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Ford v Ferrari (2019)
Above average motor racing drama
Enthusiasm for this movie will no doubt vary according to your interest in motor racing and the cars and drivers that make it. If, like myself, the sound of a 4.7 litre V8 on full song is akin to Beethoven's 5th, you will not be disappointed. Otherwise there is still much to be enjoyed here.
The story revolves around Ford Motor Company's ambition in the 1960s to build a legendary racing car (the GT 40) capable of beating the venerable Ferrari team in Europe at the Le Mans 24-hour race. Loosely based on the real events, the thrills of speed, brilliantly portrayed in some superb racing footage, are complemented by the human drama as the racing team struggle with the monstrous Henry Ford 2 (superbly played by Tracy Letts) and his cronies and their own personal relationships. Matt Damon and Christian Bale make a great contrasting pair as all-American racing maestro, Carol Shelby, and cantankerous British racing ace and master engineer, Ken Miles, with tremendous performances from both. The strains of top-flight motor racing are excellently depicted via Miles' relationship with his supportive wife, Mollie (Catriona Balfe) and adoring son, Peter (beautifully played by Noah Jupe).
Everything proceeds at a cracking pace and, unlike some car movies, the visuals are not overburdened with flash-and-crash CGI intrusions. A few cliched moments do not detract too much from the excitement and, at times, poignancy, of this highly enjoyable film. Vroom-vroom ....!
(Viewed at Screen 3, Odeon, Warrington UK, 30 November 2019)
Sorry We Missed You (2019)
Life in the world of work's front line - nasty, brutal and potentially short!
Ken Loach has produced another vividly portrayed and deeply moving piece of gritty and gripping social commentary in this, his latest, film.
Struggling to survive in workplace Britain, Ricky Turner seizes an opportunity to secure his family's future. He signs up as a self-employed driver with a large parcel delivery company. As a freelance, he is his own boss - except that his every move is monitored and controlled by the merciless management that rules with an almost sinister combination of the iron hand in the velvet glove. Failure to deliver on time - penalties! Absent from work - penalties!! Damage or loss of the crucial monitoring device carried by every driver - penalties!!!
And if you don't like it? I was reminded of one worker's response during the Thatcher years when the unemployed were urged by well-heeled politicians to 'get on your bike and look for work' - "They tell us the wages are negotiable. But in fact it's 'Take a pound an hour or piss off!"
With the harsh realities of market power embodied by the Supervisor, Mahoney, brilliantly played by Ross Brewster, Ricky's experiences on the road leave him in no doubt about where he stands. He's going to have to run twice as fast just to stand still, but there's nothing much he can do about it.
If this movie has a fault, it is perhaps that once or twice it becomes a little preachy when the action alone is telling the story perfectly. Nonetheless, the performances from Loach's cast are uniformly outstanding. At the end you wanted to stand up and shout, 'It shouldn't be allowed!'
Ken Loach offers another masterclass in how to make a powerfully effective drama out of a seemingly mundane topic. Highly recommended.
(Viewed at HOME Arts Centre, Manchester, UK 7 November 2019)
Marriage Story (2019)
Divorce Story LA style - A ghastly spectacle!
Movies about people who make movies are always suspect for their tendency to lapse into self-indulgence (much as novels about writers are), the more so when the writer is also the director (Noah Baumbach here). When this is accompanied by a running time of over two-and-a-quarter hours, the alarm bells are ringing before you even enter the cinema.
Such expectations are rapidly and amply confirmed by this mis-titled movie, which drags on far too long for its own and the viewers' good. Billed as a 'marriage story', the focus is on divorce.But the subtext is 'woman triumphant in a world of pathetic men'. In short, this is yet another AMM (Anti-Man Movie).
In a movie based on contrasting pairs, NYC vies with LA, East Coast with West, theatre directing with movie making, lawyer-free divorce proceedings with lawyer-dominated, in control Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) with her hapless husband, Charlie (Adam Driver). While the leading female characters are portrayed as strong, powerful, determined, funny, talented, competent and winners, the men are generally either rapacious brutes (the LA lawyer, Jay) or self-centred infants. Charlie epitomises the latter: he's really not very good at anything much apart from theatre directing. He's not much good at marriage and doesn't handle divorce well either; he's not much good with practical tasks, such as fitting a child's car seat, he's clumsy, accidentally slashing his arm with a pocket knife, and is even told by the lover with whom he had a one night stand that ended his marriage that he's not good at accepting generosity when she offers more of the same and he refuses.
Charlie is not a bad guy but he's a child who needs mothering rather than an adult, a status rather crudely emphasised by the weird 1970s hairstyle he shares with his six-year old son. Moreover, Nicole cuts his hair for him too. I was half-expecting to see her spongeing him down in the bathtub and drying between his toes! Thus at the end of a furious row that, like everything else, goes on much longer than needed for dramatic effect, it is Charlie who breaks down, only to be comforted with a pat on the head by resolute Nicole. And then, in the movie's closing scene, as Charlie is about to take his son for some dad-and-lad time, Nicole notices his shoelace is untied and ties it for him. Gee, the guy can't even lace his own shoes! No wonder he couldn't cope with Nicole.
Since the story itself has very little originality, everything hangs on the performances and the direction. Unfortunately, the scaffolding that holds everything together is all too evident. Often one can sense the presence of the director and the cameras lurking in front of the cast and read the directions - 'we need a set piece monologue from Scarlett here with a long close-up'. As a result, there is no chemistry between the leads because everything seems too obviously contrived. Subtlety is certainly not the movie's strong point. The only really convincing performance comes from Alan Alda who plays the kindly NY lawyer, Bert Spitz, a minor character.
