Friday, December 20, 2019


Greta Gerwig has created perhaps the most beautiful, vital and affecting version of LITTLE WOMEN yet seen on screen. Even better, she has opened improved upon the original novel and more slavish adaptations by making Amy March a character of some wisdom and agency by the end, and by making Laurie's choices more credible. There is nothing I would fault in this film - nothing I would add or subtract. I was low-level crying for much of the final hour, and not just at *that* plot point.  I felt I had been through the wringer and really loved the March women and respected and understood their choices.

For those unfamiliar with Louisa May Alcott's classic novel - revered in the US but far less well known in Europe, the book is set during the American Civil War. An earnest Christian father is away at the front, leaving his wife Marmie to raise their four daughters - the little women of the title.  The eldest - Meg - is sweet and kind and aspires to be a homemaker like her mother.  The second eldest - Jo - is an aspiring writer, tomboy, and to many the true protagonist of the novel.  The next is Amy - beautiful and superficial in the novel, and given a revelatory expansion of feeling and story in this version.  And the youngest is piano-playing sweet Beth.  

Eliza Scanlan (SHARP OBJECTS), Emma Watson (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) and Laura Dern (MARRIAGE STORY) are all just right as Beth, Meg and Marmie respectively.  But they aren't the focus of the novel or this film. Jo is played with characteristic energy and earnestness by Saiorse Ronan, but I actually preferred Maya Hawke in the recent TV miniseries.  The real star of the show is Florence Pugh (MIDSOMMAR) as Amy, brilliantly playing both a petulant silly child and the more cynical, weary but fundamentally good older woman.  And a lot of the credit for this has to go to writer-director Greta Gerwig (LADY BIRD) - who has given the women a more pragmatic take on the economic position of women in the late nineteenth century without making their feelings seem anachronistic or overly "woke".  I also absolutely love the way Gerwig splits the story in two and has the adult Jo remember scenes of childhood in a way that enhances the emotional punch of the final choices of the girls. 

In the other roles, I particularly liked Tracy Letts (LADY BIRD) in a cameo as Jo's publisher Mr Dashwood and Louis Garrel as the blunt, honest Frederick.  I thought James Norton's dull Mr Brook was a bit forgettable. Finally, I really loved Timothee Chalamet (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME) as Laurie. His love declaration to Jo is utterly heartbreaking and their entire relationship fizzes with authentic sibling physical intimacy.  But it's his final realisation of love that's truly touching. It was also rather good to see him play a final meeting with a rival for laughs - a side of this rather intense young actor that we rarely see.

LITTLE WOMEN is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 134 minutes. It is out in the USA on Christmas Day and in the UK on Boxing Day.

Thursday, December 19, 2019


PARASITE is a rightly critically acclaimed black comedy/political satire from Korean director Bong Joon Ho. It's a film that speaks to the profound income inequality that we see around the world, and the social anxieties that the super-rich invent to give them something to do.  The rich family in question here lives in a beautifully modernist house - mother, father, spoiled son, elder daughter.  They are placed in contrast with a poor family living in one of Seoul's "sub-basements" - dank, fetid, insect-infested, sub-standard housing for the city's poorest residents - prone to flood during the rainy season. Improbably, the son in the poor family gets an in to the rich family, pretending to be a university student to tutor the daughter. He then contrives to have their driver and housekeeper sacked and to get his own mother and father to replace them. He also gets his sister into the house as a tutor for the small kid.  Of course they have to pretend not to know each other. The movie reaches its climax when the rich family go away on holiday, and the old housekeeper comes back, vowing revenge, and with her own dark secret to protect.  The result is skewering, violent, social revenge. Because as feckless and laughably superficial the rich family is, they still have their prejudices - expressed here as the fear of the fetid stink of the sub-basement dwellers.  They can lock the poor out of their gated house, but that smell comes over the walls.....

