After the screening of ‘I, Daniel Blake’ an elderly man stood up and shouted at the auditorium, ‘We are the fifth largest economy in the world and this is a disgrace.” There were only five of us there. I felt moved to hug him, though the best I managed was to put a hand on his shoulder. That a film can do this is amazing. Yet, I don’t think it’s a good film. It’s preachy, relentlessly grim, you see things coming a mile away, and know it’s going to go from grim to grimmer to grimmest. It holds no surprises. It offers no delights. Images highlight or evidence the telling rather than constitute it as part of dramatised show and tell. Yet, if I were to put a document in a time capsule to evoke how a sector of the British population lived today, this is what I would choose. According to The Guardian, ‘Statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed that during the period December 2011 and February 2014 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) ended because a work capability assessment (WCA) found they were fit for work’. This figure is higher than that of all UK service personnel killed in action since 1962. What happens to Daniel Blake in the film is shocking. Yet it is happening recurrently and relentlessly all over the country. Those who voted for such policies should be ashamed. Ian Duncan Smith should be brought to an international tribunal to answer to those statistics. The film is true and effective. Yet why do I still persist in thinking that it is not a good movie?Is it possible that it’s also false? That all poor people aren’t so nice and mutually supportive ,so in solidarity with each other? The Cannes Palme D’Or could just be evidence that ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is merely how the French prefer to see the British. Should we change our criteria of value? Apply different ones? Likewise, the film made me wonder: is it that I can’t confront reality or that I don’t agree with Loach’s view of it; and what aspects? It’s an undeniably powerful film, an important one, with a final speech that bears testimony to current conditions and is sure to draw tears from a stone. I was sad to see such a low attendance. But how good a film is it? I’m still not sure and suspect it’s very flawed indeed.
I’m quite blown away by Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. I hadn’t quite taken to a Single Man, finding it overly designed. But this is great. First impressions are: an audacious narrative structure with early scenes as tense as any I remember seeing; the best ensemble acting of any American film this year, with Michael Shannon making another strong argument for consideration as the best American actor of his generation: a film that discomfits with its demands but pays off and rewards attention. A noir melodrama on class, family and a rural/ urban divide in America. An extraordinary credit sequence. Amy Adams looks wrong for the part but turns out to be right for the movie. Brilliant cameo by Laura Linney and a superb turn from Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Armie Hammer, finally well-used in a movie. Tom Ford knows how to film men: Jake Gyllenhall, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Armie Hammer have never looked better. Is the film a revenge narrative; or does it leave open other possibilities? A film I’d like to see again and talk to people about.
I’m still trying to process American Honey but first impressions are: that it’s great and original, that it’s too long, that it doesn’t know how to end, that Sasha Lane and Shia Lebeouf are excellent; that you’ve not quite seen anything like this: I wrote a series of posts on films –significant ones from female directors — that mourn the idea of America but this is the Ur-Mourning America text and amongst the most relevant and alive of road movies.
It’s a film that really stays with you and that you feel that you should see again but don’t really want to. There are moments where it’s a really hard watch even though nothing terrible really happens. I love the structure, the way it begins and (almost) ends on a commentary on two different kinds of broken families, but also the way each stop in the road trip becomes a commentary on America as well as an advancement of plot and a development of relationships, with the rap singing in the bus a kind of Greek Chorus running commentary.
I love the equivalence between Star and Jake: we can see how easily she might opt for prostitution; but he’s been a pimp, thief and whore from the beginning, less profitably and less self-aware of it. I love how the film makes us feel sad for both; how it’s inclusive in all kinds of ways: gender, sexuality, to a lesser extent – ethnicity — it would have had to become a different film with more black kids on the bus. I love how the film has a neoealist feel — the poverty of the kids on the bus is written on the skin — but also how it uses imagery poetically.
I can’t think of a higher compliment than to say the film feels both real and poetic. I think Riley Keough gives an extraordinary performance as Krystal, the ruthless leader of the work-gang. I think it’s a film everyone should see at least once.