And then there is the uneasy attempt at mixing genres. In part this is a serious domestic drama with the fate of the warring couple's child at stake. But Baumbach also goes for humour, with some OTT performances from the LA lawyers, especially Laura Dern, and even puts in a song-and-dance number by the triumphant Nicole, her neurotic mother and ditzy sister, and a mournful solo song from Charlie. The effect of this mixture is jarring.
Frankly, we couldn't wait to be divorced from this self-indulgent film. (Viewed at HOME Arts Centre, Manchester, UK, 21 November 2019)
The Wife (2017)
Worthy but Dreary
The columnist, Tim Stanley, observed recently, 'No wonder males are in crisis: they're invariably portrayed as thick, violent or sex-obsessed' - or all three. So when my wife suggested going to see this film, I thought, 'Oh no, not another tedious anti-man platform!'
Although, on the face of it, this movie, about an author who gains the Nobel Prize as a result of spongeing off his wife's writing ability, doesn't exactly falsify my assumption, the story it offers is a little more nuanced than it might first appear.
One day, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce on good form) gets the phonecall he's been waiting for all his life. The Nobel Prize committee have awarded him the prize for Literature. With his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), and son (Max Irons) in tow, he is soon on his way to Stockholm and the grand presentation dinner.
We discover that Joe is an ageing lothario, is prone to vanity, and has very little ability to empathise with his son, who is attempting to establish himself as an author in his father's shadow. He also takes his wife very much for granted in a forgetful kind of way. She, meanwhile, becomes increasingly resentful as his big moment nears, struggling to supress her anger and sense of injustice.
By means of a series of flashbacks, in which the Castleman's younger selves are rather unconvincingly portrayed, we learn that Joe is a second-rater, and that it is his wife who posesses the true talent. So a pact is born; he will field the publicity accruing from any literary success arising from the books he has started but which she has developed to a publishable level, while she will be able to live quietly, as she wishes, creating the masterworks - or rather mistressworks - free from the critical gaze of press and public. She presumably never imagined that decades later their efforts would lead to a Nobel Prize. Who would?
At the awards dinner, Joe cannot resist trying to make amends for taking credit where none is due and so ease his guilty conscience, by paying tribute to his wife 'without whom none of this would have been possible' etc, despite her telling him not mention her. At this point we are really wanting Joan to stand up for truth and spill the beans in a shock-horror moment that will not only dish dodgy Joe, but also throw the stuffed shirts of the Nobel bureaucrats into a massive tizzy.
But, disappointingly, nothing happens. Then later, after poetic justice is done by Joe dying from a heart attack, the wife robustly defends him from the gutter pressman (Christian Slater) who has been sniffing around for years in search of dirt on the Great Author. After all, exposing him would also be exposing her own complicity in his game. Much more convenient to keep quiet.
So while none of the main male characters are exactly role models - his son is a bit of an overgrown sniveller and the pressman is reptilian - the wife doesn't come out too well either.
While the performances are strong, the characterisation is perhaps too soft-edged to produce anything really explosive. Joe is not a nice man, but neither is he a really vicious, scheming beast. Similarly, the wife, although wronged, has only herself to blame - as my wife pointed out to me, she paid her money and took her choice to collude both in the misrepresentation of Joe's work and in his dalliances.
Which all leaves one feeling slightly underwhelmed. Even so, actors of this calibre are always worth watching and the movie is still entertaining. It just seems a bit like Joe's unaided writing, somewhat lacking in sparkle. And it won't be winning any prizes, at least not from me.
Zimna wojna (2018)
Warm Hearts in Cold Times
This love story is set in the years shortly after the end of the Second World War when Poland, having struggled to free itself from Nazi tyranny, then finds itself subjected to Stalinist occupation. This cruel, repressive situation provides the setting in which the lovers struggle to build their futures - the key to understanding the drama.
A middle-aged musician, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), under the direction of Stalinist quislings, is on a mission to find the talent for the creation of a Polish folk ensemble, destined for use as a propaganda tool by the Soviets.In the course of his search, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young singer, Zula (Joanna Kulig). Aware of the growing constraints being placed upon him and his artistic integrity by the sickly officialdom of the State, he plans to escape to Berlin, and asks her to go with him. She agrees. But Wiktor soon discovers that such a move is more than she feels can cope with, and she remains in Poland.
Wiktor moves on to Paris where he becomes involved in the jazz scene and with another woman. A few years later, during a tour by the folk ensemble to European cities, Wiktor and Zula meet again. She is now married to one of the odious Polish State officials, an act of convenience/necessity rather than love, just as Wiktor's new relationship is. They try to go their separate ways, but their initial passionate attraction returns and they rekindle their affair . . . with tragic consequences.
The yearning for the Homeland is strong and the lovers return to Poland. Their fraught relationship, with its dream of personal and artistic fulfilment and freedom, flickers and flares, warms and burns until at last, the lovers confront the impossibility of their dream ever being realised under the stifling presence of the Stalinist regime.Wearied by existing in such a world, they decide to take their own lives.
This superb movie, wonderfully shot in monochrome in a boxy frame, combines utterly convincing acting by the leads with evocative and brilliantly performed music, creating a chillingly bleak mood. Sentimentality is absent, the lovers being portrayed as hardened and flawed as well as tender and torn. There is no hint of melodrama, more of weary inevitability. The final scene is handled with such tragic delicacy that I, for one, was left speechless with grief as I left the movie theatre.
A brilliant tour de force with an emotional punch that stays with you long after the movie is over.
(Viewed at HOME Arts Centre, Cinema 1, Manchester, UK 9 September 2018)
First Man (2018)
This Right Stuff is Out of this World!
There can hardly have been a more dramatic adventure since the Age of Exploration than the 1960s U.S. mission to send 'a Man to the Moon'. Neil Armstrong was that first man, and the story of his preparations for this venture and subsequent success are told here to great effect.
