THE LOVE WITCH
Bed-knobs and broomsticks
Imagine if ABC’s TV sitcom Bewitched were given the Russ Meyer makeover: nose-wiggling is replaced by intense, lust-filled stares, and any broomsticks are substituted for lingerie and a few rituals in the nude.
Writer-director Anna Biller did, and The Love Witch is the result. Set in the 1960s - but with cheeky modern elements thrown in to confuse and delight the viewer who was getting comfy with the period setting - the director’s second feature-length sees the impossibly beautiful Samantha Robinson play Elaine, who is relocating to the Californian coast following a failed marriage. She’s a tad bitter, but she’s not letting that get her down. The vamp’s got a voracious appetite and is looking for a man.
Oh, and if the title hadn’t tipped you off, she’s a witch. And her witching antics lead to a few hearts being broken (ahem), not to mention a body count which piques the interest of square-jawed police inspector Griff, the perfectly-cast Gian Keys...
Shot on 35mm, with velvety, vibrant pinks and reds, this retro valentine to the pulpy charms of the 60s and 70s is an effective throwback: it plays knowingly like a porno of a bygone era and works as both giallo horror homage and modern satirical piece about gender roles. It’s a visually impressive psychodrama that doesn’t take itself too seriously but is sophisticated in what it wants to say. The Love Witch is an overtly feminist piece which sees the director play with gender politics (Elaine says that “men are like children, they’re easy to please”, proclaims she takes what she wants from men, while affirming Ken and Barbie-like gender roles) and cheekily tell the tale of a kitschy battle of the sexes.
There’s plenty here to dissect and the thematic avenues Biller explores will delight many a gender studies student and think piece writer, but odds are that many will take it far too seriously. While it’s true that Biller addresses middle-class America and its puritanism, as well as the double standards that apply to both sexes when it comes to flirting and relationships, this film is meant to be playfully satirical.
The film’s main draw - aside from Robinson’s breakthrough performance - is its carefully curated visuals. In fact, it looks so convincing that you’ll forget that this is a new film; The Love Witch looks like a restored print of a 60s B-movie, and credit should be given not only to the actors, who understand the deadpan acting required to sell the illusion, but also the cinematography from M. David Mullen. The lush and coordinated colour palette is terrifically complemented by the era-style lighting.
However, the real champion here is Biller, who not only wrote and directed, but also produced, edited, designed and hand-made the costumes. It’s thanks to her understanding of the genre tropes linked to 60s-era Technicolor productions and 70s Italian horror films that the film works as well as it does. Each frame is populated with details - from the phallic steaks to the blancmange with red coulis - the director’s painstaking attention to these details not only pays off but also complements the themes. For instance, the intentionally stilted dialogue serves not only as a tipped hat to the genre but is used here to emphasise the vapid nature of flirty banter that men assume is wooing gold.
Silly, sultry and ultimately exhausting, Biller’s experiment works but could have been far stronger if it were leaner. She can’t quite sustain focused interest over the course of its baggy two-hour runtime and doesn’t always strike the right balance between melodrama and cheeky satire. You get the impression the director was too fond of what she was accomplishing, and couldn’t keep it tight enough to fully enchant. Yet again, one of the dangers of editing your own film...
Still, as drawn out as it is (specifically during a self-indulgent Renaissance fair portion), The Love Witch is destined for (oc)cult status. It’s not hard to imagine it, in years to come, amassing a Rocky Horror-esque following, with dress up midnight screenings and lines like “That’s what I was thinking too, Lyle!” being shouted back at the screen. What more could a playful-but-committed homage and sexy Bewitched update wish for?
- D - 23/03/17
KONG: SKULL ISLAND
Set in the early 70s, Kong: Skull Island sees a group fresh Vietnam vets, a handful of science geeks, a mercenary and an anti-war photographer fly to an unchartered island surrounded by perpetual storm clouds. The humans predictably piss off the hirsute native by dropping seismic charges all over his home in the name of science, and they are predictably greeted with a less-than-friendly reception committee. However, as the surviving nature-botherers try to regroup, they quickly realise that the oversized ape is actually the least of their concerns...
