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God's Own Country (2017)
Profound, complex and beautiful
A totally amazing feature debut by writer-director Francis Lee. The central performances by Josh O'Connor (as Johnny) and Alec Secareanu (as Gheorghe) blaze with screen presence and emotional honesty. They carry the film, but are given excellent support by two veterans, Ian Hart and Gemma Jones.
Essentially a simple story about love awakening the tenderness of an angry, self-loathing young man, Lee's film nonetheless is profound and complex. The Yorkshire landscape in which it is located is ruggedly beautiful, and cinematographer Joshua James Richards takes full advantage of it. But his prime focus are the characters' faces: Johnny's contorted with turmoil, Gheorghe's souful and observant. The way the former melts in the gentle strength of the latter is one of the film's great pleasures.
Some have made comparisons with BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, another pioneering masterpiece, but, while there is evidently some overlap, GOD'S OWN COUNTRY is very different, set at a later time in a different place. It is more concentrated, less epic in tone, but it is equally powerful, tremendously heartnening, and is destined to become one of my all-time favourites.
Leave No Trace (2018)
Art that conceals art
A thoughtful and engrossing film. It considers what the limits of freedom are in the Land of the Free, and the fate of those who have survived fighting for such ideals. It is carefully paced, beautifully acted, full of character. I've seen reviews comparing it to CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. While it obviously shares themes with that film, LEAVE NO TRACE is a subtler, quieter work, focussed as much on internal as external struggles. Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie make a completely convincing father and daughter. There is fine support from Dana Millican and Dale Dickey. All craft aspects are in good hands. And Debra Granik's direction is the art-that-conceals-art kind, bringing the best out of everybody while tactfully guiding us towards what we need to see.
Les frères Sisters (2018)
You really can't go wrong with John C Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed. Each one a brilliant artist. No matter how provocative and bloody the film, to be in the company of these guys is to have a worthwhile cinematic experience. Excellent contributions, too, from Rebecca Root and Carol Kane.
The script is often funny, several scenes are gory, the storytelling is carefully but expertly paced. The presentation of a land without law is particularly vivid. Paradoxically, the final images of the film bring that out even more strongly. A fine piece of work but, I appreciate that not everyone will enjoy it.
Boy Erased (2018)
Excellent in every department
A beautiful, compassionate film. It is a tremendous achievement by Joel Egerton, who wrote, produced and directed, and gives one of the many tremendous performances, along with remarkably self-effacing and truthful work by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. But the film belongs to Lucas Hedges as the young man who goes on a remarkable journey of self-acceptance against a hurricane of bigotry and intolerance. Excellent in every department.
For pity's sake
This is a dreary film, devoid of the originality of the artist it purports to celebrate. The production design reeks of research: so many shots derive from familiar canvases of Renoir, Seurat, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and their contemporaries that the cinematographer might just as well have been filming scenes in front of such canvases at the National Gallery. The leaden screenplay plods along with attempts at bon mots dying in the mouths of those two affable duffers Kiera Knightley and Dominic West, but what charm they have can't save them in this. Wan, winsome Knightley in particular is totally miscast as a person whose energy bursts through her work, someone whose charisma is evident in every photograph taken of her. Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw and some of the other performers offer the best support they can, but they haven't got a hope.
I kept thinking of how perfect Ms Knightley was in Joe Wright's imaginative take on ANNA KARENINA. I felt really quite sorry for her, and everybody else, at the end of this. It's not as if it was really bad. If it were, it might have been fun. Instead, we get deadly mediocrity.
One star for effort, and another for pity's sake.
An auspicious directing debut by Paul Dano, who with his wife Zoe Kazan co-scripted this adaptation of a Richard Ford novel. The result is a steadily-paced, beautifully observed tale of family dysfunction. Many shots by DOP Diego Garcia seem to emphasize how small the human characters are in the context of America's vastness, how relentless their struggle is both with the world outside and inside themselves. Such shots are balanced by intimate, soul-searching close-ups, that paradoxically register our mutual unknowability.
The acting is jaw-droppingly good all round, but special mention has to go to Carey Mulligan: she is a revelation. Kudos, too, to David Lang's perfectly judged musical score.