This movie is both exciting and poignant, weaving together the astronauts' professional and personal lives, revealing the enormous mental, physical and emotional pressures and tensions exerted not just on Armstrong and his colleagues, but also their families; the ever-present risk of death hangs over the mission as the astronauts prepare and compete to be the First Man.
A story like this hardly needs dramatisation - it is itself amazing - and the understated approach adopted by Damien Chazelle works very effectively. Although in danger of lapsing into sentimentality now and then, generally the movie avoids the schmaltz traps. This makes the emotional impact of the story all the more powerful, epitomised by the way the ending has been treated.
The performances are generally good, though perhaps not outstanding, and the cinematography and FX are quite brilliant. CGI excesses and bogus sci-fi scenarios have been avoided, putting this film in a league well above, for example, The Martian.
At 2hrs 21mins, this is a lengthy film. But I found it so engaging - you train with the astronauts, travel with them, land on the Moon with them, and feel every rattle and groan along the way - that it did not feel excessively long. And in its portrayal of the massive forces required to carry humans beyond the grip of Earth's gravity, and of the phenomenal courage of those space pioneers who subjected themselves to those forces, it has done justice to the magnitude of their achievement.
Not to be missed!
(Viewed at Odeon, Warrington, U.K. 15 October 2018)
A Monster Calls (2016)
A Monstrously Moving Movie
This film focuses on a young boy, Conor, and his struggles to cope with his feelings in the face of his mother's terminal illness. Despite its 'monster' label and 12A certificate, this is emphatically not a kids movie. It is, in fact, a rather dark tale of emotional distress in the face of imminent death and the fantastic and frightening ways in which a young person responds to an appalling situation they can do nothing to avoid. Very young cinema-goers may well find it frightening and or incomprehensible.
Various reviewers refer to the need to 'take plenty of tissues'. But this is no mawkish, sentimental tear-jerker. Rather this emotionally powerful film derives much of its potency from the wholly unsentimental treatment of the story, so producing a hard-edged drama yet one that nonetheless does indeed bring the viewer to tears.
The acting from the main characters is uniformly superb but Lewis MacDougall (Conor) is exceptional, delivering what should be an award-winning performance. The fantasy sequences are also brilliantly rendered and one marvels at the artistry that has so successfully integrated sound, vision and story into one magnificent piece of cinema.
If you go to see this movie you will not come away smiling, but you will feel that the time spent watching it has been time well spent.
(Viewed at Screen 10, Odeon, Warrington, UK, 08 January 2017)
The Revenant (2015)
Revenge and survival in a savage world: gory but gripping!
The story of The Revenant is pretty straightforward. A frontiersman, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is acting as guide to a group of fur-trappers, is attacked and seriously injured by a bear. The group's leader, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), decides to leave Glass to either recover or die while the rest of the party continue their journey to a distant outpost.
Glass is left in the care of a cynical trapper, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), an inexperienced youngster, Jim, and Glass's own half-breed son, Hawk. After the main party's departure, Fitzgerald decides to finish Glass off but Hawk tries to stop him. In the ensuing struggle Hawk is killed. Fitzgerald then persuades Jim that Glass is dying and that they must abandon him for fear of Indian attack. They leave and eventually reach the outpost where they are reunited with Henry, telling him - untruthfully - they left after Glass had died.
Unbeknown to them, Glass gradually recovers from his terrible wounds and embarks on his quest for revenge on those who murdered his son and left Glass himself to die. Glass has become the 'revenant', one who 'returns from the dead.'
Set in the early 19th century amid the rivers and mountains of a wintry Montana, this tale of wrongs and revenge is fairly straightforward. But it is as much a story of survival in a brutal world in which violent death is a familiar prospect for human and animal alike. Hence we witness several graphically depicted scenes of bloody violence, the bear attack being one of the most gruesome and terrifyingly convincing. Here nature is 'red in tooth and claw', the spectre of Jack London (The Call of the Wild, To Build a Fire, etc.) hanging over the entire proceedings.
What lifts this movie out of the ordinary is Emmanuel Lubezki's superb cinematography which draws us into every scene. The mountain landscape in all its bleak wintry majesty resonates perfectly with the kill-or-die ethos of the living creatures that struggle to live there. Yet the story is laced with moments of spirituality and hints of transcendence; Glass has visions of his dead wife and lingering skyward shots of silent towering trees point us to whatever - if anything - that lies above and beyond.
If you look too closely at this tale you see that Glass is an improbably durable man, surviving what in reality would be impossible circumstances. But so spell-binding is the combined effects of the visuals, the music and the acting that we willingly suspend our disbelief, at least until we emerge from the movie theatre and return to the reality of daily life.
Leonardo DiCaprio is little short of magnificent as Glass, ably supported by Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson. Both DiCaprio and the director, Alejandro Inarritu, look well-deserving of awards for this stunningly atmospheric movie. Recommended - but be prepared for blood and guts!
Viewed at HOME (successor to The Cornerhouse), Manchester, UK, 17th January 2016.
Little joy for moviegoers in this Tale of Mrs Mop!
If you think the story of a woman whose claim to fame is that she invented a 'miracle mop' and made millions selling it via TV shopping channels sounds a poor basis for a movie, watching Joy will do little to change your opinion. Despite its claims, there is little that is 'inspirational' or even particularly interesting about Joy Mangano's progress from schoolgirl to 'matriarch', at least as portrayed in this quasi-biopic.
The film starts interestingly by thrusting the viewer into a 1980s (? - it could have been 1950s) TV soap. At this point I thought Joy would perhaps be a comedic satire on the inanities of American consumerism. With a few tweaks it could have become just that and how much more interesting and challenging that would have been.
