Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Lavish but strangely juvenile
Sarah Walters's novel 'Fingersmith', a tale of power, perversion, pornography and passion in Victorian England, gets a lavish Korean makeover in Park Choon-Wok's movie 'The Handmaiden'. It's certainly visually and thematically rich and provocative as it slides between frequently explicit romance, comedy and horror: if in part it aims to shock, it certainly does so in style. However, I struggled to like any of the characters, all of whom seem as selfish and ruthless as each other, and felt no especial sympathy for the female leads simply because they happen to fall in love/list for each other. The film should perhaps be seen as a paean to desire, in all its oddness and intensity. But for all the artistry, I never quite escaped the feeling of a tale told by schoolchildren, snickering behind the bikesheds.
In 'The Adulterer', a prosecutor's wife has an affair with a defence lawyer, who just happens to be representing a man her husband is currently prosecuting. The setup sounds cheesy, and is certainly contrived. The best thing about this drama is a credible portrayal of life within a family the foundation of whose wealth is organised crime, albeit on a relatively small scale (think corrupt family business rather than full-blown mafia). It's weakness is the one-dimensionality of many of its characters, particularly the smug prosecutor and his almost-perfect wife. Although some details of plot were nicely developed, I didn't really care how the romantic aspects of the drama worked out, or feel any of the sexual passion supposedly driving the story.
Bergman: Ett år - ett liv (2018)
Interesting, but without insight into the art
Ingmar Bergman, giant of Swedish cinema and theatre, had an extraodinarily productive professional year, and an equally extraordinary private life, in 1957. This documentary focuses on that year, but not exclusively, rather ranging over his whole biography. We learn quite a lot about his interesting but difficult personality, and about his accomplishments, but rather less about what was great about his art; personally, I like his work, but if I hadn't known it, this film would have told me more about how important it is considered to be than why. Meanwhile, director Jane Magnusson offers her personal opinions but never identifies herself, which feels odd - just who is this voice telling us how is? It's still an interesting story how one man's vision, and force of character, made himself the automatic person one associated (and to a not incosiderable extent, still associates) with Swedish cinema.
Life, philosophy, Huppert!
It would be wrong to say there's not a great deal that happens in Mia Love-Hansen's film 'Things to Come': we see births, deaths and marriages (fall apart), as well as the extended tale of an unwanted cat. But it's all presented as the proceeding of normal life, and convincingly so; things happen and lives undergo incremental, and incidental change: this isn't a tightly wound narrative with a driven sequence of events. It may sound boring, but it never is, thanks mostly to a very good performance from the always interesting Isabelle Huppert, playing a woman facing what she never allows herself to portray as a stereotypical description of a mid-life crisis, even though it features some common elements. Ultimately, this is a small movie, but it's both very specific (Huppert's character is a philosophy teacher and moves in a particular mileau) and yet true to life more generally. Highly recommended.
The Gods are granted forgiveness
In the 1960s, the Canadian writer (and later famous songwriter) Leonard Cohen hung out in a Bohemian community on the Greek island of Hydra. He formed a relationship with a woman, Marianne, who subsequently featured in some of his songs; in the way of the time, Marianne also had a brief fling with a young man called Nick Broomfield. Broomfield is now a celebrated maker of documentary films; and his latest, 'Marianne and Leonard', tells the story of the lifetime connection between his former lover and the artist she inspired, made after both of them recently died. What's interesting in the film is a tension that Broomfield seems to avoid addressing directly: that on one hand, Cohen comes across as a sensitive and profound thinker; on the other hand, also as a spoiled, pretentious individual who took whatever his talents enabled him to take without real regard for other people. A succession of acquaintances vouch for him, saying that you just couldn't expect Leonard to make the same commitments (and, where necessary, sacrifices) that you might of others. He may have maintained a lifelong friendship with Marianne (who eventually went home to Norway and adopted a suburban life), but only on his terms; for sure he liked her, but it's unclear that he ever actually did anything for her which in any way conflicted with his own interests, and it's strange to watch a film where everyone seems to pre-emptively forgive his behaviour. Broomfield's documentary is at its best when it tries to convey the wider milieu, of which Broomfield himself was part, than when it is genuflecting to St. Leonard and his muse, who by contrast appears to have been a genuinely lovely person, but perhaps not a particularly interesting one. Today, Broomfield says, Hydra is a millionaire's playground. But he paints an interesting picture of a time when it was something else.
