Thursday, March 28, 2019


I loved loved loved Jordan Peele's horror-satire GET OUT.  Everybody did.  And we were all hot with anticipation for his new film, US, already allegorical in its title, expecting a damning indictment of contemporary US racial politics. What we get is a film that is visually interesting and full of cinematic references, but less tightly controlled and messaged than GET OUT, far less scary and far less funny.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it's a noble failure. Because if a horror film can't scare me - a notorious wimp when it comes to this stuff - then it's a failure. And perhaps more importantly, it really fails for me as a politically provocative film. It feels as if Peele was throwing a few ideas against the wall - or maybe the film started out as saying one thing on the first draft but then  ended up being rewritten to try and say another on successive drafts - that it feels ill developed, or maybe over-developed.  Too many of its key visual images don't really go anywhere for me.

So let's wind it back.  The film begins with a flashback to mid-80s America where a young African American girl gets lots inside a funfair hall of mirrors and emerges never quite the same.  It's also the time when America is engaging in its ill feted "Hands Across America".  As someone contemporaneous with lead character, I only vaguely remembered this, and I wonder how far modern viewers will know or care about this apparently pivotal but to my mind ill-chosen metaphor. Fast forward to the current day.   The little girl has grown up to be the mum in a middle-class black family going on holiday to that same coastal resort. They appear to be the victims of a home invasion horror by a family of doppelgängers. Incompetent doppelgängers at that.  And then they realise that it's not just them but everyone in America. Because a bunch of "tethered" doppelgängers previously populating America's hidden underworld of prison cells and tunnels has staged a rebellion.  Of course there's a final act twist but when you figure out half way through who is and isn't getting killed quickly it's pretty obvious what that is. 

So here are some of the things that I thought the film might have been trying to say. At first I thought, maybe the doppelgängers are there to remind a gentrified black family about their roots and essential blackness rather than living a life of boating.  And then I thought, ok the trapped bunnies are slaves, and the tunnels are like the underground railroad. But then white people were being stalked too so I thought ok so not so much about racial politics? And then we got all this weird shit about "god invented this system and then ran away" and  I was like ok this is some Nietzchean god is dead everything is permitted shit. In the end I didn't really care. And I wasn't scared.

Have an idea. A good simple scary idea. And see it through.

US has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated R.  The movie played SXSW 2019 and is now on global release. 


VITA & VIRGINIA is a beautifully crafted film about the love affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West that inspired the former's wonderful fictionalised fantastical biography Orlando, and the stunning film that launched Tilda Swinton's career. Indeed for many people, including myself, that film and the book may be our only knowledge of Vita, making this film a fascinating and unusual tale.  

The first thing to say about the film is that the script, based on her own stage play, by Eileen Atkins, is very good, and serves to describe why Vita was so fascinating and larger-than-life, and just how dangerous and transformative that love affair was to someone as mentally fragile and hyper-sensitive as Virginia. The film implies that the married Virginia was hitherto frigid and that the pansexual promiscuous Vita was her first successful lover.  They truly loved each other. But Vita simply does not have it in her to be in love with one person at a time, and this revelation ruins but then liberates Virginia.

The second thing to say is that the film looks marvellous, despite its presumably slim budget. Shooting on location at Knowle House helps, but so does the dreamy cinematography, the stunning wardrobe - particularly for Vita and her mother - contrasted with Isobel Waller-Bridge's anachronistic score. I loved just looking and hearing this film. I also loved director Chanya Button's attempts to lightly use CGI to take us inside Virginia's imaginative world.

What I didn't love - and what ultimately drew me out of the picture - was the way in which Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton as Virginia and Vita respectively used very arch period English accents for their roles. It felt so studied and performative and rehearsed that maybe a more naturalistic upper class English accent might have been less intrusive.  Given that the director went for a radical use of music I was surprised she didn't give her actresses notes to be more naturalistic here too.

The result of feeling somewhat alienated from my lead actresses is that I was far more drawn to the other characters. Isabella Rossellini is absolutely magnificent as Vita's society matron mother - conveying with a withering look more contempt than a screen can hold!  More seriously, I found the two cuckolded husbands far more fascinating than their wives.  Peter Ferdinando (HIGH RISE) was just unbelievably sympathetic as Leonard Woolf - the  marvellously supportive husband who just wants to keep Virginia safe - from herself as well as Vita - to enable her writing - and to make her happy.  And the most fascinating character of all is Rupert Penry-Jones' Harold Nicolson - the bisexual diplomat who loved his wife enough to give her her sexual freedom (as he also demanded) so long as she only loved him. It's an absolutely tragic portrait of a modern relationship in which love is not conditional on sexual but emotional fidelity. 