The quirky opening note rapidly fades. We soon discover that Joy's story is going to be told by her granny, a prospect that does not bode well if you are looking for gritty realism and objectivity. Since granny dies halfway through the film, we then realise that the whole thing is being narrated from beyond the grave. Poignant? No, spooky and sentimental at best. From there on the plot lumbers along conventional channels to its predetermined conclusion.
As the movie progresses it becomes more leaden, especially when we encounter the head of a TV shopping channel (Bradley Cooper). He comes across as a stereotypical corporate carthorse, who truly believes that pulling his telly-shopping cart is a higher calling. When Joy succeeds, at the second attempt, in presenting her miracle mop to the World on live TV and the sales indicator goes ballistic, the studio erupts with an ovation reminiscent of the one in Mission Control when the Apollo 11 astronauts touched down on the Moon. Hey guys, calm down - it's just a mop! If Joy's triumph seems a bit too good to be true, the credibility of the ensuing story is not enhanced by demonstrations of very poor business acumen on both her and her advisers parts. She would have got nowhere on Dragon's Den! When later Joy discovers she has been double-crossed in her business dealing by a most improbable circumstance, we begin to wonder if granny has got her facts straight.
One has to conclude that this rather unexciting movie is basically a star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence. Visually, fans will not be disappointed as she is displayed in numerous full-length shots and close-ups. But the role has too little meat in it to demand much of Lawrence in the way of acting. Robert de Niro, reprising his Jack Byrnes (Meet the Fockers) character, brings some bright moments to the proceedings, not least with a very funny wedding speech. But the occasional humour sits uneasily with the serious intent of the movie to tell an uplifting tale of a woman's successful struggle against adversity.
Unless you think American consumer culture really is something to get worked up over, it may prove difficult to be fully engaged by the inspirational tone of Joy. That aside, there is little here to lift this movie above the ordinary. Talk of awards and even Oscars seems wholly misplaced; one critic even describes Joy as on a par with the Hollywood classics. No wonder they say you should never believe what you read in the papers - nor what you see on the tele-shopping channels!
Viewed at HOME (successor to the Cornerhouse), Manchester, UK, 10 January 2016.
The Danish Girl (2015)
Cold as a Copenhagen winter
Set in Copenhagen in the mid-1920s, this film tells the story of the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery, a story which does not, sadly, have a happy ending. Einar Wegener, a Danish painter, has been married to a fellow-artist, Gerda for six years. Gradually he becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming a woman, a quest which leads him to submit to untried medical procedures which eventually prove fatal.
It does not take much imagination to appreciate how challenging it must be to find oneself stuck in the 'wrong' body and impelled to rectify this situation by resort to surgery. Perils loom on all sides - the physical risks, the psychological anguish, the threats to personal relationships, the fear of social ostracism or worse - and smooth passage seems improbable. How much more so given the state of medical and psychological knowledge in the 1920s and a less liberal moral climate than prevails today. Surely such a prospect must make for rich and vibrant drama. Yet, despite its dramatic potential, the Wegeners' story is given such a flat treatment by Tom Hooper that the movie verges on boring at times.
A bleak note is struck from the start and continued with little respite. The mood is cold and gloomy, emphasised by the colourless, sparely-furnished interiors (light-grey walls in their apartment, harsh white wall tiles in the clinics and consulting rooms - only when Gerda visits Paris do we see some gorgeous period interiors), the bare wintry landscapes of Copenhagen, and the minor-key music. The tempo is one-paced and the dialogue is often stilted and dreary. Can this really be someone engaged in a momentous struggle with their identity and, consequently, with their personal relationships and their position in society? Indeed, when Einar first steps out into the world as Lili, she seems barely noticed by those around her despite looking far from convincing as a female.
Einar and Gerda never explore with each other in any sustained way what is happening to him and its implications for their relationship. Partly because of this we get little understanding of Einar's self-perception, little sense of his insights into his condition. Similarly, we don't encounter the desperation of someone in crisis except very late on when Einar is battling with the immediate after-effects of his operations. Mercifully, we are spared visual details of his exposure to the surgeon's scalpel.
The lead characters are surprisingly one-dimensional and seem to be narrowly self-obsessed. The emotional range is equally constrained for while we witness neediness, longing and lust, there is no real passion, no sense of warm affection or love between Gerda and her husband. Nor do we see real anger displayed, despite there being much for the characters to be angry about. Lili's quest for transformation seems to bring no one any lasting pleasure.
The exaggerated and awkward manner that Eddie Redmayne brought to the character of Stephen Hawking, and which worked brilliantly there, does not really do so here. Instead it proves a distraction. Lili repeatedly responds to male attention with little more than shy downward glances and simpering expressions which become rather embarrassing to watch. Perhaps only a more accomplished actor than Redmayne could carry off this highly demanding role successfully. Alicia Vikander does much better as Gerda but cannot shine so brightly in Redmayne's shadow.
There is clearly plenty of talent associated with this film and the story of the Wegeners seems worth telling. But this movie fails to hit the mark.
Viewed at Home (successor to The Cornerhouse), Manchester, UK, 03.01.16.
The Martian (2015)
More marshmallow than Martian!
The crew of an American base on Mars are forced to make an emergency departure leaving one crew-member behind presumed dead. But he is alive! Can the stranded astronaut find a way of communicating his plight to those on Earth and survive while he awaits rescue?
A fairly standard 'castaway' plot but one which offers many dramatic possibilities. Unfortunately few of these are realised in this pedestrian movie which fails to generate any significant dramatic tension. This is partly because the characterisation is thin but also because the challenges the stranded astronaut faces seem to be so easily overcome. Starvation? Grow potatoes. Punctured space-helmet? Sticky tape. Mars rover vehicle lacking power? Wire up a few solar cells. Communications equipment destroyed? Motor over to a handy Mars lander. We never sense that the 'Martian' (Matt Damon) is in a desperate, mind- and body-sapping struggle against the odds (conveniently he is a botanist).