Bette Davis’ recompense for having missed out on Gone With the Wind; one of her greatest hits; a legendary performance that’s still the gold standard for screen acting. The film’s themes – the conflict between North and South, the battle of the sexes, the constraints of societal morays on individual identity and expression, the price women pay for over-stepping those limits – all are expressively explored. William Wyler directs with great fluidity — the camera always seems to be craning, gliding, moving in, accenting – and in depth. Yet, it feels restrained – or rather, right: it never feels too much.
Watching the film is an immersive experience, as if one is drifting into a cloud of pure emotion, probably lifted there by Max Steiner’s score. The realm of feeling – complex, understandable, contradictory, ours – feels right on the surface of the film; on its skin; and communicated from there to our own. It’s almost a great film. What stops it from being so in my view is all the happy-clappy slaves singing their joy at the Halcyon plantation. This is by no means the worst offender in its time. In fact one can argue that there’s a context in which it can be seen as liberal and progressive. But it does offend current eyes and ears, at least mine.
And yet here is also Davis’ Julie, one of her most popular and celebrated performances, goading Pres (Henry Fonda), challenging his masculinity, confronting convention, proud, arrogant, spoiled, then humiliated and suffering. She’s great, a witch – we don’t know how she achieves what she does; how she communicates such complexity so clearly — and completely bewitching in all her legendary moments: getting off her horse, choosing the red dress, the ball sequence, goading Pres with his ‘stick’ in a phallic battle she wins, the humiliation of her attempts to win him back, her final self-abnegation at the end. A must for anyone interested in great screen acting.
Orry Kelly’s costuming is better than Walter Plunkett’s for Gone With the Wind
The first of three Davis films directed by Wyler, the others being The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941)
A nun bribes some children to guide her to a doctor who she insists cannot be Russian or Polish. They ask for money but she has none so she gives them her rosary. They take her to the French Red Cross, find Dr. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) and ask for help. Dr. Beaulieu is a working-class communist but the Red Cross is only there to help their wounded and mop up their operation before moving to the French section of occupied Berlin. It is not within the remit of the French Red Cross to help locals, indeed it would be a danger to do so amidst Polish and Soviet forces, and thus she refuses. As she wakes up the next morning, she looks outside her window and finds that the nun is still there, knees on the snow, praying to God for help.
Moved by such faith and also probably made aware of need and desperation, the good doctor decides to help. When she arrives at the convent, she finds a nun in the process of giving birth. The child’s in breech, the nun refuses to be touched, but the good doctor nonetheless manages a caesarean and mother and child are saved. Despite the nuns’ resistance, the good doctor insists on returning to provide aftercare and soon discovers that seven of the sisters are pregnant and all due to give birth almost at the same time. It seems that they were all brutally raped, young and old, first by receding German forces, then by invading German ones. There’s also an attempted gang rape of the good doctor by Soviet Forces whilst returning from the convent to the Red Cross at dawn – a narrow escape.
Thus is set into a motion a film about the brutality of men and the strength of women, about a sisterhood that exceeds the narrow range of convent walls, about mothering and children, about faith and goodness that needs no faith to exist. The Innocents is a female-centred film, feminist too. It’s largely shot in close-up and mostly within convent walls and snowy landscapes. It at times feels slow but it is the type of slowness that embeds itself in one’s mind, makes one linger on images, ponder themes, think through what the film presents and how it presents it long after the film is over. It’s a film worth watching.
On the evidence of Gods of Egypt, Gerald Butler might have found his calling playing villains. He’s terrific and so is the movie. It’s like the very best ‘Sword and Sandal’ films of the 50s — lots of gorgeous semi-naked people cursing fate and doing graceful things with their bodies they call ‘combat’ –but with more interesting and sophisticated visuals. The film shows us Gods twice the size of mortals in the same frame throughout. It’s visually extraordinary i.e. like he major spectacular moments of films like Ant-Man but treated nonchalantly, not really drawn attention to, just part of this magical world conjured up by Alex Proyas. It’s a look that becomes gobsmacking upon reflection and in retrospect — and that’s just one aspect of this gloriously imaginative film. Some of the acting, however, is still at moments bad enough to bring out a camp response. So, all in all, rather perfect.