VITA & VIRGINIA has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated 12A for modest sex, sex references and nudity. It played Toronto 2018 and opened the BFI FLARE Film Festival 2019. It opens in the UK and Ireland on July 12th.


BENJAMIN is an autobiographical romantic dramedy from writer-director and British comedian Simon Amstell.  Set in contemporary London, the title character is one-time feted young film director filled with anxiety about his second feature, and too scared to receive the love that young singer Noah is offering.  It's a strange mix of awkward British dating and soft satire on the media types the cling onto the indie art scene.  I found the rom-com bizarrely uninteresting. Maybe this is because Colin Morgan (most recently seen as Bosie to Rupert Everett's Wilde in THE HAPPY PRINCE) gives a very low-key performance.  So much so that in early scenes the combination of his Northern Irish accent, anxious mumbling, and the background noise of the nightclub scene meant I was struggling to follow what was happening.  In fact that this sort of indifferent lighting and direction stretches to the rest of this presumably very low budget film.  On the other side of the romance Phenix Brossard's Noah is similarly a bit of a one-tone fantasy waif. In the words of Benjamin's best friend Stephen (a scene stealing Joel Fry - Game of Thrones' Hizdahr), Benjamin just likes boys who are "well lit and weak".  If that's not your thing, this may not be your thing.  And so the movie wends its way along its slight running time at a slow ambling pace.  There's an attempt at satire, mostly in a cameo from Game of Thrones' Ellie Kendrick as a dancer.  It's funny but it's no Nathan Barley.  All in all, this film is highly missable. 

BENJAMIN has a running time of 85 minutes and is rated 15 for very strong language and drug use.  The film played the BFI London Film Festival 2018 and is now on release in cinemas and on demand in the UK and Ireland.

Monday, March 11, 2019


CAPTAIN MARVEL is a game of two halves. I found the first half of the film utterly tedious, failing to fire with its buddy comedy and alien politics, but the second half to be really moving and powerful and wonderful.

The film starts with Brie Larson (ROOM) playing a human with superpowers and amnesia, being trained by a beefed-up Jude Law to fight as part of a Kree special forces unit against their hated Skrull enemy.  She crashes to earth sometime in the mid 1990s - well before the events of the current Marvel series - and tries to uncover the mystery of how she got her powers with the help of a friendly government agent called Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and her old best friend Marie Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).  Turns out she was a kick-ass fighter pilot called Carol Danvers working for an inspirational woman called Mar-Vell (Annette Bening) who - turns out - was an alien who invented the original tesseract - a kind of super-energy source McGuffin that has wound its way through these films. And so Danvers and her sidekicks have to protect the tesseract from - they think  - the evil terrorist Skrull - especially their leader Talos played by Ben Mendelsohn in full evil villain guise.

Like I said - the first hour of this film seemed pretty tedious to me. I don't really engage with CGI filled alien planet fight scenes, especially when I don't care about either side. I also didn't really care about the early scenes on 1990s Earth other than some pop tune nostalgia.  I could see that the directors wanted to create a kind of buddy movie road-trip odd-couple comedy between Carol and Fury but I just didn't respond to it. I could see Samuel L Jackson trying to be funny but didn't laugh - and it didn't feel like anyone else in the cinema was laughing either. 

Where the film began to ignite for me was in its second half, broadly where we get a major plot twist regarding one of the characters. This allows that character to actually become the one driving the witty deadpan humour and the heart of the second half of the film.  I also really loved the relationship between Carol and Marie - which also takes place in the second half of the film. In fact, you could easily have played it as a gay relationship co-parenting a child, and I wonder if this film will achieve cult status on that level.  

Finally, its in the second half of the film that a lot of the feminist groundwork done in the first half pays off - it's where we see Captain Marvel as a hero who's main skill is obstinacy in the face of bigotry. She doesn't need a wise male mentor to give her advice or permission. She doesn't have a crisis of confidence. And she doesn't have a love interest (male or female apparently).  She just gets the job done, no mess, no fuss. This is refreshing in its straightforward empowerment but does make Captain Marvel a fairly unengaging superhero. She's the strong smart ethically grounded woman who basically never does anything wrong, never has any doubts, and doesn't really need her friends. Accordingly, it's no surprise that the MVP of this film is a cat. 

CAPTAIN MARVEL has a running time of 124 minutes and is rated PG-13. It is on global release. 