An incidental Amoldovar
Pedro Amoldovar's films are never boring, but in spite of his acclaim, I've never truly loved them. In 'Julieta', she follow a woman's journey through life. Various things happen, some of them very traumatizing. Some make her realise that she didn't fully understand what was happening before. As always, Amoldovar tells his tale skilfully, although the power of the narrative is weakened by the decision to start near the end and reveal most of the story in flashback. And although the story ends on a note of emotional closure, I didn't find the film as involving as I might have done: the events are shown as a puzzle to be deciphered, rather than from an internal perspective. The film is certainly watchable, but adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
A Late Quartet (2012)
Often when writing a story, the author has a problem: drama works best with a small group of closed characters, interacting essentially as equals; but real life just isn't like that. Hence the unreality of the communities we see in soap opera, where everyone seems to be part of the same sole network. But the players in a string quartet might indeed work closely together, while sharing the same interests and wider life, and without any absolute hierarchy; it's an obvious setting for a drama. This film explores one such quartet and the tensions it is placed under when one of its members is forced to retire. Part of the point of the script is the fact that its characters have trained themselves to behave in a certain mannered fashion, however strongly they may feel; but I found the film itself overly mannered. I think the problem is that we see here only talented, successful, relatively wealthy people, though often frustrated as they try to organise their lives as they see fit. They're not repulsive people; but frankly, who cares? There are big themes in the story, but somehow they pass by as if minor quibbles. Overall, I found myself unmoved.
King of Thieves (2018)
In 2015, a safety deposit vault in Hatton Garden, London, was robbed of a huge hoard of valuables; when the criminals involved were apprehended, it turned out they were a decidedly aged group. If you were going to make a film inspired by these events, you'd have various options. The "one last job" caper is almost a film genre in itself., often inspiring sympathy for its participants in spite of their criminality. You could make a rather darker film, drawing from the fact that, grandparents or not, criminals are rarely classically nice people (and that there's little true honour among thieves). Our you could try a documentary-style reconstruction of what actually happened. "King of Thieves' features a stellar cast of distinguished British thespians; unfortunately, it can't really decide on which of the above it wants to be. It's amiable enough, but not really comic, thrilling, shocking or strictly believable. It's a bit of a waste, really; it's hard to believe there isn't a better story in there, undiscovered by this film.
Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)
Death of a nation
Donald Trump, corrupt, ignorant and a moral monster, is somehow President of the United States. How did he get there? In this film, Michael Moore blames the media and the U.S. constitution, but also the complacency of the liberal classes and the complicity of the Democratic Party in the un-making of America. Moore is a polemicist, and sometimes he makes bad arguments in support of his narrative: he implies, falsely, that the superdelegates at the Democratic Party convention were part of a conspiracy against Bernie Saunders (when in fact all they did was what they always do, and voted for the democratically chosen winner); he cuts Democratic moderates no slack at all, sometimes unfairly; and at one point he even claims that Trump is actually building his much feted wall. But his analysis of the basic problem, that the American right has profited through ruthless malignancy while the left has chosen compromise, is essentially on the ball. Moore finds inspiration in some stories of student and union activism; but it's a bleak picture overall.
Power and impunity
If you are rich and powerful, that's a sexual attractant; also, people will seek to sleep with you for personal gain; or, more worryingly, for fear of personal loss. At one extreme, life isn't fair, and we all have to play the cards we have; at the other, so much power is embedded in certain individuals they have effective carte blanche to do as they want, and the wishes of anyone else are dammed. The Harvey Weinstein story - of grotesque levels of sexual inappropriateness, including credible charges of full-on rape, continuing for years in semi-public view, is both a story of capitalism (and the concentration of wealth and power that it brings), but also, of course, of the generally lower status that women have in our society, where their subservience is normalized. Weinstein, a moral monster, may eventually face goal, but as this illuminating documentary based on the testimony of several of his many victims makes clear, the wider problem is a world where some people are effectively licensed to act with impunity; as long as this is the case, there will be more such stories.