I was surprised to see that the reviews have been so bad. It seems performances are all professional critics pay attention and performances are a problem in Gods of Egypt . However, Butler has never been better. Rufus Sewell, who was so memorable in Proyas’ classic Dark City is still looking very handsome and is very good as a cold and conniving architect. Some have expressed surprise he’s never quite become a star but he’s had lots of chances. People can’t seem to identify with him, one of the many reasons he’s so effective in this. There are a few duff performances, but not offensively so (Nicolaj Coster-Waldeau is no different in Game of Thrones and no one seems to mind; and except for the final speech he makes at the end, I thought he was fine); and I think the story is an interesting one (the origin of the kings of Egypt), well told, and timely (it’s partly about the need of the 1% to listen to the 99%).
I think Proyas is a master at constructing arresting and meaningful visuals. The film is tons of fun, with superb set-pieces, action that genuinely engages and thrills and is visually pretty breathtaking at times. I know there’s been a brouhaha about the casting. But no one’s wearing blackface; how exactly were Egyptian Gods supposed to look like at the Dawn of Creation? And even if we admit that there’s a tinge of racism to the casting of this film, why is this more the case here than in any other big budget spectacle film? Gods of Egypt will undoubtedly become a staple of television schedules for year to come but there may not be too many opportunities to see it in its full glory. If you can, go for the full IMAX 3-D treatment. It’s worth it.
Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Love and Friendship won me over in the end. But I did wonder if it wasn’t too slight, derivative and possibly better as a play. It’s a stupid think to say — and wrong also –but for lack of a better way of putting it: I at first didn’t think it was cinematic enough (except for the explanatory subtitles at the beginning and in the letter -reading/writing scenes which structure the narrative). I thought it too talky. But then the film’s languid rhythms, its classic but slightly askew compositions and it’s tone – which a friend described as on the right side of arch – won me over. I did end up loving it. But I wasn’t sure I would until it ended.
Adrien Garvey has described Love and Friendship as a sketched-in heritage film, which I think describes it beautifully. It doesn’t offer the visual pleasures of the traditional heritage films such as A Room with a View (James Ivory, UK, 1985) or other Jane Austin adaptations: the sumptuousness of place (here the stately home is slightly run-down), costume (modest for the period, slightly worn, like the best clothes of those who can’t quite afford them) or setting: none of this is used as spectacle here. But then, to its credit, it also eschews the nostalgic tone of heritage in favour of a smarter, slightly more worldly and wittily cynical flavour. Unlike Chlōe Sevigny, who’s every appearance as Alicia Johnson seems to leap off the screen, Kate Beckinsale seems to lack charisma in the first scenes. But then her performance wins you over on merit: Her Lady Susan takes no relish in her wickedness; she doesn’t underline or make a show of it; all Beckinsale does simply becomes who the character is. It’s a shrewd, witty and understated performance. And then there’s James Fleet who steals every scene he’s in with mere intonation.
Love and Friendship is an elegant chamber piece that feels slight, echoey, thin and empty at the beginning but fills out, gets richer, more resonant, and more enjoyable as it unfolds. Very typical and very good Whit Stillman.
Pamela Hutchinson has written a wonderful piece on the film’s use of intertitles that you can find here.
Independence Day: Resurgence is filmmaking-by-focus-group: dumb, ugly and deserving of the contempt with which it treats its audience. I haven’t snorted this much at a movie since Oliver’s Story (John Korti, USA, 1978). Some of the cast of the 1996 Independence Day (Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum) returns, looking 20 years more tired and 20 years less attractive; others are sentimentalised in their prime as tacky oil paintings (Will Smith). Liam Hemsworth is meant to be the current eye candy: he is a pretty face, an ineffectual talent and lacks the threat of danger or surprise that could make him sexy. The film can’t decide whether to jingo it up for America’s 4th of July or to more directly address the Chinese market. The special effects look like two-dimensional cartoons. It’s so dispiriting you can’t even take pleasure in your own jeering; it left me too sad and tired to even walk out before the end; it’s Ronald Emmerich’s fault.