For the second film in the shared monsters universe kicked off in 2014 by Gareth Edwards’ overrated Godzilla, Legendary Entertainment studios have once again offered the gig to an indie director without massive blockbuster credentials. Jordan Vogt-Roberts (who brought us the excellent Sundance hit The Kings of Summer) follows in Edwards’ footsteps and the result is a survival flick burdened with a script that does the film, nor its A-list cast, no favours. Expect no metaphorical subtext like in the good old days; here, Samuel L. Jackson pursues a hilarious personal vendetta (read: a repeated staring contest) against Kong himself, while a bunch of archetypes fight for survival. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are short-changed and left with looking gorgeous in the jungle (which they both pull off beautifully), while John Goodman and Toby Kebell do their best with what little they have to play with. Only a show-stealing John C. Reilly manages to shine, playing a WWII pilot who accidentally crash-landed on the island and who has been stranded there ever since the 40s, perfecting his sword-swinging and beard-growing.
It’s also an adventure flick that can’t quite strike the right balance between its self-conscious pulpy moments and its horror-tinged beats, which include some impressively gruesome deaths, one of which feels like a knowing nod in the direction of Ruggero Deodato‘s Cannibal Holocaust.
Yet, for all its flaws, it’s hard not to sit back and simply enjoy the big dumb fun.
Kong: Skull Island ends up as a goofy mishmash of Apocalypse Now and a monster movie. Granted, the characterisation runs thin, but the director admirably wastes no time in making the action come thick and fast. We see the titular menace early on and you can’t fault the impressive CGI for keeping you entertained from start to finish. It is admirably daft, and if the thought of helicopter pilots falling directly from their aircrafts into the jaws of Kong (who at one point pulls an unexpected OldBoy) doesn't excite, then this isn’t the survival monster B-movie for you... and you might need to lighten up a bit.
Far less romantic than Peter Jackson’s King Kong and significantly more flamboyant than 2014’s Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is consistently daft popcorn entertainment that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible... preferably once you’ve left your brain at the door.
- D - 09/03/17
The Last Stand
Billed as the last time Hugh Jackman was donning the mutton chops, there was a lot riding on Logan. Returning director James Mangold, who directed Ol’ Canucklehead‘s second solo outing in 2013, promised a violent, Western-infused romp... and he’s delivered the blood-soaked goods.
Set in 2029, this third solo outing sees an aging and frequently inebriated Logan taking care of the ailing Professor X (Stewart, injecting some potent gravitas to the proceedings) as well as ‘babysitting’ a pint-sized mutant, Laura (impressive newcomer Dafne Keen). The latter is singlehandedly responsible for some Sam Peckinpah-levels of bloodshed and expect to see countless think-tank articles about child violence, considering she makes Kick-Ass’ Hit Girl look like Hermione Granger by comparison. Usually a loner, our cranky hero will have to put up with this newfound family dynamic and keep them safe from harm, i.e. the evil clutches of the tragically underused Richard E. Grant, who barely gets any screen time to flex his character’s Josef Mengele-shaped muscles.
Loosely based on Mark Millar’s comic book 'Old Man Logan', the first line of (expletive) dialogue prepares you for the journey ahead: a foul-mouthed Western with resonances, both visual and thematic, to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the Hughes brothers’ The Book Of Eli, and even George Stevens’ directly referenced Shane. It’s a confident superhero film that more than earns its R-rating and which refreshingly doesn’t feel like anything we’ve seen before in the X-Men franchise: an oddly moving requiem that sees Fox Studios distance themselves from the comic book formula we’ve been used to and take a proper risk after the life-threateningly bland X-Men: Apocalypse.