I stumbled across this movie in a DVD store and decided to give it a try because I like Claudette Colbert so much. By the time the film ended, I couldn't believe I'd not heard of it before, because it is BRILLIANT!
One of those rare comedies that gets funnier as it goes along, saving up its best laughs for the home straight. Script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett -- unbeatable.
Top-drawer on every level. Highly recommend.
Phantom Thread (2017)
A luxurious movie set in the world of 1950s haut-couture, something I'd never have anticipated in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Acted to perfection, beautifully written, designed and shot, with a pleasantly unnerving instability of genre: it's a romance, a thriller, a mystery, a comedy, a satire -- it's all of these. It boasts a comparatively conventional but nevertheless beautiful score from Jonny Greenwood. I can't wait to see it again.
Perhaps this movie is meant to be satirical. A light-hearted examination of what it means to live the life of a wacky self-obsessed and self-important scultor (Hoffman) and his zany wife (Thompson) and his (not hers: she's his third wife) three troubled children (Sandler, Stiller, Marvel) in the Big Apple. Soft targets? Undoubtedly.
The performers grab their roles and squeeze them for emotional possibilities, except for Marvel who quietly underplays her underwritten role and ends up as someone we feel we might know, or at least want to know. Cameo appearances (Adam Driver, Candice Bergen, Sigourney Weaver) merely contribute to the suffocating sense of self-indulgence ("look who's in my movie). It barely seems possible that this is the writer/diretor of WHILE WE'RE YOUNG and THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. I hope he finds himself again before too long.
A superbly constructed and written, excellently directed and wonderfully acted film. It is specifically about Lebanon, but the kind of conflict it depicts, and the attitudes taken up by the antagonists, could and do flare up anywhere. The film is even-handed in depicting the factions. Everyone has their reasons, their justifications, their excuses. The full gamut of society, from President to car mechanic, is involved, implicated, complicated. Certainly one of the best movies I've seen this year.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Yorgos Lanthimos seems to have inherited the mantle of the great Luis Bunuel, for this movie, like its predecessor THE LOBSTER, is essentially a satire on humanity's prodigious talent for not taking responsibility for its actions. The mythical underpinnings here give the film a sure sense of direction and overall structure, but Lanthimos' style is all his own -- the restrained, almost deadpan, performances he elicits from his actors; the pared-down dialogue, teetering a lot of the time on the edge of very dark humour indeed; the almost antiseptic visual canvas which takes so little to sully. This is Planet Yorgos.
It's two hours of almost non-stop psychological disturbance, so prepare to emerge a little punch-drunk, but it is totally worth undergoing the experience.
It's worth mentioning in passing that the performances are terrific, and that Colin Farrell goes from strength to strength now his juvenile lead days are behind him.
Lack of vision
Annette Bening and Jamie Bell play star-crossed lovers, with the emphasis on 'star'. Ms Bening is, as ever, excellent, this time playing a real-life Hollywood actress, Gloria Grahame, herself a remarkable and original talent. If this film rekindles interest in Ms Grahame's formidable back catalogue of performances, that's no bad thing.
However, FILM STARS...centres on Peter Turner, a jobbing actor whose life takes an unexpected turn when he falls in love with Ms Grahame. As Turner, Jamie Bell, who has developed into an accomplished supporting actor over the years since BILLY ELLIOT, is promoted to leading man. He's excellent. A revelation. Authoritative, sexy, strong, romantic, vulnerable -- you name it, Mr Bell communicates it sincerely, without any sense of artifice. A first-rate performance.