This film is beautifully constructed, acted and built.  The modernist house and sub-basement are meticulously created.  The script is at turns hilarious, tragic and absurd.  The performances both move one to tears and laughter. The film isn't without its longeurs in the middle section, and I would've ended it ten minutes before it ends, but this is nothing in a film of such originality and audacity.  There's a particular scene, where the poor family sneak out of the rich house on the hill, through pouring rain and flooded streets, down and down through the city's streets and staircases, to the hellish world of the flooded sub-basement. It's poetic and tragic.

As with THE KINGMAKER this is a film that speaks to us in the West. The income inequality and class prejudice resonate.  You could easily remake this film set in the OC, or in Notting Hill.  And I'm sure somebody will.

PARASITE has a running time of 132 minutes and is rated R.  The film played Cannes 2019 where it won the Palme D'Or by unanimous verdict. It also played Telluride and Toronto. It opened in the USA in October and opens in the UK on February 20th 2020.


Documentarian Lauren Greenfield (THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES) has done it again - with another superbly crafted, beautifully observed documentary, that speaks exactly to our times. She has won astounding access to Imelda Marcos, former first lady and self-appointed "mother" of the Philippines - an Eva Peron style dictator's wife, who looted her country, amassed a collection of designer clothes, shoes, priceless works of art and buildings in Manhattan - and colluded in her husband's violent, corrupt martial dictatorship. We meet the former beauty queen in her mid-80s, still obsessed with her looks, but more importantly, still obsessed with "clout".  The reasons become clear - by controlling the current government she can ensure that those forces of progressive activism and anti-corruption are called off, and that her wealth will remain within the family. And of course, she has the money to do this - "generously" handing out banknotes to the shanty-town dwellers she robbed decades ago, and more ominously, bank-rolling the career of her own son, and apparently putting the nasty strongman Duterte into power as the current President of the country.

This is a powerful story on its own terms.  We see the evil of the Marcos regime beyond the jokes about a shoe collection. What is fascinating is where the line is drawn between delusion and outright lies.  She seems to believe she brought an end to the Cold War with her international diplomacy to dictators everywhere. Her hilarious old American friends suggest her husband was just getting her out of the country so he could bang chicks.  But on the assassination of their political rival, Ninoy Aquino, surely she is outright lying.   And what of her children and grandchildren? Surely they must know the real power project is to protect ill-gotten gains?

What I really respect about this documentary is that the platform given to the Marcos is balanced with the voices of those they oppressed. We hear powerful and moving testimony for journalists and activists tortured and in some cases raped. We hear from the judicial officer charged with repatriating their stolen wealth, who is then targeted by them with corruption charges. Most powerfully, we hear from Aquino's son - himself later a President. 

But perhaps the most frightening and resonant part of this documentary is how it speaks to why ordinary poor Filippinos welcome the Marcoses return to power. There are so many ways in which it reflects on the rise of populists around the world - the  attraction of short punchy slogans, the belief that only a "strong man can sort out structural problems, the use of social media to spread fake news and rewrite history. Imelda says that "perception is the truth". She's not wrong, and it's petrifying.

THE KINGMAKER has a running time of 100 minutes. It played Venice, Toronto and London 2019. It opened in the USA last month and is currently on release in the UK.


Some context.....STAR WARS has been the world of my imagination since before I can remember. I spent my childhood playing in the original trilogy and my university years lamenting the CGI-soullessness of the prequels. (See my essay on why they sucked here.) To add insult to injury it was the very creator who was destroying his legacy, and in doing so, shitting on the amazing contributions of the skilled creators who made the original effects. Selah!  It was his right. And then came the joyous news of the final trilogy and the initial joy at the THE FORCE AWAKENS, reviewed here.  Yes it was fanservicey, but it was also absolutely STAR WARS, and after those awful prequels they had to earn our trust back. And so we voyaged hopefully into the gigantic fuck you that was THE LAST JEDI (review here). I don't want to relitigate that film, suffice to say it was a relief that JJ Abrams was back for the finale.  I was nervous though - was he really going to be able to write the narrative and character-development wrongs of TLJ *AND* provide fans with a satisfying conclusion all in under three hours. Was he gonna tack back to fan service for safety?  And all of this was even more frustrating because with THE MANDALORIAN we now know for sure that Disney *CAN* create material that both feels like STAR WARS but does something new.