Grim realism, imaginatively rendered
A depressed man has an affair; which briefly cheers him up, and actually really does make his temporary partner happy, but which fails to lift him from his overall state of misery. It seems to be a strange story to tell with an animation, but Charlie Kaufman's film actually works; it also includes the most honest depiction of physical intimacy that I have ever seen in a film. Overall, it's not exactly a bundle of laughs, precisely because it offers no fantasy solutions. But perhaps it's the nature of its subject matter that it so successfully manages to probe the heart of human existence in spite of a medium that cannot fully convey the range of human expressiveness manifested by those fortunate not to be depressed.
Opinionated, erudite, brutal, with a sharp turn of phrase and a peculiar eye: Jonathan Meades is a cultural critic like few others, a proof that, in the age of the lowbrow, the highbrow can still deliver something entertaining and unique. Meades in unashamedly snobbish, but his snobbery is often directed upwards not downwards; what he likes is unpredictable, even as he is (perhaps less surprsingly) giving most of the architectural (and wider cultural) legacy of Francisco Franco a merciless and well-deserved kicking. What you don't get is the usual wisdom; the result is enlightening, even if you might not agree on every point. Voices likes Meades's are not often granted this sort of platform; when you get the chance to listen, take it.
Years and Years (2019)
The future as a mish-mash of the present
Russell T. Davies' 'Years and Years' tells the account of one family living through the near future. It didn't do much for me, to be honest. Fristly, the events depicted feel like a random mashup of our own times, rather than truly a progression of them. Secondly, this is a drama where all the central characters - the family members - are presented as broadly sympthatetic while not always likeable (hence it's ability to conclude with the upbeat meassage that, in effect, family is love). And so, we see our heroes fighting the good fight, but it's not always clear why it has happened that the fight has to be fought. The story shows a country awash with immigrants to such an extent that the government first forces people to share their homes, then exterminates the unwanted visitors; yet oddly, when the dark forces are defeated, our protagonists go back to living in their own (large, characterful) house all by themselves, which they have managed to retain throughout the story in spite of their repeated pleas of poverty. Davies' script explicitly asserts "this is just a normal familiy"; but like many other dramas, can't resist a little bit of property porn. And there are also some tedious sci-fi tropes in here: the genius at one with all the world's data; the consciousness uploading itself to the cloud. What I did like was Rory Kinnear's performance: he plays the most self-conflicted character, and thus the most interesting one (in real life, it's also fun to see how he starts to resemble his did as he gets older!). I less liked T'nia Miller, who as usual plays a character of quite terrifying self-righteousness (and she's good at this, but she always has me cowering under the sofa and wishing someone braver than me would prick her self-regard). But I think I would have preferred something more explicitly contemporary; overall, this didn't quite feel either fully realistic or futuristic, and I found it hard to engage.
Old theme, but not coherent
Argyris Papadimitropoulos' film 'Suntan' tells an unfortunately familliar and painful story: someone flirts, whether for good or bad reasons, with a lonely person; and that person responds with undue seriousness. The film's problems lies less in the fact that it's not exactly cheerful, but more in the fact that it's not really convincing. The central character is a doctor, but his personal decorum is quite unlike that of any doctor I've ever known; quite why a girl takes even a passing interest in him is unclear; and how he can deceive himself that things are ever going well as he tries to integrate into her crowd is also unclear. It's not that humans aren't capable of telling themselves stories, particularly where sex is concerned, but a story needs a seed, and this one seems to grow out of nothing. The resulting tregedy is thus not just painful to watch, but also a little bizarre.
A lot of rather dubious "scientific" experiments took place in the 1970s; including Santiago Genoves's plan to isolate a small group of people on a raft drifting across the Atlantic. It appears he intended the situation to resemble 'Love Island' with added fisticufffs; in fact, the group got on quite amicably, and the only person to behave in a threatening manner was the supposedly impartial scientist, who was disappointed with the lack of action. This documentary tells the story, through interviews with many of the survivors; where there is a shortage of archive film, director Marcus Lindeen films them on a contemporary replica of the raft. But ultimately, there's not much of a story here and there's certainly not much science; today this would be marketed as a holiday experience for the ultimate traveller without the intellectual pretensions, and no-one would think it worth filming.