It's a pity that the film is so hand-me-down in other ways. The everlastingly wonderful Julie Walters does everything possible with the stereotypical Liverpool mum that she's been provided with, but neither she nor other stalwarts -- Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Frances Barber and even Vanessa Redgrave -- can transcend their characters' functionality. Production values are all over the place (the wigs!), while the decision to use back projection for the scenes in New York and California seems to me to demonstrate the inconsistency at the heart of the director's approach. Rather than expressing the rosy glow of memory, which I suspect was the justification, these scenes merely look cheap. It might have been wiser to set the whole thing in a studio, as Joe Wright did with his ANNA KARENINA or Baz Lurhmann with his MOULIN ROUGE. Whatever the flaws of those two movies, the overall artistic vision was equal to the project in hand. I don't think that's the case here, unfortunately.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Timothée Chalamet sets the bar very high. He is entirely natural, you never feel he's acting, yet he communicates every skipped heartbeat of his character's love. Armie Hammer, meanwhile, impresses in a completely different way as Oliver, an American arrived in Italy to work as an academic assistant for six weeks . Initially presenting himself as an old head on young shoulders, Mr Hammer seems to shed years as the story progresses, his spirit freed by his encounter with Chalamet's Elio.
The first hour of this remarkable film winds up the sexual tension to an almost unendurable pitch, as misunderstandings give rise to missed opportunities and missteps. The course of true love never did run smooth....
The film is not without flaws. Only an actor as good as Michael Stuhlbarg, as Elio's father (who is Oliver's employer) could convert a self-conscious, set-piece speech into the moving, compassionate declaration that we get. And although on occasion Luca Guadagnino's direction borders on genius -- including the astonishing final scene -- it occasionally resorts to unsubtle symbolism that would turn into something comic if it weren't for the commitment of the actors.
All that aside, I find many images, lines of dialogue, and Mr Chalamet's incredible intensity, haunting me. I expect this will continue for quite a while yet.
Loss and revenge
Outstanding work by writer/director Martin McDonagh, in a return to form after the off-kilter "Seven Psychopaths." This is a film about the joint cul-de-sacs of loss and revenge. It is both horrifying and touching, and it is also very funny.
McDonagh, a first-rate playwright, knows how to structure scenes and write dialogue. To do him justice, first-rate actors are required. They must love the succulent stew of characters he cooks up, because he catches the very best.
I can't find enough superlatives for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. They are, here as in everything they've ever been in, great. They are ably supported by Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Sandy Martin, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Amanda Warren. The only weak link in this superb ensemble is Abbie Cornish, who is warm and smiley but is unfortunately out of her depth: a very odd piece of casting.
Cinematography, production design, costume, editing, music - they're all top of the range. But in the end it's down to McDormand and Rockwell, and the brilliant script.
The Death of Stalin (2017)
What makes this film special is its outstanding ensemble of character actors. The committee room scenes in particular are a riot of jockeying for position, snide remarks and politicking of the highest, or should that be lowest, order. Performers of this calibre could bring even the dullest script to life, but it so happens they have excellent material to work with here, and they rise to it like the thoroughbreds they are.
British theatregoers will be familiar with names that are probably not at all known elsewhere: Dermot Crowley, Paul Chahidi and Karl Johnson are hugely respected in the UK for their distinguished careers on stage. Topping the lot is Simon Russell Beale, the current king of British classical acting, at last finding a film role that gives him an opportunity to show what he can do. He and Steve Buscemi are the central antagonists in THE DEATH OF STALIN, and it is a joy to watch them at each other's throats.
Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine, Tom Brooke...We are truly spoilt.
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
entertaining and informative
Gary Oldman follows up his unknowable Sid Vicious in SID AND NANCY with an equally elusive Joe Orton in what is ultimately a riff on A STAR IS BORN. As Orton's star rises, that of his needier, more vulnerable lover Kenneth Halliwell, played with compassion by Alfred Molina, declines.
The screenplay, by Alan Bennett, is based on critic John Lahr's biography of Orton. Bennett makes the writing of the biography part of the story, and briefly tries to parallel the relationship of Lahr and his wife Andrea (played by Wallace Shawn and Lindsay Duncan), but I'm not sure that it helps the film much. Splitting the story's focus in its early sections removes us from Orton himself. That's who we want to stay with. The only real benefit the Lahr section gives us is one wonderful scene between Ms Duncan and the great Joan Sanderson as her hyper-middle class mother, decoding shorthand sections of Orton's diary to reveal highly salacious behaviour. Ms Sanderson's deadpan performance, enthusiastically uncovering Orton's meaning while remaining steadfastly unshocked, is one of the highlights of the film for me.
