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Oslo, 31. august (2011)
A quiet masterpiece
There's a thing that independent cinema can do so right and that's show the beauty and the strife of ordinary life. No fancy camera tricks, no special effects, just the agony and the ecstasy of a person filling the frame.
Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st hits this out of the park. The film is about a recovering drug addict named Anders who is ten months into rehab and struggling with slowly reintegrating into life. On August 30th he gets a day pass away from his treatment centre to go out for a job interview and on the way meets people from his past who show us glimpses of who he once was and who he is now.
There aren't any major showy lines in the movie and though there are moments of beauty (Trier is very loving in his depiction of Oslo) this character study is quiet, slow- moving and incredibly touching.
A compassionate look at addiction and depression and a must see.
Next Floor (2008)
Disturbing, opulent, wonderful
A group of well-dressed wealthy people consume and consume in this absurd and brilliant short by director Denis Villeneuve. Their gluttony knows no end and despite the fact that the sheer weight of their banquet is enough to break through the floor and land them on the next lowest floor they cannot stop consuming, consuming, consuming.
A brilliant parable on greed and also on our natural resources (this really feels like a poignant statement on climate change, even though we know it will literally kill us it seems like humans can't get it together to stop hurting the planet), this is an incredibly well made short that shows what a genius Villeneuve is and hints at the masterworks in his future.
Strictly Ballroom (1992)
I'm not a dancer myself but I'm a sucker for dance movie and Strictly Ballroom really delivers. I may have given it a perfect rating but it's not technically perfect (there are some low- budget/poor editing/non-sensical story gaps) but if you let go and enjoy the ride these things will just fade away.
Set in a small town in Australia the film is about Scott Hastings, the son of the owners of a small dance studio that specializes in ballroom dancing. As the audience is repeatedly reminded, he's been training to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix since he was six years old and even though he's an open amateur, winning the title would assure his financial success as an instructor and a dancer. Unfortunately for his parents and their studio Scott may have the talent, but his heart is elsewhere. Bored with the same pre-approved dance steps he's been perfecting for years he starts experimenting his own non-federation approved steps which results in him losing competitions and his long-term dance partner. But more than willing to step into the void and encourage Scott to follow his heart is newbie dancer Fran, who despite her poor looks and minimal training convinces Scott to giver her a go as a partner.
The tone of this film is what I've come to think of as Australian- weird which is cartoonish, wild and lots of fun. It has a much smaller budget than Lurmann's later films, but it contains the same sense of wonder, fun and musicality just on a smaller scale. All of the actors are fantastic but particularly wonderful is Paul Mercurio as Scott who really doesn't get enough credit for his work on the film. He nails every dance sequence which gets coasted over since he's a "dancer" but Mercurio was actually a ballerina who only had a few weeks to train in ballroom and sell the fact that he's an expert. To my untrained eye at least he completely nails it. Tara Morice really nails her role as the ugly duckling who becomes a swan and I really appreciated that Lurmann allows her to be not just plain but downright ugly in her earlier scenes before she gets the makeover that sells her as a romantic lead.
Full of humour and heart this is a film I return to again and again.
A stunning slow burn
I'll start right off by saying this movie won't be for everyone. It's a very slow movie, the kind where you're watching people NOT say things for hours and where there's minimal plot. But it's also the type of movie where if you connect with the characters you REALLY connect with them and for me it was a pleasure to spend time with these characters.
The main character of Hogg's Unrelated is Anna a woman who is in the early stages of middle age. Anna and her husband have been invited by her oldest friend Verena to join Verena's family and extended family (made up of three adults and four teenagers) in a villa in the Italian countryside where they spend their summers. Only Anna shows up without her partner and soon enough, rather than spend time with the "olds" Anna is adopted into the friend group of the "youngs", the teens that are young enough to be her children. Drinking and getting high irresponsibly she forms a light flirtation with Oakley, the ring leader of the pack who, despite his youth, has an air of authority and control which stands out in contrast to the somewhat shy and nervous Anna.
For those willing to give Unrelated a chance I will say that is one of the finest meditations on adulthood, particularly adult womanhood, I've ever seen. If the first half of the film is Anna drifting about with the youngs, innocently capturing a youth she never quite had, the second half is her painful growing up.
Let me get this out of the way: I LOVED Obvious Child, the first film by director Gillian Robespierre that also starred Jenny Slate. Despite the lack of a similar hook for Landline (most of the discussion over what it was about just seemed to be "it takes place in the 90s) I was still very excited to see it. Unfortunately it failed to live up to my expectations and to the early promise that the Robespierre/Slate collaboration showed.