There’s also an admirable desire in Mangold’s dusty dystopian world to strive for a bit more realism. Cars are stopped by fences, characters do die for good and you do feel like the blows take their toll. In this sense, you do get the impression they have saved the best for last.
Some have rather brazenly called Logan Oscar-worthy... Let’s not start polishing each other’s adamantium claws just yet... For all its strengths, the movie does drag in the second act and you get the impression that it’s trying a bit too hard to equal Deadpool's antics with the self-referential beats and f-bombs (especially from Professor X, who shouldn’t be dirtying his mouth with such foul language). Add to that an undoubtedly undercooked villainous threat (as per) and a daft mid-section twist leads to a confrontation even Ray Charles could have seen coming, and you do have a film that can’t quite sustain its momentum.
That being said, there’s more than enough here to keep you entertained and Logan ends up as a suitably gnarly and uncompromising adventure that never descends to X-Men Origins: Wolverine levels of mediocrity. It audaciously gives you what it promised with the trailers and is to be applauded for not only trying something different but also in succeeding in doing justice to the main character.
And as for that final shot - which shall remain unspoilt here - it is quite simply perfect.
Considering this is Hugh Jackman’s last stand (geddit?) after 17 years of playing the character, he’s going off with a well-deserved bold and bloody bang.
- D - 01/03/17
Mama... Just killed a film...
Motherhood is a recurrent staple of the horror genre and many recent films have explored its various facets and gotten it right: The Babadook, Under The Shadow, and the lesser known Shelley and Ich seh Ich seh spring to mind...
Just don’t expect Shut In to become the next addition to this stellar list, unless you rename it Nicht sehen Nicht sehen.
(I’ll wait until you Google translate.)
Make no mistake: Farren Blackburn’s film about a widowed child psychologist who cares for her paralysed stepson and who believes the mysterious incidents in her house are linked with the disappearance of one of her patients is depressingly uninspired. Naomi Watts’ willingness to be associated with this material is utterly baffling and the execution is borderline insulting, as both Blackburn and screenwriter Christina Hodson assume viewers have never seen a single horror thriller before. With this certainty in mind, they cram the story with lazy dream fake-outs, plot beats that have no payoff and a “twist” so nonsensical, it’ll not only provoke guffaws but force you to re-evaluate your feelings for M. Night Shamalamadingdong (if you haven’t done so already with the very enjoyable Split).
What you’re left with is a film so imbecilic, you actually begin to actively root for the antagonist. Seriously, I want to know, dear reader, how long you’ll be able to bite your before you scream “THEY’RE IN THE SODDING CLOSET!” during the screening, thereby assuring that the knife-wielding assailant puts the tormented mother and exasperated audience members out of their respective miseries.
Avoid at all costs.
- D - 24/02/17
Rhapsody In Blue
Since Barry Jenkins’ second feature film Moonlight premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last November, it has been met with universal acclaim, a Golden Globe for Best Drama Picture and 8 Oscar nominations, including two for Best Picture and Best Director.
And rightly so. Rarely has a film lived up so satisfyingly to the hype around it.
This immaculately cast, beautifully observed and quietly daring coming-of-age story is without a doubt the strongest film to be nominated in the awards season, and good luck trying to top it when it comes to end of year retrospectives.
Adapted from Tarell McCraney’s autobiographical play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’, Moonlight follows a gay black man, Chiron, through three formative stages of his life in an impoverished Miami. We witness distinct chapters that are beautifully linked together via the central character, whose identity is fractured in three names. The vulnerable and silent child ‘Little’ (Alex Hibbert) is taken under the wing of the neighbourhood drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who becomes a surrogate parent, as the addict mother (Naomie Harris) neglects her son; the introverted teen ‘Chiron’ (Ashton Sanders) wrestles with what it means to be gay and has to hide his sexuality for self-protection; and the hyper-masculine twentysomething ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes) seems be both withdrawn and playing a role (a performance aspect only highlighted by the use of a gold mouth grill) as he tracks down and meets his lifelong crush.