There are a dozen or so cameos from other wondrous actors, mostly known for their theatre work -- Margaret Tyzack, John Moffatt, Julie Legrand, Selina Cadell -- as well as substantial support from Francis Barber and Janet Dale as, respectively, Orton's warm-hearted sister and eccentric landlady.
Ultimately, the film rests on the shoulders of the central trio: Orton, Halliwell and Orton's agent, the redoubtable Peggy Ramsay. She is played by Vanessa Redgrave in a glowing performance, that helps to hold the disparate parts of the film together.
Molina's work I've already praised. So we're back to Gary Oldman, who is absolutely brilliant as Orton. What Oldman is able to do is to accept, rather than explain, his characters. He thinks it's OK not to make them totally knowable, and he's right.
Director Stephen Frears is equally difficult to pigeon-hole. He favours realism on the one hand, but on the other he is capable of pulling off highly-charged scenes - like the orgy in a public lavatory -- which might floor less gifted artists.
All in all, an entertaining and informative film, not without its flaws. In particular, its depiction of gay men's lives in the late fifties and early sixties is interestingly honest.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Ah, these time-honoured classic stories, such easy money for the studios. Well, maybe not that easy. Although this one has had megadollars thrown at it, it never gets off the ground. Emma Watson in the lead is, I think, attempting feistiness, but although it may be a part of her in spirit, it doesn't communicate itself to an audience from the screen. Nor is Dan Stevens' easy charm up to the demands of the prince-beast, not helped by the bestial side being entirely CGI instead of motion-capture: a strange decision.
The extra songs by Alan Mencken and Tim Rice don't add anything much to the score of the 1991 animated film. Emma Thompson's rendition of the title number does, however, match Angela Lansbury's original, both in warmth and sparkle. I'm sad to say that it's pretty much the only example of something in this new version rising to such a comparison.
The production design is brilliant and sumptuous but, at the mercy of the choice of 18th century France as the movie's chosen period, sometimes feels crowded in the frame, over-busy, fussy. The costumes somehow rise above this limitation, especially in the finale.
Of the other performers, Ewan McGregor and Audra McDonald shine out, but Luke Evans, as vain, villainous Gaston, gives dynamic, high-octane value, wiping the floor with both Ms Watson and Mr Stevens.
I've no doubt it'll make its budget back in gazillions, but, unlike the studio's revamped Jungle Book, this is decidedly second-hand.
20th Century Women (2016)
This is a very good film. For a change, extensive use of voice-over is justified by its clever counterpoint with what we see on the screen. And what we see is a fine ensemble of actors making the most of an observant, intelligent, compassionate script by writer/director Mike Mills.
His work pays tribute to his mother and the women of his mother's generation, who were brought up in the Great Depression, suddenly given huge opportunities when their men went off to fight in World War 2, and then had the strange experience of having those doors close on them when the fighting was over. How do they react to the generation of women below them, who want to reclaim those opportunities, and have analysed how they need to go about doing so.
Annette Bening, in one of her quietest but strongest performances, brings tremendous warmth to the leading role, with solid support from young Lucas Jade Zumann as her son. Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and Elle Fanning complete the main character list with understated, unshowy, completely convincing performances.
I loved it.
a slow lament
Perhaps the idea was to make a movie in the style of a funeral cortege, as one long, slow lament. If so, writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín have succeeded. The result, though, is a ponderous, portentous, heavy-handed film, illuminated by Nathalie Portman's star turn as Jackie Kennedy. She is stunning, and is ably supported by Peter Skarsgaard, Billy Crudup, John Hurt and Greta Gerwig, among others. But when a cast like this, with a central performance as good as that, can't prevent the enterprise from sinking under the weight of its pretensions, there's not a lot to be said in mitigation. Mica Levy's Oscar-nominated score is among the casualties: beautiful music, which will sound great on an album I've no doubt, but it doesn't help the film escape its weary slog towards the end credits. Madeline Fontaine's costume designs, which also got an Oscar nod, are fortunately free from the obsequies.