A film that finds continuities between the genocide of indigenous peoples in Chile and the murder of dissidents by the Pinochet regime, that finds a connection between the stars and the oceans, and that reflects personally and poetically on some of the very grandest of grand narratives. I’m not surprised Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button has received mixed reviews. But I don’t think it deserves them; gorgeous imagery of water poetically montaged together; a narrative in which the different strands merge like streams that flow and separate dialectically and sometimes roars with moments of violence that would shock the heavens– Guzmán really wants to show you all the steps involved in killing and getting rid of dissidents before dumping them on the sea by helicopter — before merging into the same ocean and finding shared humanity. A symbolic but historically grounded pearl button is what connects different stories of colonisation, slavery, displacement and genocide: beauty and horror sublimely presented to the audience. Part of the pleasure of watching films like this is as an encounter with other modes of seeing, conveying and understanding; some of the assumptions in the film — it has a slight mystical dimension–might be in tension with our own. But surely it’s in encountering such differences, in feeling them and thinking them through, that one learns and grows. The Martin Gusinde photographs of the extinct Selk’nam people, and the way Guzmán presents them, are on their own worth the price of admission. I thought it a beautiful film.
I finally got to see The Danish Girl and was unexpectedly moved. My opinion of Tom Hooper hasn’t improved. There is a reason why his company’s called ‘Pretty Pictures’: he can make them pretty but he can’t mobilise that prettyness into meaningfulness. He’s obviously superb with actors and I think Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are believable and affecting; the former in a very risky part; also it feels like a kind of bourgeois filmmaking: all this delicate and thoughtful suffering in exquisite settings whilst thinking of art and higher things…and yet, on an emotional level, it still gets to you. It’s interesting.
There are complex themes around identity that revolve around sex, gender, but also artistic production. The need to express oneself is in this film as important as that of becoming one’s idea of who one wants to be in the face of harshly punitivie social prohibitions. The Danish Girl doesn’t necessarily present these ideas in a complex manner. For example, sometimes the film presents the question of sex as an essence struggling to overcome the boundaries of the wrong body that imprisons it; sometimes it shows gender in the very process of its construction as its costumed, painted and slipped on. Sometimes it confuses the various categories it seems to be dramatising. But what it might get muddled analytically it more than makes up for emotionally. The film gets us to understand and feel for ‘The Danish Girl’ and when he asks his wife ‘I don’t know what I’ve ever done to have earned such love’, I welled up. It’s a question often asked but this time we know the answer.
In The Danish Girl, there seems to be an overt contradiction between representing social transgression as a pathway to truth whilst deploying the most conservative aesthetics means to do so, which act as obfuscation, a kind of show-and-hide and perhaps an appeasement of potential audience reactions via gentle and extraneous pleasures. I at first thought Eddie Redmayne was too young to already seem so mannered. But then began reading the initial overdone gesture as a foreshadowing of the transformations to come and ended by thinking it a really marvellous performance. Vikander is just as good in a less showy part. Mathias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw appear intermittently to offer unstinting support and very considerable glamour.
Two fans set out in search for the mysterious Rodriguez, American pop icon of a generation in South Africa but practically unknown in the US. Who is he and what happened to him? Searching for Sugar Man is a movie to moisten the eye of every cynic; if you’re a musician, involved with a musician, or merely bonking one occasionally, you’ll find this film particularly compelling. In a quiet way, it also articulates issues of class and race in America that more mainstream fare flees from. A superb documentary.
Marlene Dietrich: It’s her legs that made her fortune; her face that became an indelible and iconic image of cinema, of glamour and even of modernity; but it is in her voice we find the full range of her personality. The Twilight of an Angel offers fascinating insights into how Dietrich lived in her last years, how bullying and needy and vulnerable and romantic she was. How she dared to be herself, still.