The trio of actors are terrific, and in shrewdly casting three different players with such different looks and stances, the director reinforces one of the most vital themes of Moonlight: the refusal to be binary. A person cannot be reduced to labels, and we see facets to every person, as beautifully reinforced by the film’s poster. Mahershala Ali’s Juan is also a superb embodiment of this defiance of stereotypes: unlike many films, the drug dealer isn’t limited to that one descriptive. He is also a devoted partner and a kind-hearted role model to the young Chiron, guiding him regardless of his own demons, which include a bitter irony that shall not be spoilt here. It’s not a showy role, and Ali makes an indelible mark with just a handful of scenes, including a memorable baptism sequence where Juan gives Little an impromptu swimming lesson.
Special mention must also go to Janelle Monáe in her assured debut performance, as well as Naomie Harris, who delivers a devastating performance as Chiron’s mother. Both carefully tuned turns work together, as the opposing maternal figures forge Chiron’s personality in distinct ways, and heighten the story’s emotional layers.
Make no mistake: Barry Jenkins’ sophomore effort is a thing of aching wonder, one which values the importance of silence and the slightest gesture, beautifully captured by Jenkins’ subdued direction. It is also a staggering jump in quality from his first film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, as this second feature is impressively assured; its stark execution brings about a multifaceted look at coming to terms with one’s own identity, as well as an empathetic exploration of black masculinity and how sexuality is defined. Its structure and visual style are subtly unconventional, especially for a social realist film, and James Laxton’s moody cinematography and Nicholas Britell’s haunting score stand out. Laxton uses warm blue hues and striking purple shades, which surprise just as much as Britell’s eerie, discordant-sounding violin motifs, which are paired with soulful and modern songs from Aretha Franklin and Kendrick Lamar. The score is of vital importance here, as it reinforces the impression that what you’re watching is less a traditional film but a symphony in three movements, and the result is mesmeric.
What is also fascinating is that the film straddles two eras: Obama’s and Trump’s America, and while the outcome of recent elections could not have been predicted when the film was being made, the release of Moonlight is timely. Whether you like it or not, this is a film whose fortuitous timing speaks volumes: it opposes binary thinking by compassionately offering a prism view, subverts stereotypes where Trump’s lot strengthens them and widens divisions, and above all affirms that America is not a homogenous place where there is only one accepted version of living an American life.
Many might think this gushing line of thought is taking things too far, or will cynically dismiss the film as an Oscar voter’s wet dream, ticking off the required boxes and simply a reaction to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. However, denying Moonlight’s impact not only as a cinematic experience but also as a prescient work would be foolish. As much as it can be said to counter Trump’s worldview, or expand the notions of black and queer cinema, it above all embraces universal emotions of yearning, intimacy and sadness, which all feel authentic and devastating under Jenkins’ masterful command.
Even if you come out of Moonlight feeling bemused or underwhelmed, let it percolate: its impact can be both instant and delayed, and the more you allow it to get under your skin, the more that lingering effect will move you. Do not miss out.
- D - 22/02/17
You And Me Vs The World
In telling the real-life story of the married couple at the centre of the 1967 US civil rights case ‘Loving versus Virginia’, writer - director Jeff Nichols has mercifully circumvented expectations by choosing to avoid the tired courtroom-based drama tropes. Indeed, for those looking for a sprawling judicial saga, look elsewhere; Nichols is interested in compassionately telling a human story, and elects to focus on the loving plaintiffs, their everyday struggles with casual racism and the small steps that preceded the bigger ruling by the Supreme Court that laws banning interracial marriage should be abolished.