Damon effectively portrays the 'Martian' as a likable guy but the problem is how to fill the two hours of the movie that remain after he is stranded? When a character is alone and unable to communicate it needs something exceptional to keep us glued to the screen. Maybe what's going on back home will do it. Not really because the cast of characters there are verging on cardboard cut-outs. The returning crew? Likewise. And the script is written on the assumption that the audience is a little dumb, e.g. A: It will be 500 Sols (Martian days) before we can rescue him. B: But his food will run out in 300 sols. C: So he'll die before we get there. Indeed! And so may we.
The movie has some good FX and the Martian landscape looks convincing. But there's nothing exceptional here to compensate for the lack of an effectively told story.
In essence this is an American feel-good fantasy film, celebrating ideals of technical omnipotence, racial harmony, gender equality and international collaboration (with those cool Chinese guys and gals). If only it were so. No wonder the credits rolled to the tune of The O' Jays singing 'Love Train'. School-kids will probably join in! But, to quote Sam Goldwyn, 'Include me out!'
(Viewed at the Odeon, Warrington, 06 October 2015)
Still Alice (2014)
Not so much memorable as forgettable!
The story here is quite simple. A young (50) college professor, Alice Howland (played by Julianne Moore), is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. We follow her subsequent decline and its effects on her family.
Unfortunately for this movie, this story has been told before in Iris (2001) and told, it has to be said, with far greater honesty and impact. By comparison, Still Alice is more like an episode from a Hollywood soap opera than a serious attempt to portray the effects of this horrible disease (which my mother suffered from). The characters are thinly drawn, the script is at times banal and the story doesn't go anywhere.
One of the genuinely moving moments in the film is that Alice, foreseeing her forthcoming incapacity, records a set of instructions telling herself how to end it all with pills, this to be played when she can no longer remember certain key facts about her life. But when this time comes, Alice is incapable of carrying out her own instructions. The story is left with nowhere to go and ends later abruptly (and to the surprise of everyone in the theatre) with a message to the effect that 'it's all about love'. Noble sentiment but unsatisfactory cinema. It would have made a far more effective and poignant conclusion if Alice had managed to kill herself. That really would have given us something to think about. But that, perhaps, was seen as a step too far by the film-makers.
I must admit that I have never really rated Julianne Moore as an actor. To me she always looks as if she's acting. But following her Oscar award I thought twice. Sadly, my view has not changed. She did not bring enough of the bitterness, the anger, the desperation, the sheer cruel mindlessness of dementia. One can only assume that the Academicians were honouring the subject matter as much as the acting. Watch Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch, disintegrating, falling, fading with so much expressed not in words but by her face and eyes, a gut-wrenching performance that is simply in a different league. In fact the outstanding performance for me came from Kristen Stewart playing Alice's youngest daughter.
I was hoping for more from Still Alice. But I was disappointed.
(Viewed at Screen 2, The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK, 8th March 2015)
The Theory of Everything (2014)
Brilliantly realised story of triumph over adversity
I approached this film knowing something of Stephen Hawking's life and work but with no real interest in watching a full-length movie about it. But I'm glad I did see this wonderful film. For his deeply-moving story is a revelation, exquisitely realised by Eddie Redmayne, as Hawking, and Felicity Jones, as his wife, Jane, under the direction of James Marsh.
Here is this amazingly bright young man on the verge of a brilliant academic career as a cosmologist. He falls in love with a beautiful, intelligent girl and she with him. Their life is set on course for a glittering future when he is struck down by a tragedy of Beethoven-like proportions - a man who may well be about to produce the 'theory of everything', the holy grail of physics, is diagnosed with an incurable terminal disease and is given but a short time to live.
And yet somehow, against all predictions, he does not die. Not only that, he manages to fulfil and exceed all expectations, both professionally and personally. He writes books, he wins prizes and accolades, he fathers a family. With the loving support of his wife, Jane, he becomes truly The Man Who Refused to Die. But even then there is still a heavy price to pay ...
It is no surprise to see that Redmayne won an Oscar for his performance here. His portrayal of Stephen Hawking's gradual faltering collapse is totally convincing, as is Felicity Jones's depiction of Jane Hawking as the exuberance, optimism and energy of youth are eroded away as the years pass and the sheer strain of keeping her husband and family functioning leaves its mark. How cruel life can be!
But there is nothing mawkish about this film. It looks unflinchingly at the sadness and the joys, the successes and the failures, the beginnings and the endings. Highly recommended.
(Vieweed at the Warrington Odeon, UK, 11th January 2015)
Love Is Strange (2014)
The love's not strange but the movie is!
I found this quite an enjoyable movie, nicely acted and well-filmed, but it never really caught fire - something is missing.
Ben and George have lived together for more than thirty years but no sooner have they married than they are forced apart. George loses his job as a church choirmaster, gay marriage being a step too far for the church hierarchy (the usual suspects!). Unable to afford to remain in their Manhattan apartment, they separate to live with family (Ben with his nephew) and friends (George with two gay police officers). How will they cope apart and what strains will be placed on their relationship?
These are obvious questions that would appear to be central to the drama. Yet they never seem to drive the film in a clear direction. Instead, we are introduced to some puzzling distractions. In Ben's absence, George seems attracted to a new young acquaintance but nothing happens. Meanwhile, Ben is sharing a bedroom, in bunks, with his nephew's teenage son, Joey. Is there some degree of ambiguity in their relationship? We can't tell. But Joey has a friend, Vlad, with whom he (Joey) shares 'private readings' of certain French books mysteriously stolen from their school. Why? And what are we to infer from this about their relationship? And what about Ben's relationship with Vlad? Again, we can't tell. Ben and George seem to be coping with their life apart pretty well and it is those they are living with who are suffering! Is that the movie's ironic point? We can't tell.