August: Osage County (2013)
A distinguished cast overacts wildly but unconvingly in John Wells' 'August: Osage County', none more so than Meryl Streep in the leading role. She plays the matriach of an Oklahoman family with serious problems: they gather for a funeral and proceed to expose themselves as close to a parody of contemporaray American Southern gothic. Maybe there really are people like this, but there's little subtlety in any of the characters, and far more to pity than to like. And while I've no problem with films based on stageplays, some modulation of thespian technique would have been appreciated.
Year of the Rabbit (2019)
Amateurish at many levels
'Year of the Rabbit' is a comedy drama about a Victorian detective. Humour comes from an unexpected courseness, and also from a self-conscious ridiculousness: it feels like an improvised attempt to make as crude and absurd an example of the form as possible. Approximate antecedents could include the Monty Python or Austin Powers films, as genre send-ups that eschew subtlety in favour of continually reminding the audience of the underlying joke. Unfortunately, whereas those movies were packed with great comedy and managed to maintain at least a faint veneer of in-world meaning, 'Year of the Rabbit' has no great wit, and moreoever every gag is performed with a giant wink to the audience, meaning the jokes have nothing solid to play off. So although the amaterusish mood is clearly deliberate, the net effect is still insufficiently professional. Even the screwiest of comedy needs some sort of anchor, and without one, 'Year of the Rabbit' just isn't funny, even where the material has potential.
Too little science, too little story
Space, as Dan Quayle famously said, is almost infinite, and the story of the Voyager spaceships brings that into perspective: these vessels have travelled impossibly far compared with anything else made by man, and yet they've barely penetrated the universe outside the solar system. But this documentary about them is fairly boring. It doesn't explain the complex flight plans, or how it is possible for the ships to communicate with earth at immense distance. Instead, it there's a fairly straigtforward narrative: "next Voyager reached this planet", followed by numerous interviews with scientists telling us how amazing this was in the manner of a holiday maker boring his neighbours with his endless snaps after he gets home. Perhaps the film-makers thought more science would have put people off; but without it, there's not a lot of story, just a somehwat bland mixture of self-congratulation and humility before the almost infinite.
Dark Mon£y (2019)
Flat development of interesting premise
It is right that the victims of injustice should be compensated; but where the perpetrator has a reputation to protect, compensation may be conditional on silence. That's a strange sort of justice, in which acknowledgement and apology of the crime is explicitly ruled out (and indeed, this ruling out is what is being paid for). 'Dark Money' tells the story of a family who take big money after their child (an actor) is abused by a film producer; it seems to be the best option but living in its aftermath is not easy. Unfortunately, the series feels rather obvious and wooden the whole way through; the decision to take the money shown as wrong but understandable, and the child and his parents presented as purely innocent victims (which may often be exactly how it is, but it makes for less interesting fiction than where complicity is involved). The recent documentary about Michael Jackson, 'Finding Neverland' told a much more intriguing (and terrifying) true story than the one that has been made up here.
Characters lost in the scenery
High altitude mountaineering is incredibly dangerous, and was once the preserve only of the most brilliant, and dedicated, climbers. But in a world where rich people look for the ultimate experience, some climbers have found they can make a living by guiding lesser mortals to the highest summits, none more desired than the highest peak in the world, Mount Everest. We know now what this has led to: queues of people on the highest point on earth, and periodic tragedy. And a big question is what it really means to "guide" under conditions so extreme, where anyone can lose their sense of reason under shortage of oxygen, and when demented ambition and fierce storms can wreck the best laid plans. In 1996, high altitude guiding was relatively new when tragedy struck the parties of guides Rob Hall and Scott Fisher. The presence of journalist Jon Krakauer in Hall's party ensured that the story was well-told; 'Everest' is in fact the second movie based on Krakauer's book. It's a higher budget affair than its predecessor, and a little less corny, but essentially very similar. Perhaps it brings out some of the individual stories a little less strongly, although the visuals are predictably stunning. Twenty years on, it's hard to know the right solution; but also hard not to conclude that people are very bad at calculating odds.