As was the case with Nichols’ 2016 sci-fi drama Midnight Special, there is a careful minimalism and a restraint shown in the scriptwriting, one which works wonders. It added mystery to his Close Encounters Of The Third Kind-echoing film, and the understated storytelling with this release is admirable. A lesser filmmaker would have matched a culturally relevant story like this one with an on-the-nose approach and grand (read: pretentious) cinematic gestures that only serve to pander to Academy voters. Instead, we have an authentic portrayal of two blue collar individuals, a devoted couple who stood up to the system in order to simply be called man and wife.
It goes without saying that a film such as this one lives and dies by its performances. And what performances they are. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are superbly cast as Richard and Mildred Loving. Negga in particular shines and the Ethiopian-Irish actress ensures that this quietly stirring story of everyday courage, while structurally straightforward, always feels emotionally engaging. She has rightfully been nominated for several major awards, and while golden orbs and baldies have and will elude her, Loving is a career-making movie, following her excellent turns in Richie Adams’ Of Mind And Music, Scott Graham‘s underrated Iona.
The less said about her involvement in Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, the better.
Considering its subject matter, Loving is a refreshingly anti-prestige film that is low on cheap melodrama and sadly, still feels very relevant. It’s a moving, awards-bothering gem that is well worth seeking out.
- D - 03/02/17
The Exorcism of Bella Swan
One of the many things that Olivier Assayas managed to do in 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria - quite aside from releasing a terrific picture - was to confirm once and for all that Kristen Stewart’s Bella Swan and Snow White days are well and truly over. Since then, she’s proved there was more to her than an anaemic-looking, buck tooth-acting tween, and displayed the heft of her dramatic chops repeatedly, most notably in Elizabeth Travis’ stunning Certain Women and Woody Allen’s Café Society. Still, it’s with the French auteur that she’s done her best work, and Personal Shopper provides all the evidence any lingering sceptics need.
Stewart plays Maureen, a young American woman whose life oscillates between the spiritual and the materialistic. Indeed, when she’s not working as a Parisian-based - you guessed it - personal shopper for tantrum-susceptible socialite Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), she is a medium, trying to make contact with her late twin brother’s spirit. They shared a potentially fatal heart condition and the siblings made a pact: whoever shuffles off the mortal coil first reaches out from the spiritual world to the one still enjoying a healthy oxygen habit. With his passing, she no longer has stability and yearns to move on by finally fulfilling their promise to one another. Then come the mysterious and increasingly threatening text messages... Could it be her dearly departed twin making first contact from the great beyond or someone playing mind games?
While the synopsis above makes it sound like a chill-a-minute Hitchcockian thriller in the making, the reality is more complex. Assayas’ slow-burning supernatural psychodrama is not an easy film to pin down: it embraces ghost story and crime film tropes, but does so with an arthouse sensibility that will destabilize most viewers. It’s a film that creates a creepily compelling atmosphere and simultaneously meditates on vapid earthly concerns, the shifting nature of one’s identity, modern technology and its isolating effects (to her credit, Stewart’s co-star with the most screen time is her iPhone), and the grief that one tells oneself can be alleviated by the existence of an afterlife. No easy feat, and the setting contributes volumes. The director not only knows how to shoot Paris but allows the city to become the ideal location for a chilling story: whether it’s the fashion scene, the general Parisian attitude or even the small flats at the centre of town, Assayas does for la Ville Lumière what Nicolas Roeg did for Venice in Don’t Look Now.
Undoubtedly, Personal Shopper isn’t for everyone, and despite Stewart’s best efforts, this tonally audacious thriller will frustrate. Assayas will be dismissed for undercutting some of his efforts with arthouse indulgences and hollow digressions (see: the director’s Victor Hugo bit, featuring the bequiffed French musician and part-time ‘actor’ Benjamin Biolay), but even when his film falters, it only manages to be heavy-handed, clumsy at worst. This spooky genre-mongrel thrives on its thematic content, its unsettling atmosphere and above all, its refusal to dish out pre-baked answers; it’s hard not to applaud the risks he and Stewart are taking. Let’s hope that their collaborative efforts don’t end here.