Ben has a fairly minor accident and requires treatment. But the next thing we are learning from George is that Ben is dead and buried! What?! When and where did that happen? Is George now a broken man? No, he seems to be taking it pretty calmly. Why? And so the questions continue but not for much longer as soon it's pretty much over.
I was expecting the movie to build to some kind of climax, however low-key, but it didn't happen. Pity, because the characters are likable, the story has promise and the acting is good, even though the script is wooden in parts and the opening premise is not particularly convincing.
This movie seems to have set out boldly and then got lost along the way. It was frustrating to watch. One can only conclude that this was a wasted opportunity for the director. 6.5/10.
(Viewed at the Cornerhouse, Screen 3,Manchester, UK 22 Feb 2015)
Much to his surprise, a young, inexperienced British soldier, Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell), is posted to Northern Ireland (he is expecting to be sent to Germany). It is the time of the Troubles and he and his fellow squaddies are plunged immediately into a bewildering maelstrom of rioting and factional violence on the mean streets of Belfast. During a brutal melee, Hook becomes separated from his unit. From that moment on, he is a marked man . . .
The main action takes place among half-derelict streets and soulless concrete blocks of 'social' housing, all washed with rain and lit by the eerie glow of neon street-lights. A chilling sense of menace pervades this desolate landscape as shadowy figures go about their deadly business. No one is safe in this world, a world in which disputes are contested primarily with the hand-gun, the bomb and the expedient deal. Even, perhaps especially, the forces of law-and-order are not what they seem - as Hook learns to his cost.
In this well-crafted and beautifully photographed movie, O'Connell is outstanding as Hook, the infantry's innocent abroad. For much of the time he says little or nothing, but, as his pursuers close in, we still experience every moment of his fear, shock and disorientation with profound intensity. Physical pain is powerfully portrayed during a scene in which his wounds are stitched without the benefit of anaesthetic, an exceptional gut-wrenching sequence. Corey McKinley also gives a superb performance as the Loyalist boy who is already a man, hardened to a life of urban strife. Indeed, the acting overall can hardly be faulted.
The camera-work is also quite brilliant; for example, as Hook staggers and stumbles through the streets the camera staggers and stumbles with him, carrying us right into the action. Everything combines to yield an absolutely convincing depiction of human lives reduced to something 'nasty, brutish and short.'
A weakness of this movie is that by the end it is difficult to be sure of precisely who has done what to whom and why. Art has perhaps mirrored the complexity and sheer opaqueness of sectarian politics a little too closely. But this does not detract from the overall quality of the viewing experience and the tremendous emotional charge that it delivers.
(Viewed at Screen 3, The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK on 19th October 2014)
Le Week-End (2013)
A dirty weekend - they should have gone on their own!
Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) return to Paris to relive their honeymoon 30 years on. Well, that's the idea, we're told, but from the start it's pretty clear that she, at least, does not want to be there. So they bicker a bit, engage in some highly dodgy sexual bantering, and meet up by chance with one of Nick's old mates (Jeff Goldblum). She is rather tempted to have a fling with one of the guests at a party given by the latter, while Nick lapses into a kind of resigned despair. But somehow they all manage to remain friends. Nick and Meg even manage some jolly capers while escaping from a restaurant without paying (except that they repeat the trick when leaving their very expensive hotel, which gives the impression that the director ran out of ideas and/or forgot that when you repeat a joke, the second time it isn't funny - unless you're say, Tommy Cooper).
Paris looks pretty good and it's all quite entertaining. But as a drama it falls flat. I'm not a big fan of Jim Broadbent though he is OK here. But he and Lindsay Duncan are not exactly Burton and Taylor so Nick and Meg's relationship lacks any real bite. It's all a bit sad, a bit lacklustre, perhaps even a bit lazy - or should that be cynical and slapdash? La-la how the life goes on!
Worth a look on a wet afternoon when you've nothing better to do. But don't put yourself out to see it.
(Viewed at Screen 2, The Cornerhouse, Oxford Road, Manchester, UK on 24 October 2013)
A tour de force by Judi Dench
It is rarely that one feels inclined to give a movie a perfect score, but Philomena comes as close as it gets.
Based on true events, we follow Philomena's (Judi Dench) search to discover the fate of her son, brutally taken from her and sold to rich Americans by Catholic nuns as a baby born out of wedlock. A hardened journalist (Steve Coogan) reluctantly joins her quest, won over by her sincerity and by the prospect of acquiring a gripping 'human interest' story.
The film is superbly paced and avoids sentimentality. It uses humour but in a subtle manner so that its role in heightening the tragic elements of the plot by contrast is not overbearing. And visually it is highly watchable.
Although the story of the horrors inflicted on single mothers by the Catholic Church has been told before, Judi Dench's superb performance (10++) elevates this production to a special plane. It is worth seeing this movie just to be able to see her in action in a part that does justice to her talents. Coogan is also good here (I was less impressed by his efforts in 'What Maisie Knew') though he wobbles just a little in places - but for that I would have scored the movie a 10.
Sophie Kennedy Clark must also be mentioned for her totally convincing portrayal of the young Philomena. The scene in which she labours to deliver her child is literally breathtaking.
Of its kind, this is top quality cinema. Highly recommended.
(Viewed at Screen 1, The Cornerhouse, Oxford Road, Manchester, UK on 7th November 2013)
C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas l'amour!