A cult of trolls
A cult indoctrinates its members, who come to sincerely believe in its doctrines, however strange they may appear to outsiders. A troll spins arguments in bad faith for the primary purpose of winding other people up. The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, however, is a strange hybrid of the two, a group of true believers who claim it is God's will that, for example, they attend the funerals of their enemies and celebrate. Those enemies include "fags", of course, but they also vigorously celebrated the death of the more conventional celebrity preacher Billy Graham. This would be laughable if it wasn't clear the cult is deadly serious. This is film-maker Louis Theroux's third visit to Westboro, and he abandons his normal even-handedness in the face of their cartoon evil. It's fair to say he doesn't get very far, and even the ex-members he meets are not that enlightening, precisely because the church is so inherently uninteresting, its doctrine as banal as it is horrific, its leaders strikingly uncharismatic. Perhaps all one can say is it's a weird world we live in; and some people are sincerely devoted to making it worse.
Billionaires before Berlusconi
Giovanni Agnelli was suave, intelligent, and very, very rich. He inherited sole control of the giant FIAT corporation; and for a time, perhaps, embodied a certain ideal of the Italian elite. This documentary gives an account of his life, which sadly is extremely hagiographic, and which invites one to gasp in awe at his charm and ability while never questioning the shape of a world in which one man can possess all this stuff by right of birth. Indeed, at some times the film fades into absurdity: when his new wife wrongly thought she had married into a life of ease, Agnelli had her packed off the learn the job of hostess from an old family friend who just happened to own one of the most celebrated palazzi in Venice; time and time again the film presents similar actions as if the main reason the rest of use could not do something similar is because we lack Agnelli's brilliance, not because we lack his connections and money. It's a shame, because Agnelli clearly was a smart guy, and it would have been interesting to hear him talk some more, but without confusing "the smartest and most charming billionaire on the planet" with "the smartest and most charming guy in the world".
A Bigger Splash (2015)
Who cares when the splash comes?
In Luca Guadagnino's film 'A Bigger Splash', a rock star and her husband are visited by a former lover and his teenage daughter. A drama of sexual jealousy plays out around a swimming pool. The fact that, in terms of intimate contact, nothing actually happens is beside the point in an atmosphere without trust, with the two men butting heads and the daughter enjoying her own sexual power, in part in rebellion against her father. But the story of this uneasy foresome didn't quite work for me: Tilda Swinton doesn't convince as a rock star, even once you make allowances for the fact that she is protecting her voice and therefore never speaks above a whisper. And none of the other characters are likeable - indeed, if they had redeeming personal qualities, the drama would be absent from the situation. The story actually makes sense; it's just a little hard to care.
The Virtues (2019)
Powerful, virtuous but unbalanced
I loved the early films of Shane Meadows, with their grim but humane portrayals of everyday life. Recently, however, especially with his 'This is England' series for Channel 4, I've felt that his ability to ultimately deliver big emotional set pieces has come to overwhelm his other qualities; and that there's a self-conscious emoting that ends up dominating the work. 'The Virtues' tells the story of a man whose life falls apart, and who heads back to the place he grew up to confront the demons of his past. It's at first a low key story, with lots of believable interactions between people who appear to be in some ways broken, albeit for reasons that we don't entirely understand. For three episodes the story doesn't really go anywhere, before finally everything kicks off in episode four. Almost all of its scenes are individually well done, yet Meadows seems to be trying too hard, and telling us a story in a very uneconomical way. The final conclusion has been signposted far too clearly throughout. Stephen Graham is predictably good in the lead role, but I preferred him in 'Line of Duty', where his role had less of a one-note quality. I would still rush to watch anything new by Meadows; but judged purely as drama 'The Virtues' tells a weighty tale but is crying out for a balancing, lighter touch.
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
Not awful but very obvious
In general, I'n not a fan for the films of Richard Linklater, but I will confess to having enjoyed 'Dazed and Confused', a sympathetic account of the last day in high school of a group of Texas teenagers in the 1970s. Aside from its brilliant title, that film was a non-judemental and unforced look at their lives; and in some ways, Linklater is back onto similar territory with 'Everybody Wants Some!!', which follows a group of first year students as they start college. But this movie did not do it for me. The characters are a group of male baseball scholars, and their stereotypical obsessions about sex, love of partying and general jockishness put me off; it's not just that I didn't like them, but also, their story arcs felt exagerrated given the entire film takes place over their first weekend. Also, for a film which is many ways has a realistic feel, eveveryone is far too good looking on average, and the male actors in particular are far too old.