- D - 29/01/17
Chilean director Pablo Larrain has biopics on the brain. First, there’s Neruda, his adventurously-titled Pablo Neruda biopic, which is an unconventional effort that sees a detective investigating the poet due to his accusing the Chilean government of abandoning socialism. Then there’s his English-language debut, the Oscar-nominated Jackie. And, true to recent form, a traditional biopic this is not.
Larrain’s portrait of Jacqueline Lee “Jackie” Kennedy sees the first lady’s life plunged into chaos following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The main frame of the narrative takes place about a week after her husband’s death, during which Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has a conversation with Life journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). This framework allows the director to play with the timeline, jumping back to the three days between the shooting and the state funeral: we witness the immediate shock following the events of Dallas, her attempts to preserve her late-husband’s legacy by telling her version of events and her personal interactions following the death of JFK. For a while, you even begin to think that the assassination itself won’t be seen... and when it finally is put to screen, the intricacies linked to the event have already been dealt with; this leaves the audience with the graphic killing, which packs a punch. Thankfully, it’s rendered in one single shot, proving that Larrain isn’t interested in easy melodrama or gratuitous shock-value. He wants a human story, one which is part atmospheric psychodrama, part period character study. Armed with Noah Oppenheim’s shrewdly constructed screenplay, the director gives insight on the three-way conflict between the unstoppable political machine, the self-conscious celebrity myths one creates in public life, and the personal emotions everyone is a slave to.
Of course, at the centre of it all is Natalie Portman, who delivers a career high performance. Even if Isabelle Huppert deserves the golden baldie come February for her turn in the wonderfully subversive Elle, Jackie could ensure that Portman nabs her second Oscar win, following her performance as the doomed ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.
Throughout, the camera rarely leaves Portman’s face, ensuring that we not only get the portrait of a grieving woman, but are offered a fully rounded human being: complex, flawed and far from the icon we have come to expect. The actress is required to control the grief, surrender to it and suddenly muster the icy resolve required of a woman who has the eyes of the world on her, and a widow who has her husband’s legacy in her hands. She captures the speech patterns, as well as the enigmatic quality that made Jacqueline Kennedy such an unknowable figure: camera-ready one moment, uncomfortably vulnerable the next, and even a “silly little debutante” at times, especially when she appears in the recreated archive footage as she tours the White House (dated-looking footage that harks back to what Larrain accomplished with the stellar No, in which he also used the grainy 4:3 format). Her switches from emotional to commanding, specifically when she tells White “I hope you don’t for one second think I’ll allow you to publish that”, are something to behold. The director and his leading lady have assured us that even if someone else plays the character again, she’ll not only be the (high) bar to clear, but undoubtedly considered the ultimate portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy.
Special mentions must also go to the superbly-chosen supporting cast, as well as the unsettling atmosphere created in no small part by Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography and Under The Skin composer Mica Levi’s score. These elements make Jackie an unnervingly intimate watch, especially the woozy strings that add layers to already awkwardly surreal circumstances, such as the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One while Jackie Kennedy is still there, wearing her infamous blood-stained pink number.
While a biopic about America’s best known first lady could have been a recipe for disaster, Larrain and his filmmaking team ensure that this investigation is not weighed down by unnecessary reverence to the subject. Instead, Jackie is a film about grief, one which feels like a fever dream that allows us to be unmoored by the time skipping and ponder about the creation of narratives in history. Where does fact end and mythmaking begin? Where is the line between truth and constructed truth? Considering the post-truth times of the Trump presidency, Jackie could not be more timely, chilling and eye-opening...