Divorced for more than a decade and with adult children who now have their own lives, Gloria seeks a new relationship in late middle-age. At a dancing club she meets Rodolfo, a man in similar circumstances to herself - except, crucially, that he has only been divorced for a year. Gloria and Rodolfo develop an intense and passionate relationship, but before long they discover that passion alone is not enough to ensure a smooth and certain passage from the foothills of desire to the summit of enduring love. Mundane reality, in the form of emotional commitments to children and former spouses that cannot be ignored, intrudes on their idyll. For all their attraction to each other they are unable to weather the consequent storms.
As a divorced person myself, I was well able to identify with the situation Gloria and Rodolfo find themselves in. So it was intensely sad to see their relationship fail largely through a lack of ability to truly empathise with each other's positions. As Rodolfo says, they really did have something special, perhaps something that will never come again to either of them. If only they had not abandoned it so readily . . .!
Paulina Garcia, as Gloria, and Sergio Hernandez, as Rodolfo, give outstanding performances, including some difficult and highly explicit sex scenes. How good to show older people as fully sexual beings rather than as an odd species of neuters for once! And how courageous of these actors to carry it off.
So this is a highly watchable movie that explores the nature of love in an era of multiple impermanent relationships. It is not always comfortable to watch but can still be thoroughly recommended.
(Viewed at Screen 2, The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK, 1st November 2013)
La grande bellezza (2013)
Intriguing, sensuous movie-making of a high order.
This lengthy (142mins) intriguing, complex movie follows the reflections of former novelist, Jem Gambardella (Toni Servillo), as he contemplates his past and current life, a life, it would appear, of lost opportunities both personal and professional.
As a member of the wealthy elite of Roman society, he participates in their empty pastimes; parties fuelled with drink and drugs, bizarre art events and casual sexual encounters with beautiful but soulless women. Gambardella is both participant and observer, watching himself as much as his associates, mysterious animals trapped in the gilded cage that is Rome with all the stunning beauty of its architecture, fountains, sculptures, and paintings.
We are shown a funeral where Gambradella acts out the etiquette he has just been describing to us; a dinner with a cardinal who seems more interested in food than faith; a saintly nun of extreme age mounting a stone staircase on her knees and crawling painfully onwards and upwards towards an image of Christ . . . Everywhere, life presents contradictions, material and spiritual, emotional pretence and genuine feeling, the Eternal City and its mortal inhabitants, . . .
If all this sounds too heavy, everything is carried along by a welter of gorgeous images complemented by music that varies from the ethereal to hefty thumping dance beats. And the actors' performances are never less than utterly convincing.
At one of the parties as the massed participants enter into yet another conga-style dance, Gambardella remarks that 'we have the best trains in Rome because they don't go anywhere.' Everything comes back to where it starts and ends where it began. So in the long final credits sequence we float languidly beneath the bridges of Rome, left to contemplate the setting in which we first encountered the genial but disillusioned Gambardella.
This is an sumptuous, sensuous, fascinating movie which for me at least probably needs more than one viewing to fully appreciate. Don't miss it!
(Viewed at Screen 1, The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK, 12 September 2013)
Cherchez Hortense (2012)
Cool, slow, intriguing - if you can stay awake!
Whoever classified this movie as a 'comedy' must have a strange sense of humour. Mildly amusing in parts, it is hardly full of laughs. Indeed it seems a rather sad story - ageing French professor Hauer is asked by his partner, Iva, to use his high-level contacts in the judiciary to secure the future of an illegal immigrant, Aurore. He visits his father, a judge, hoping to get access to the man at the top, Hortense. However, his father has little time for him (figuratively and literally) and Hortense has even less. Hauer discovers his partner is having an affair with a younger man and tells her to leave their apartment and their young, brattish son. He encounters a student who turns out to be the illegal immigrant, Aurore. A relationship develops . . . A gun, gay oriental youth,Japanese cuisine and a visual reference to cherry blossom are added to the mix. It's all quite fragmented and puzzling and very French/Parisian - but also sufficiently intriguing to keep you watching (or rather me; my wife fell asleep!). I'm not sure why, but I did enjoy it. (Viewed at Screen 3, The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK 31 August 2013).
Silence is the space in which we find ourselves
This is an extraordinary movie! Eoghan, a sound recordist, returns from 'exile' in Germany to his native Ireland where he seeks out spaces in which to record free from human sounds. We follow him into fields, to the seashore, into forests, into a pool at night, onto the vast empty landscapes of Donegal where awesome undulating swirls of rock stand mutely before us, and we linger and gaze at the man and the places and listen to the sounds . . . But Eoghan's wanderings are not to be without human sounds for he encounters several individuals - a publican, a landowner/farmer, a writer among them - mostly men but one woman. Briefly talk takes place,sometimes in English, sometimes in Irish Gaelic: observations, reflections, talk rendered in an extremely natural fashion. Finally, Eoghan arrives at Tory Island and the house in which his family once lived. The house is now empty, derelict - an intensely human space free forever from the human sounds that once made it 'house', 'home', 'birthplace'. This space is silent yet full of sound. (Viewed at Screen 3, The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK on 25 August 2013)
What Maisie Knew (2012)
I have not read the original story so came to this tale of a child's experience of parental love, lost and found, with few preconceptions. It's a fairly undemanding movie to watch partly because there is a lack of conviction in the acting of the parents, played by Joanne Moore and Steve Coogan. The former plays an ageing, self-absorbed rock artist (Susanna) while the latter portrays her equally self-centred art-dealer husband (Beale), but neither manage to produce an emotionally compelling performance. Moore never seems to be able to escape the impression of being a Hollywood actress acting,while Coogan comes over as rather shifty and slightly odd and deploys an accent that varies from pure Coogan to slightly transatlantic Coogan. Joanna Vanderham, playing his second wife (Margo), also seems afflicted by a wobbly accent that floats from hints of Irish to increasingly strong Scots. Onata Aprile, as Maisie, is engaging throughout but a cute kid is not enough to raise the production beyond the average. The best acting comes from Alexander Skarsgard (Lincoln), who gives us the one moment of emotive power when he has a spat in the street with Susanna. It was a bold move to end the film with a long slow motion shot of Maisie running into the sunset - bold but still a dreadful cliché! Compared to other recent films depicting a child's struggles in an adult world (eg Kid On a Bike, I Wish, Sister) What Maisie Knew falls well short. But still watchable. (Viewed at Screen 3, The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK 24 August 2013)
When The Train Comes Along . . .
