the tremendously popular book of the same name by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  I read it a few years ago, found it modestly interesting, a little too obviously attempting to move me, but still rather touching.  I could say much the same of this more or less faithful adaptation.  There's nothing too nasty or shocking or cry-making - just a generally benevolent feeling of decent people doing the decent thing.

The novel and film open after the war with a successful author (Lily James - DOWNTON ABBEY) intrigued by letters from a man in Guernsey, enquiring after a book, describing the lack of them in Guernsey after years of oppressive Nazi rule.  She eventually travels to the island to learn more about the disparate group of friends who created the society as an excuse to break curfew.  Slowly the author uncovers the tale of the enigmatic founder of the society (Jessica Brown Findlay - also DOWNTON ABBEY) and the darker side of the war.  In doing so, she falls in love with island, and the handsome man who wrote to her. 

The problem with this film is that it's so obvious. It tries to make too much of the story of what really happened to the founder, when it's actually pretty simple, if no less tragic for that.  The romance story - in both book and film - is also rather forced, and made no more credible by casting an actor who is patently not British (Michiel Huisman).  One also has a feeling of waste - insofar as good, and sometimes great actors aren't given much to do.  Jessica Brown Findlay reprises her Downton Abbey role as a feisty, rebellious but good and earnest girl.  Lily James reprises her role from almost everything she's been in, of being charming and kind.  Michiel Huisman does his usual eye candy thing.  Penelope Wilton, also Downton, also decent again... And poor Tom Courtenay is wasted. 

The upshot is that this film is a harmless way to pass the time, but very predictable, occasionally frightfully stagey and soppy.

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY has a running time of 124 minutes. The movie is available to rent and own in the UK and is on Netflix elsewhere. 

Friday, August 10, 2018


CROWHURST is a superbly acted, imaginatively visualised film about the tragic amateur sailor, Donald Crowhurst, who entered a round the world race in 1968, decided to cheat under enormous financial pressure, went made and committed suicide. We've actually had three films about this fascinating story of what happens to a normal decent man under profound pressure and isolation. The first was the award winning and compelling documentary DEEP WATER, which puts Crowhurst's story in the context of the wider race - and shows us that he was by far not the least prepared sailor and arguably only one of a number who suffered a mental break during the race.  The second, was the fictionalised account of Crowhurst's story - THE MERCY - an altogether bigger budget and starrier affair, released earlier this year.  But, despite being filmed by Oscar winning director James Marsh and starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, THE MERCY was ultimately a disappointment. It felt flat - dull - there was little visual or storytelling imagination in portraying Crowhurst's descent into madness. And there was an absurd anti-media rant tacked on to the end that seemed to entirely miss the point of the story.  The tragedy for the film under review today - CROWHURST - is that THE MERCY was released first and one wonders how many people would have the appetite for two films on the same topic. This was a deliberate strategy by the distributor of THE MERCY, which bought the rights to the competitor film and released it afterwards.  It's such a shame because CROWHURST deserves all the attention in the world - in fact, it's one of my films of the year!

CROWHURST is directed and co-written by Simon Rumley - a low budget indie British director who seems to have a facility for horror and and a willingness to be visually and aurally daring in portraying inner psychological struggle.  In this sense he is the perfect director for this story.  He uses different colour treatments to give the impression of faded vintage footage - or of the bleakness of open water - or to show the disintegration of Crowhurst's sanity. He also uses split scenes, the manifestation of nightmares, rapidly speeds up film and cuts it aggressively. All to layer on the impression of a man unmoored from himself. 

Rumley is massively helped by his choice of actor for the role of Crowhurst - Justin Salinger. He may not be as well known as Colin Firth, but he's the right age, has the right look about him, and perfectly captures the shabby down-at-heel middle class decency of Crowhurst, and then in a series of increasing disturbing direct to camera insane ramblings - his mental breakdown.  Rumley also benefits from filming in the actual house of the Crowhurst family, and through the use of music and swift editing and costume, evoking the house of a young couple, full of hope, but crushed by the financial failure of an invention that didn't sell.  Rumley also - perfectly - begins and ends the film with Crowhurst choosing to take a loan from a businessman to fund the race - one that specifies that he will go bankrupt and lose that same family house if he doesn't complete it.  This is crucial - because it's the financial trap that means he can't drop out and go home to his family. He has to finish. He knows he doesn't have the skill or the boat to finish.  His only choice is death.  

The other aspect of this film that I thought was particularly impressive was the use of music - whether to show a happy couple dancing the twist - or a separated family singing Christmas carols - or the darkly tragic final scenes of a man who wants to be a latter day sailing hero singing the national anthem.  This is also complemented by Richard Chester's score - at times austere, at times like something from a horror film, at times lyrical and tragic. 

Overall, CROWHURST is a film that shows what cinema can do best - take us into the mind of a man - using every tool in the box to evoke a specific moment in a compelling story.  It is by far the superior film to THE MERCY and deserves to be seen.

CROWHURST has a running time of 103 minutes and is available to rent and own.