- D - 24/01/17
LA LA LAND
Su Su Superb
*** Granted, this film was included in my TOP 20 FILMS OF 2016, but since it’s being widely distributed in Europe at the moment (and because this genuinely stunning piece of work is a major contender at the upcoming Oscars in February, as evidenced by its 7 Golden Globe award wins last night), here’s an extended review of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land... ***
After Spike Lee used the musical form to create a rage-filled protest last year with Chi-Raq, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the stellar Whiplash uses the same genre to create a love letter to old-fashioned cinema which will make your heart swell. It revolves around Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as two people (as opposed to pot plants) who embark on a romance in LA; one is an aspiring actress, the other wants to be a career jazz pianist.
On its most basic level, La La Land is a love story between two people who live under the shadow of the Hollywood sign, with the leads creating a sizzling modern-day Fred and Ginger chemistry. On a deeper level, it’s about two creative souls who pursue different dreams, a purist who shuns the spotlight and another who seeks it. The director asks a similar question to one that he touched upon in Whiplash: is romantic happiness compatible with the creative process?
The result is enchanting, what you could happily call “movie magic”. La La Land treads a fine line between nostalgic throwback (there are clear nods to Singin’ In The Rain, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and, to a certain extent, Everyone Says I Love You) and character-driven love story, but embraces both to create something decidedly modern, unashamedly feel-good and a genuine moment of cinematic escapism. Chazelle celebrates the genre, as well as making something that is his own, and the spell he casts is an impressive one: he makes La La Land both euphoric yet deeply melancholic, a feeling only heightened by longer sequences in which unbroken camera movements give the action a dreamlike, at times surreal quality.
Of course, there will be cynics, so let’s address a few things. Yes, the opening sequence is a tad misleading and resembles a GAP advert on crack. Sure, the film can be said to lose its way a bit at the halfway mark, with the screenplay letting the energy levels sag a notch. Granted, Hollywood loves stories about Hollywood and some moments can seem self-congratulatory and pandering to the Oscar voters, specifically a song about “the fools who dream”. But the niggles end there: this is an unapologetic romance that goes beyond mere homage and Academy-wooing, offering in passing two career-best turns from its central duo. Stone is enchanting as the sensitive yet headstrong Mia, and Gosling endows Sebastian with an air of effortless charm, without veering towards arrogance or smugness. In fact, while Stone is a clear front-runner for major awards in the acting category, it’s Gosling who risks being overlooked for his nuanced turn as a passionate artist who manages to convey both weariness, humour and vulnerability. Never has he been so watchable and so perfectly cast.
For all its many merits (the acting, the stylish design, the visually-dazzling music sequences...), the film’s crowning achievement is its last 15 minutes, a thoughtful and touching final act that is without a doubt one of the best closing sequences in recent memory. It erases all potential reservations and tugs at the heartstrings to reveal something profound, something that stays in the mind once the escapism has died down. It is a tricky moment to get right and Chazelle handles it with brio, signing off with a truly memorable masterstroke that sets you off on a heartfelt high.
And just you try convincing anyone the soundtrack isn’t deserving of the highest plaudits, once you’ve finished humming the tune ‘City Of Stars’, of course...
All in all, a triumph.
- D - 09/01/17
I can hear the bells…
Following his superb English-language debut Stoker, The Handmaiden sees South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook return to his roots and deliver a layered thriller that feels like a directorial ‘best of’, but also stands as one of his most audacious offerings to date.
Part gothic period drama, part erotic revenge thriller, this bold and sensual adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2002 crime novel 'Fingersmith' sees the setting of the story transplanted from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. A young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) is hired by a narcissistic Count (Ha Jung-woo) to pose as a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee)’s new handmaiden in order to help him defraud her.
To say any more about the perverse scheming would be a great disservice to the often surprising narrative and to audience enjoyment, as the distinct three-act structure plays with shifting perspectives and intricately adds duplicitous depths to a seemingly straightforward drama. The director once more embraces his beloved themes of revenge and fetishism, adds some playful gallows humour and slapstick, as well as some potent reflections on the oppressive male influence, which can hinder the embracing of one’s identity. Indeed, Park Chan-wook allows his film to reveal its intricacies progressively: it is a brazen psychosexual lesbian thriller, but also one about the subjugation of women and how true love comes at a price, namely liberation from men who attempt to control sexuality. As if that wasn’t enough, Chung Chung-hoon’s evocative cinematography adds texture that complements the often Hitchcockian direction and the actors’ craft, especially Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee, who are both stunning in complex roles.