This is the story of two young Japanese brothers who live apart following the break-up of their parents' relationship. The older boy dreams of his family reuniting and prays for a miraculous intervention in the form of a volcanic eruption, hoping this might lead to his evacuation from his grandparents' region and a return home. Then, when he discovers that the passing of the speeding Bullet trains, approaching from opposite directions, creates a 'cosmic' moment during which wishes are granted, he sets out with a few friends to meet his brother at the meeting point on the railway line. There they make their wishes - with varying results.
The two brothers are forced to deal with the consequences of their parents' choices, ones they have had no part in making. Their belief, to varying degrees, in the power of 'faith' (believing that wishes can come true) then leads them to have to face the consequences of their own choices. Given their youthful immaturity, there is real poignancy in witnessing their confrontation with some harsh realities.
The movie features brilliant performances from the young actors and an excellent supporting cast of adults. There is also gorgeous and evocative cinematography, scenes of the Japanese countryside and its urban impositions, not least the Bullet line itself elevated on its concrete trackbed.
It takes some time, too long perhaps, for the story to gain momentum. But once the youngsters embark on their journey to meet the trains, the story moves at a brisker, more engaging pace. The climax (yes there is a climax, contrary to the view of another reviewer) brings moments of intense beauty and sharp sadness, regret for the loss of childish innocence of as well as optimism in the hope for a better future.
So this is a slow-burner, but persistence brings rewards. Recommended.
(Viewed at The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK 21.02.13)
Le gamin au vélo (2011)
Simple, soulful, superb!
This is one of those unpretentious pieces of great story-telling that is so often lacking in movies today. It is about the search for parental love and affirmation and the discomforting process of reconciliation with realities which fail to match ideals and desires.
It's a simple story: an adolescent boy, Cyril, absconds from a state run care home to search for his father, the good father who bought him his beloved bike and who promised never to sell it. His quest is unsuccessful at first and he is taken in by a hairdresser, Samantha. She finds his bike for sale and buys it for him. He refuses to believe that his father would sell it. At last he does locate his father, but he is in a new relationship and does not want to take on the 'baggage' of his past (the dirty rat!). The father tells the son not to come to see him again. Despite all his efforts to maintain his image of his father as someone who loves him no matter what, Cyril is forced to confront a painful reappraisal of his beliefs.
Cut adrift from the one (false) hope in his life, the boy loses direction. He has his bike stolen and then encounters a local drug dealer, Wes, an older youth who uses all his charisma and greater worldliness to mesmerise the boy into becoming his assistant. Samantha warns the boy to stay away from his new 'friend'. Eventually the boy turns his back on the dark future represented by Wes and returns to Samantha, finally accepting the possibility of parental love that she offers.
Great acting all round, especially from Thomas Doret, as Cyril, with Egon Di Mateo brilliant as the manipulative Wes. Filmed beautifully without seeking to impress yet succeeding in absorbing us totally in the reality of what we are seeing, we follow Cyril's emotional journey with admiration for his tenacity, sympathy for his plight, and joyfulness at its outcome.
This film may not get massive exposure but I think it deserves to be widely seen - Mary and I loved it!.
(Viewed at The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK 31.03.12)
Poignant portrayal of true love
There seems to be a growing fashion for movies about, and so, supposedly, for, the older generation (Quartet, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Song For Marion, etc.). The elderly, we are told, are a growing segment of the market for entertainment and so want movies they can relate to. This means films featuring old people dealing with old people's issues. As a confessed member of this group I can say that I think it's a spurious view and this beautiful film, Amour, illustrates why.
An elderly couple with a high-culture lifestyle live a secluded but contented life in their Parisian apartment. One day, the woman suffers a minor stroke and so begins a gradual physical and mental decline which tests their love to, and beyond, breaking point. New challenges appear at every turn and must be confronted by the couple alone: the indignities of loss of control of bodily functions, loss of physical mobility, loss of communication, loss of shared activities. But not loss of love, for that endures. As their world shrinks and distances them even from their uncomprehending family, they draw ever closer. Love conquers all, though not the love of roses and chocolates but of bed baths and incontinence pads!
The performances of Jean-Louis Trintingant, as the husband, Georges, and of Emmanuelle Riva as his wife, Anne, are wonderfully handled. There is a spareness about the direction which perfectly captures the paring down of Life to its essentials, both tender and grim. We watch knowingly, sympathetically, sadly. There's nothing else we can do.
This movie may well bore, and perhaps even disgust, a younger audience who either have no elderly parents or who are too far from their older selves to be able to identify with Georges and Anne's plight. I found it quite profoundly moving. But to return to my opening remarks, this reminder of all our futures is not one I wish to dwell on. Nor do I, at least, want patronising 'comedies' about stereotypical 'old folk'. My guess is that the marketeers (all well below pensionable age, I'm sure) are wrong - what the Silver Pensioneers want is not even realist movies about old-age, like Amour, but good old-fashioned escapism!
Open the champagne! Bring on the dancing girls!
Lights! Music!! Action!!!
(Viewed at The Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK 06.12.12)