What's the verdict?  THE RISE OF SKYWALKER starts off slow, with another pointless McGuffin-led chase around a metaphorical Canto Bight. The widget Rey and her merry band of rebels have to find is a galactic satnav that will lead them to the Emperor and his new fleet of starkiller star destroyers.  Yes, that's right, the Emperor is back - in an audacious retcon that clearly spoiled the answer to the mystery of Rey's lineage in the film's trailer.   This sets us up nicely for the final half of the film - which sits in parallel to RETURN OF THE JEDI.  In that film Luke redeemed his father. In this film, with an act of mercy (hey LORD OF THE RINGS!), Rey (with a side-order of Leia's martyrdom and a fan-service memory of Han) redeems Ben Solo.  They unite to finally off the Emperor for realz this time, trust me. And then Rey adopts the name of Skywalker because why not.

Along the way there's a lot of implied apology from JJ on behalf of himself and Rian Johnson.  Chewie gets a proper scene of mourning when he finds out Leia is dead.  Ghost Luke tells Rey that a lightsaber deserves to be treated with respect. And yes, there's a lot of fan service. The entire existence of Lando in this film is fun but unnecessary as is the return to both Endor and Tatooine, complete with twin suns.  We even see Wedge Antilles return! I mean, don't get me wrong. I am a fan! I was served! There's even fan service of Chris Nolan's DUNKIRK in how the final flotilla of small boats conquers the baddies! 

But not everything's rehashed - some stuff is wonderfully new - most of all in the final celebration at the rebel base, where we clearly get a lovely lesbian kiss.

Where does the film fail?  It contains a lot of characters with nowhere to go.  Poor Kelly Marie Tran has fuck all to do as Rose Tico.  Any hints in TLJ of her being a love interest for Finn is thrown aside. He kinda has a thing with a new character who's also an ex-Stormtrooper and are they really setting her up for another spin off with Lando?  Evil First Order dude Hux has a literally incredible character arc, although I did rather enjoy Richard E Grant as his successor, General Pryde.  Finally, Oscar Issac's Poe doesn't seem to garner any gravitas or wisdom from all the sacrifices made on his behalf in TLJ.  But he does have some nice bants with Keri Russell's Zorii Biss. 

Still for all that, and the slow start, I really did enjoy the final half of this film, and I felt emotionally satisfied by the ending.  None of it beats the feels from the original, but I felt this was as good as we were going to feasibly get. ROGUE ONE remains the best film of the new era.  One can only imagine how good this trilogy might have been had JJ Abrams directed them all.

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is rated PG-13, has a running time of 141 minutes and is on global release.

Sunday, December 01, 2019


DOWNTON ABBEY the movie is exactly what DOWNTON ABBEY the TV show is but glossier and longer - it's sort of akin to a super version of their Christmas specials. I doubt anyone who isn't a fan of the show would watch the film - indeed no concessions are made to those who don't know the backstory of the aristocratic Crawley family. We simply dive in, in media res, with the family preparing for a Royal visit. Some characters are absent - notably Bates, and for much of the film, Mr Talbot.  Some characters are present with essentially nothing to do - notably Lord and Lady Grantham.  The action centres on Mary Talbot (as usual) - wondering whether to keep the show that is grand country living on the road - and Lady Edith missing her old career - in both cases of course we are meant to sympathise with the grand people with their obligations, and look to the loyal servants to sympathise with them, enable them, and provide moral support.  Of the visitors, the action centres of Imelda Staunton as Lady Bagshawe, and a backstairs secret she is holding that also involves Jack Leech's Branson - after all with the Downton family married of, he's the only candidate left for romance!