A great movie by a great filmmaker at the top of his game.
PATERSON is the best Jim Jarmusch movie for years, possibly his best ever. To his admirers, it will come as a welcome relief after the dreariness of his previous film, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE.
The eponymous Paterson is, at the same time, a laconic bus driver, the New Jersey city through which he steers his bus, and the epic poem by William Carlos Williams set in the city. By the simple, brilliant expedient of making his bus driver a poet, Jarmusch delivers a kind of continuous triple-exposure: all three Patersons are on the go throughout the film. This enables apparently random episodes, such as conversations which Paterson the driver eavesdrops upon while driving his route, to be integrated perfectly into the structure of the film. Everything feels connected in a remarkable way.
That this never comes over as an intellectual idea, but instead as a story full of humanity and compassion, is largely down to the casting of Adam Driver as - yes, probably another wry Jarmusch gag - the driver. Observant, thoughtful, loving, tender, but also strong and capable of decisive action in what appears to be an emergency, Driver's gives a performance that is both a contradiction of what we think of as acting and its apotheosis. It's completely brilliant, beyond mere praise. There isn't an award for something like this, but if there were, Driver would walk away with it.
The supporting cast are all fine and dandy, notably Golshifteh Farahani as Paterson's lover, and the late, great Nellie as her bulldog.
The film is mercifully free from conventional plotting. When a little moment of it pops up, you can see the turn of events coming quite a way off, but it's hardly a flaw.
There's no way this can not be worthy of 10 out of 10, because it's a great movie by a great filmmaker at the top of his game.
Where's Bugs Bunny when you need him?
This is a self-satisfied, sexist little romp, with a few laughs and an affable central performance from Ryan Reynolds, one of many Ben Affleck clones currently doing the Hollywood rounds. It amazes me that anyone could possibly mistake it as in any way progressive. Its postmodern "We know we're in a movie"is as contemporary as a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Ed Skrein gives good villain, it's a treat to see Leslie Uggams enjoying herself in a supporting role, and there's a nice sardonic turn from T.J. Miller. The music, by Junkie XL aka Tom Holkenborg, is, in contrast to the movie as a whole, unselfconsciously generic, and is all the more enjoyable for it.
DEADPOOL will pass slightly too much of your time. It could have been shortened by ten minutes without anyone noticing. Otherwise, there's not a lot to be said for it.
V for Vendetta (2005)
On the eve
I watched this movie on the eve of the inauguration of the 45th President of the USA. It wasn't hard to connect the content of the movie, based on Alan Moore's dystopian series of graphic novels, with fears for the future. I guess that's a sign of the filmmakers' seriousness of intent.
Sure enough, V FOR VENDETTA gets off to a great start, full of action and mystery. As the story progresses, however, the excitement peters out, as it does in the Wachowskis' THE MATRIX trilogy, bogged down in heavy-handed portentousness.
Natalie Portman works hard and effectively in the leading role of Evey Hammond, with Hugo Weaving doing his best to make a credible human being out of the eponymous man in a Guy Fawkes mask. A who's who of character actors, led by the perpetually pained Stephen Rae, toil away earnestly in support.
The film's fatal flaw is that it assumes the majority of people are liberal at heart, and will rise up to oppose right-wing oppression. We just have to take a look at what's happening as I write this. In both the USA and Europe, democracies are turning their backs on liberal values. The demagogues are winning. The moral is, don't rely on the movies for up-to-date political analysis.
Bosley Crowther, the New York Times's movie critic at the time of this movie's release, concluded his review with the words "'Limelight' is a very moving film." To my surprise, I agree with him. Although as it was chugging along, I thought it was often verbose, sluggishly paced, only fitfully amusing, and heavy on philosophising, when its famous theme swelled up in the orchestra for the final scene, I burst into tears. It was evident that Chaplin's tale of age giving way to youth had been quietly working on my feelings. You've got to hand it to the guy: after a lifetime making movies, he knew what he was about.