The film — more a one hour documentary made for television — contains interviews with the sharp-voiced and certain Maria Riva, Marlene’s much-loved daughter, as well as rare and revealing sound footage of Dietrich speaking to her butler or assistant — seemingly a lovely gay man — who evidently took care of her in her last days. Twilight of an Angel ends emotionally with her funeral in Berlin. The last song, ‘I’m Leaving a Suitcase in Berlin/ Einen Koffer in Berlin,’ is just beautiful.
A working class working mom with a drug habit struggles to keep her life afloat. One begins to see themes emerge in Granik’s work: a mourning for what America’s become: all those dollar stores, people in work but in dead-end jobs and living below the poverty line; drugs or alcohol as the only but dangerous release from a life of grind; female protagonists; female solidarity within a heterosexual, small-town or rural setting. Here a big deal is made of getting into the city, etc. Granik demonstrates tremendous empathy for the people she depicts and is wonderful with actors. She’s a poet too: what is the snake here? Is it a symbol for the need to get high like the smoke of a crack pipe, or something more akin Cocteau’s opium dreams? Vera Fermiga is a standout in the central role of Irene Morrison: I’ve never seen her better. Down to the Bone succeeds in invoking a feeling that you are seeing real places with real people, and that they somehow manage to plow on nobly in very ignoble circumstances.
In John Wick, Keanu Reeves is like a mobile sketch, slinky lines of iconicity encased in a cloud of depressed earnestness, and he’s terrific; as is Alfie Allen, giving a more traditional type of naturalist performance, as the callow, amoral, edgy son of a Russian gangster. As to the rest, the film is a series of action pieces, excellently directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch in a straightforward no-nonsense manner that allows one to see what’s going on. I really liked it.
It didn’t get great reviews upon its release; and it didn’t really deserve them. However, the clothes are beautiful, the film in general looks handsome, and it’s one of the few films I can think of that’s about the maintenance of a long-term relationship, about what happens after a gay couple move in and what they do to stay together. I found moments of it deeply moving.
Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent is slightly repressed, as if he’d make his effeminacy public and dangerous when not coiled into himself; shy but self-centred; nervous and on the verge of hysteria – a great performance. Nikolai Kinski, who greatly resembles his father Klaus, plays Karl Lagerfeld, to lesser effect than Niney’s St. Laurent, perhaps because Lagerfeld is currently more familiar to us, but with great presence and charisma. Xavier Lafitte is Jacques Des Bascher, who supports St. Laurent throughout and who turns out, perhaps self-servingly, to be the hero if not the subject of the story. It’s mostly all still about drugs, sex, haute couture and low-down loucheness , which is stereotypical but which I like.
It’s got a few laughs; the set-pieces are very expert; Gwyneth Paltrow is as beautiful as ever and less annoying than usual; Robert Downey Jr’s humour is beginning to grate; I might be reading this into his performance, but he conveys that snappish superiority typical of recovering addicts; ‘if I’m in recovery, you’re not having your shit together is unacceptable; any problems you might have are small beans compared to mine; deal with them’. He is now exuding such a lack of empathy, one feels like waving some choice drugs under his nose just to remind him of human frailty and restore some kindness, empathy, understanding of human weakness and cowardice, all the things we loved him for, all the things that made him a great actor, all the things he now seems to lack. He’s become master of mechanical flippancy with no heart: an irony machine. It’s like the iron suit has killed the soulful actor that used to lurk inside it and neutralized all he was once capable of expressing: I hated the sections in the small town; and I think the exchanges with the kid are sitcom-y and false. It’s a painless two hours; in financial terms, a blockbuster hit. But superhero films can offer so much more. And Robert Downey always used to offer so very much more than he does here: he’s an actor that seems to have lost touch with what it is to be human.
Very funny in spots, now seems more contrived in others. Little Miss Sunshine predates the 2008 financial crash though there is still a mourning for a past ideal of America that the film values, longs for, and represents as now lacking. Steve Carrell is very convincing as the gay brother; the relationship between him and his sister (the marvelous Toni Collette who is wasted but nonetheless very good here) made touching in small details: the holding of hands, the looks. The film is a bit crude; the jokes mostly revolving around pretending to find scandalous and funny what comes out of Alan Arkin’s mouth and what the little girl (Abigail Breslin) does. I found the scenes with the policeman chuckling at the pornography rather forced and somewhat sad. I would say it was an easy indictment of contemporary America except so few films attempt any critique at all that any effort must be appreciated. It was a big box-office hit.