I started watching GREEN BOOK minded not to like it. Sure, I think both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are fine actors, and I love biopics. But I had been awed by Spike Lee's BLACKKKLANSMAN and swayed by articles arguing that GREEN BOOK's more old-fashioned anodyne depiction of 1960s race relations was regressive and worse still potentially racist. How could the story of an incredibly talented African-American musician be centred on the story of his white driver?  Wasn't this just another tale of a white person coming to enlightenment at the expense of a wise black side-kick?  Wasn't this THE HELP, or DRIVING MISS DAISY?  All of this criticism was heightened when GREEN BOOK surprisingly won Best Picture at the Oscars, ahead of BLACKKKLANSMAN, THE FAVOURITE or even ROMA. Wasn't this just another example of the Oscars proving themselves to be old fashioned and out of touch?

Well yes and no. Is GREEN BOOK better than the BLACKKKLANSMAN? Clearly not. That is a movie that balances comedy and righteous anger with such perfection and fury that it sears the imagination.  But GREEN BOOK *is* a handsomely made, more delicate film, that in its suspiciously easy rhythm hides a rather subversive look not just at race relations but also homophobia. It's beautifully acted and constructed, incredibly watchable, and really quite lovely.  

Mortensen plays real life Italian-American nightclub bouncer and all-round swaggering macho-man, Tony Lip. (Interestingly the real life Tony turned up as an actor in THE SOPRANOS many years later.) Down on his financial luck, he takes a job chauffering Dr Donald Shirley (Ali) on a tour of the deep south.  It is made very clear to Tony that he's not being hired for his driving skills - Shirley's management expect racial violence in the South and need Tony's muscle. And so what develops is a really lovely and convincing odd-couple buddy road movie. Tony's rough, crude manner is contrasted with Shirley's courteous, gentlemanlike manner.   Over time, Tony becomes less racist, although it seems like he was already rather pragmatic on the issue of homosexuality.  

I rather like the delicate way in which profound issues are handled.  The risks attendant on Shirley's homosexuality are handled in a single scene, and seeing Ali cowering naked in a bathhouse conveys so much so swiftly.  I also like the way in which Shirley's conflicted position vis a vis his own race is portrayed: like Nina Simone he is more comfortable in the world of classical music but forced to play popular music because that's what the market expects of him.  Moreover, Shirley defies all racial stereotypes much to Tony's disappointment, but also earning him the mistrust of his fellow African Americans. I even like the way in which the movie shows the differing styles of racism across America.  It may have been more explicit in the South - with bars on entrances, where you can eat, where you can sleep, whether you can be out after dark. But that doesn't mean that the north is a nirvana.  The subversive racism - the epithets, the subtle refusing to drink from a black man's cup - it's all still there. 

GREEN BOOK is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 130 minutes. The movie is on global release.

Monday, March 04, 2019


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become something of a cult figure among today's "woke" youth. She is often portrayed as The Notorious RBG on t-shirts and memes.  Seen as a champion of progressive values, and most particularly women's rights, her newfound fans are putting faith in her longevity to prevent a conservative takeover of the court.  Her legacy, marriage and mind were all celebrated in the recent, superb, RBG (reviewed here) which featured many interviews with her family. At the time, I commented how refreshing and perhaps surprising it was to see RBG as a young woman, in contrast to her current familiar image. 

This new film, written by RBG's nephew, focuses on that young smart woman and how she established herself as one of the pre-eminent sexual discrimination lawyers.  It opens with Ruth as one of a handful of female students attending Harvard Law School, sees her forced to switch to Columbia to support her husband's career, rejected by all the major law firms, and almost as a second choice, become an academic.  Her lack of appellant experience becomes alarmingly clear when she takes on a landmark legal case that the ACLU hasn't the time for - defending a MAN who has suffered from discriminatory legislation.  She works in partnership with her tax lawyer husband Marty, preparing a brief and then arguing in front of the appeals court, leading to a classic final act stirring speech that wins the day. In a final, rather deliberately emotional scene, we see a young RBG climb the steps to of the Supreme Court to argue another landmark case, transitioning to the present day Justice.

As directed by veteran Mimi Leder, this movie has a charming and handsomely old fashioned feel of telling a character driven story patiently and building toward a set-piece finale. The script is just fine - and perhaps best in using Ruth's daughter as a provocation toward more strident and direct action. By contrast, the motivations of the dean of Harvard Law School who at once lobbied to admit women but then is seen as so sexist remain frustratingly opaque. Felicity Jones makes only a cursory attempt at RBG's accent and neither she nor Armie Hammer as Marty seem to age much, even as they acquire a teenage daughter.

And yet for all these faults, I still found this a fascinating and satisfying film, with enough provocative angry-making insults to our heroine, and a sense of purpose and triumph at the end.  It makes a nice pair with the aforementioned documentary - although if you only have time for one, I would still go for the doc, for its wider scope and greater insight.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX has a running time of 120 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film is on global release.