One of LIMELIGHT's most fascinating aspects is Chaplin's take on audiences. We see his hero, the vaudevillian Calvero, play his old act twice: first, in a half-empty, emptying theatre; second, before an enthusiastic packed house. The act, though, is the same: there's no sense of a difference between the way Chaplin/Calvero plays it the first time and the second. The early audience decides it doesn't like it, the later audience decides it does. Such haphazard behaviour would be enough to wear anyone down in any relationship. Chaplin powerfully conveys the emotional cost of being at the receiving end of the public's whims.
At the opposite stage of her life is Theresa, a young ballet dancer, whose confidence has left her. Even as the flame of Calvero's own self-respect flickers, he is able to ignite Theresa's. The role was a huge break for Claire Bloom, not an actress for whom I have great admiration, but she does OK here, with youth on her side. Elsewhere, there are such delights as Majorie Bennett, Buster Keaton, and Chaplin's own beautiful score.
I don't know whether, when all's said and done, it's a masterpiece or not, and maybe it's helpful to be an old person like me to get the best out of it, but, once seen, it's unforgettable.
Eye in the Sky (2015)
Good, but could have been better
Serious, compelling but perhaps over-schematic thriller concerning the ethics of warfare.
Although the drone technology on display is up-to-date, the movie itself is redolent of American 'moral debate' films made after the Second World War. 'TWELVE ANGRY MEN' is probably the most famous, but the one that came to mind when watching 'EYE IN THE SKY' was John Frankenheimer's equally taut 'SEVEN DAYS IN MAY about a military coup threatening the White House, in which the arguments pro and con are represented by characters played by Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Here we have more participants, more points of view to take into account before Helen Mirren, in command of the military operation, can give the order to Aaron Paul for a lethal strike on an enemy.
The issues are presented clearly, as is the jockeying for primacy. But the clarity is, perhaps deliberately, a distancing factor. It prevents emotional engagement, which the filmmakers then try to recover through non-stop music and heartbeat sound effects. The result is a bit of a muddle artistically.
However, the movie is expertly filmed and edited. It is definitely worth seeing, not least because it is Alan Rickman's final screen performance, and he is absolutely brilliant .
Live by Night (2016)
Producer, director, writer and lead actor: Ben Affleck.
Let's look at those contributions one by one.
Producer. The film looks good. There's an expert team on both sides of the camera. But there's a problem with length. Also, it feels as though the adaptation from Dennis Lehane's novel has not sufficiently transformed what was on the page into cinematic story-telling.
Director. There are excellent action sequences, such as an exciting car-chase and a final shoot-out. As a director of actors Mr Affleck is strong: he elicits particularly striking work from Chris Messina, Elle Fanning, Remo Girone and Sienna Miller. Within scenes there's a reassuring sense of control of pace. But overall, there is a sense of the director being in thrall to the screenplay.
Writer. This is the weakest link. It feels in awe of its source material. I read that an entire strand of the book was removed for the purposes of the film, but this was not enough. The producer and/or the director needed to tell the writer to put it through another draft. Or put it in its current form on Netflix as a two-part drama.
Lead actor. A matter of taste, I guess. Mr Affleck's persona is always of a handsome man who knows he's handsome, and who is very pleased with himself about it. I find this insufferable in large doses. And there is a very large dose of it here. Mr Affleck's performances lack depth -- compare and contrast those of this amazing brother Casey. As far as I'm concerned, Mr B. Affleck is more a male model than an actor: in James Bond terms, he's a George Lazenby rather than a Daniel Craig. His best film performance is his self-parodying turn in 'SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE'. In LIVE BY NIGHT he is serviceable, nothing more. His director clearly couldn't get anything else out of him.
It's instructive to compare Ben Affleck to Clint Eastwood, who also has a limited -- maybe even more limited -- range as an actor. But Eastwood the director usually casts Eastwood the actor brilliantly. DIRTY HARRY, UNFORGIVEN,GRAN TORINO etc: who could be better? By contrast, there are many young actors who could have played the lead in LIVE BY NIGHT, and many writers who could have delivered a better screenplay, especially when guided by a strong producer and director. Time will tell whether Ben Affleck is as good in those last two departments as ARGO suggested he might be. The promise he showed in those areas in that film is not in evidence here.