The Beats seem to be in fashion. A few years ago the Barber Institute here in Birmingham displayed the original manuscript of On the Road to great crowds. Last year we got Walter Salles’ dynamic and interesting take on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which deserved to be a greater success than it was. However, it seems that artists are more interested in these quests for personal, sexual and social freedom than audiences have been, as if the current reality is too harsh to nurture such romantic dreams.
Kill Your Darlings is handsome fizzle that is not without interest. It has an arresting structure that begins with what one thinks is a scene of love and ends with what we will learn to see as an act of murder. Narratively, what’s led from one to the other? Thematically, what is the connection between the two? Extra-textually, it’s based on a real incident that connects to, and is meant to enlighten us on, the Beats.
The film has an interesting story to tell — based on on real events and anchored in the Allan Ginsburg character played by Daniel Radcliffe — and an interesting project: to illuminate a structure of feeling in a culture of repression and dramatise its effects. Kill Your Darlings also has a brilliantly textured cinematography by Reed Morano; lovely early 40’s jazzy swing; imaginative editing that brings out values in a scene the direction seems to be unable to; a superb cast (Kyra Sedgwick, Jennifer Jason Leigh) with lead actors (Michael C. Hall, Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan) that are taking considerable risks, that fascinate but that ultimately can’t compensate for the flaws in the story’s telling. DeHaan, for example, always seems troubled, is often mesmeric but is rarely transparent: Jack Huston is terribly miscast as Kerouac. A complex film with a difficult subject and superb actors that is lovely to see and hear but doesn’t quite work. I’m nonetheless glad I saw it.
A bit romantic, a bit surrealist, a bit dystopian, a tiny bit long. But very funny and imaginative and with some superb performances: Farrell does a great, kind of schlubby, almost anonymous everyman who nonetheless can’t get pushed beyond a certain point; even watching him walk is a joy to behold, combining both characterisation and theatre: he knows how to make the ordinary extraordinarily delightful. As to Weisz, she’s almost emotionally transparent, always also treading that line of ordinary/beautiful and thus gracing us all. They’re a joy individually and together. Farrell might not have remained in the A-list for long but he’s quickly developing into the star character actor of his generation. Ben Whishaw, Olivia Coleman, John C. Reilly and Léa Seydoux also appear and also make an impression, reminding one that it takes a lot of stars, from a lot of different countries, to get any kind of low-budget movie made today, particularly one as original as The Lobster.
The plot revolves around newly single people who are taken from their homes, institutionalised and given 50 days to find a new partner; if they fail, they get turned into an animal of their choice. Inmates can extend their stay by hunting down singletons living off the grid and hiding away. Their stay can get extended by one day per singleton shot. The single people also huddle in gangs and these are not without rules and restrictions either: no flirting, no coupling of any kind is allowed and the punishments can be terrible. There’s no place for single people or individual desires in this world and everyone in the city proper, where every singleton desires to return, has to carry documentation proving they’re in a couple or risk expulsion. The film gets very large laughs from its very low-key tone, restrained to the point of seeming recessive but punctuated by periodic bursts that embrace the absurd and that result in surreal and very funny explosions of the unexpected, sometimes including slapstick. There’s a moment where the Colin Farrell character kicks a child that elicited the same kind of disturbed laughter we get when the groundsman shoots the child in L’Age d’or. An extraordinary film.
Brooklyn is funny and charming, with great delicacy of tone, a marvellously restrained performance from Saoirse Ronan and a great comic turn from Julie Walters. I found it quite touching though the last half-hour dragged a bit. I do think it worth seeing on a big screen as much of what matters is in the details and it doesn’t have enough plot or incident to properly propulse it though a small screen. From some angles, Ronan’s eyes look aqua-green and seem to indicate she possesses all the secrets of existence but won’t tell them you just now.