Again, the less said the better: go in not knowing how it unfolds and enjoy this devilishly twisted, sprawling experience. It may not receive the same plaudits as Sympathy For Mr Vengeance or Oldboy, but it deservedly stands alongside these titles in Park Chan-wook’s stunning filmography.
A must-see for the beginning of 2017.
- D - 08/01/17
A MONSTER CALLS
There will be sniffles
A Monster Calls follows young Conor O’Malley (relative newcomer Lewis MacDougall) who lives with his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones). Faced with her imminent passing, and struggling with school bullies and the prospect of living with his colder-than-a-Antarctic-well grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, sporting a wobbly British accent that sadly often detracts from her otherwise strong performance), Conor isolates himself in his own world and drawings.
One night, the titular Monster (a cross between a Lord of the Rings Ent and a more eloquent Groot, voiced by the grumbly Liam Neeson) appears to our 12-year old protagonist. The giant and often threatening yew tree tells him that he has a very particular set of skills... no, sorry... that he’ll return with three allegorical stories, claiming that the fourth and final one will come from Conor himself, who will reveal to the Monster “his truth”.
Adapted from the acclaimed novel by Patrick Ness, who is also on screenwriting duties, J.A. Bayona’s third feature sees the Spanish director return to his horror roots of his terrific debut El Orfanato (The Orphanage), and channel them to deliver a fantastical tearjerker that is grounded in reality. Thematically, his cinematic fable owes a lot to Pan’s Labyrinth and, while not as essential, A Monster Calls deals with grief, artistic imagination and how coping mechanisms rooted in belief in an imaginary world can aid with real-life tragedy. Like Guillermo del Toro’s transfixing (and superior) poetical masterpiece, A Monster Calls blurs the line between the everyday and the magical, and the visuals do not disappoint. The tree itself is a terrific CG creation, while his parables usher in animated sequences which are replete with ink splashes and animated watercolours that make these storybook scenes of knights and witches vividly enchanting.
Granted, some aspects of the film will feel a tad too didactic for more seasoned viewers and there are moments that feel as if the film is in a battle of one-upmanship with itself, and your pummelled heartstrings are the target. An element not helped by Fernando Velazquez‘s nakedly soaring score... But it works. Those who don’t click with the film will doubtless feel emotionally manipulated; those who do - like yours truly - will discover a moving tale that isn’t a tour de force by any means, but one whose screenplay delivers some acute observations about the unspoken inner turmoil that seeps from trauma. Those in the latter category will also marvel at how Ness and Bayona have managed to make grief the film’s thematic spine without limiting it to onscreen shouting; the film poignantly touches upon simmering rage and hard real-life confessions with raw honesty, whilst keeping the tone immersed in magical realism (and mercifully peppered with hopefulness).
A lot of the film’s strengths are down to Lewis MacDougall, who is quite simply brilliant. The film hangs on his shoulders and his expressive performance is truly spot-on, even stealing scenes from his more experienced co-stars. Expect to see a lot more of the young actor in years to come.
So, if you’re in the mood for a potent and visually imaginative weepie with heart to spare, as well as one of the strongest adaptations of a children’s novel in a wee while, don’t miss A Monster Calls. If it isn’t the most tear-duct punishing film of 2017, this year is going to be... ahem... over-elm-ing.
DISCLAIMER: Seriously though, for the love of Bambi (and for the comfort of your fellow movie goers), bring tissues... As many tissues as you can find... Just bring all the tissues.
- D - 06/01/17