The resulting film is everything one expects from Downton, fully satisfying to fans of the series, and probably irritating to those who aren't. It is essentially conservative in its views of the value of the aristocracy and a rural way of life, but mildly progressive in its B plot - sympathy for closeted homosexuals; working women who have to give up their careers to be decorative arm-candy.   It looks sumptuous, with lavish costumes and ball room scenes.  And while the plot and dialogue are rather mechanical, one does of course have the joy of Maggie Smith as the dowager Duchess, with her witty one-liners, not to mention a rather emotional and lovely denouement.

DOWNTON ABBEY is rated PG and has a running time of 122 minutes. It was released earlier this year and is now available to rent and own.


I approached the live-action remake of ALADDIN with extreme cynicism. I didn't understand why you'd want to remake the perfection that was Robin Williams in the original animated version, and I had my doubts that mockney action director Guy Ritchie was the guy to do it.  But I have to admit that this film won me over within its first minutes and that by the end the I was a committed fan. It is, in essence, a very faithful adaptation with all the beloved songs from Alan Mencken; all the beloved characters; and even some of the set piece action and dance numbers recreated scene for scene.  But it does so much more in its delineation of character and acknowledgement of current political mores, and yet none of that feels clunky.

But let's start with what this film lives or dies on - the performance of Will Smith as the Genie.  I have to say that he is just wonderful - charismatic, effervescent, truly a warm and loveable figure.  Crucially, Smith makes the figure his own, rather than trying to ape the untouchable Williams, and I love that he gets his own love-story framing device. His genie is almost more human, more warm and more touching that Williams', and the film benefits from that.  Smith's Genie also doesn't dominate the film in the way that Williams' did and that's all to the benefit of the really impressive cast of actors playing the other roles.  I really liked Mena Massoud as Aladdin - he was charming, smart and I really rooted for him. But I felt he was outshone by Marwan Kenzari (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) as a superb Jafar - almost like an Edmund from Lear with a kind of demented logic to his scheming - a poor boy like Aladdin who resents that he doesn't live in a pure meritocracy where his smarts would be properly rewarded.  But most of all, I loved Naomi Scott (POWER RANGERS) as Jasmine.  She has strength and agency and her costumes, while stunning, aren't the cliched skimpy numbers from the original film. Mencken gives her a new song that shows her desire to be a just ruler and decide her own fate, and in this film Jasmine is not a damsel in distress but truly the protagonist to Jafar's antagonist.  I really rooted for Jasmine and Aladdin to get together, but even more I rooted for Jasmine to rule, and that's as it should be.

All of this lovely character work is situated inside a truly stunning production design that Guy Ritchie's kinetic camera-work shows off to its maximum. It turns out he really was the guy to direct this film and I really can't fault any of it. 

ALADDIN has a running time of 128 minutes and is rated PG-13. It was released earlier this year and is now available to rent and own.


Francois Ozon's BY THE GRACE OF GOD is a film that stands apart from the rest of his oeuvre.  Showing he can match his style to the subject, he has made a sober, reflective, beautifully paced and acted film about the most serious of topics - that of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and to compound that crime, its institutional cover up for decades.  By now we are sickeningly familiar with the story of paedophile priests being found out, and simply moved on to another parish to commit their crimes on another unwitting flock.  We are familiar with the heartbreak testimony of survivors and the seemingly interminable process of bringing these men to real criminal (as opposed to ecclesiastical) justice. But this film remains compelling because it's such a delicately, beautifully mined character study of how a group of men cope differently with their abuse.  And despite the darkness of the material it's ultimately a quiet film that builds to something rather hopeful and wonderful  - as these men form a kind of familial supportive bond. That might or might not be enough for all of them to pull through their trauma, but it's in this carefully mined character study that the film is at its most compelling.

BY THE GRACE OF GOD has a running time of 137 minutes.  The film played Berlin 2019 where it won the Silver Bear. It also played the BFI London Film Festival. It is now on release in the USA and in UK cinemas and on the Curzon Home Cinema streaming service.