Landline is indeed set in the mid 90s but it is focused on the romantic relationships of the Jacobs which is comprised of a father who is a copy-writer and failed playwright, a mother whose job I never quite caught, an academic daughter, and a youngest daughter still in school. The eldest daughter Dana (Jenny Slate, both annoying and adorable) is engaged and in a long term relationship. After she runs into an ex-boyfriend she ends up sleeping with him and the two start an affair. At nearly the same time younger sister Ali discovers erotic poems her father has written to his mistress. Bound together by this hideous secret the two of them begin to try to discover their father's mistress while trying to protect their mother from the awful revelation.
There is a lot to enjoy about Landline including all the 90s references which aren't over the top but are nicely woven in. At the same time, the script is a bit of a mess and though the film is trying to meditate on long-term relationships and sexual fidelity the last third is so rushed (a very important relationship is rebuilt over a ridiculously short one minute montage) that it undercuts any poignancy the film might have.
Slate once again proves herself best in show. Robespierre allows her to be over the top and ridiculous (this is a character who openly snorts when she laughs) and she really runs with it. I'll still look forward to any collaborations director and muse have in the future, but with more tempered expectations.
Louder Than Bombs (2015)
A portrait of grief
Louder than Bombs is a frustrating movie because it's so beautifully edited and directed but everything about it just falls flat.
The film is about the Reeds, a family made up of a father and his two sons, one an adult starting his own family, the other a teen, who are all coping with the loss of the mother of the family Isabelle, a war photographer who died 4 years earlier. The events in the film are triggered because a retrospective of Isabelle's work is being put on and a friend and journalist writing an article regarding her life warns Isabelle's widow that he plans to be "honest" about the way she died implying that the car crash she died in might not have been accidental after all. The rest of the film follows these three men as they stumble around their lives, reminiscing about the Isabelle they knew and didn't know and struggling to move forward.
It's a very watchable film, but it's also somehow not enough. The struggles of the film feel self-indulgent and it's one of those films where women exist only to be lusted over or listen sympathetically to the men as they talk about their problems and throw tantrums. Even legendary actress Isabelle Huppert, as the ghost that haunts the family, doesn't get much to chew on. The worst part is that it's a movie that isn't easy to write off entirely. The youngest son is a bit of a writer and the way his text is layered over with images leads to some beautiful editing and some true movie magic. It's just a shame that these great moments don't quite live up to what they could have been if they had had strong emotion to back them up.
It's all in the title
A whimsical very enjoyable short commissioned for the cinematheque in Paris the film intercuts images of the stairs at the cinematheque with clips of actors descending or ascending stairs taken from famous films.
A sweet short that is very easy to watch and enjoy done in a fun collage style that is somehow completely unique and also completely Varda.
Teach Us All (2017)
A heartbreaking look at an American as segregated as ever
Teach Us All is timed with the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock nine desegregating a school in Little Rock. For those not up on their history the film begins with this mini history lesson, explaining why this act of desegregation was so essential.
The film covers a pretty depressing subject, the fact that American schools have become as segregated as they were before the mass desegregation efforts of the civil rights movements in the 60s. In a series of talking heads the film interview activists, students and teachers. It's well constructed and easy to watch and covers a lot of ground.
The documentary is made pretty conventionally, a series of talking heads. Still, it's worth watching as an introduction to the education crisis.
The Last Dalai Lama? (2016)
Flimsy doc that fails to do justice to a great man
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the subject of this documentary which is so messy and poorly put together that it feels almost like a waste of time to watch it.
First off this isn't really a great primer on His Holiness and is actually a loose sequel of sorts to a documentary filmmaker Mickey Lemle made 25 years earlier. Secondly the film lacks any kind of structure, it peters out around the 60 minute mark, comes back for a ten minute sequence on George W. Bush, fades out again and then comes back for some more talking heads and then finally mercifully ends.
It's very disappointing work from Lemle who has great access both to his Holiness and to several members of his inner circle and family.
The best parts by far are the parts where His Holiness talks a bit about his view of the world and also the politics of his life in exile are talked about a bit (only a very little, the movie assumes familiarity with his situation).
It's really too bad but the film comes across as a little stale and cold, completely unlike the man at the centre of the story.
Mañana a esta hora (2016)
Slow moving drama with little payoff
I was reminded while watching this movie of 35 Shots of Rum, the quiet meditative film by french filmmaker Claire Denis, about a father and daughter who have struck a loving perfect balance as they live together.
Unfortunately This Time Tomorrow suffers from the comparison. Filmmaker Lina Rodriguez has made one of those minimal dialogue- static shot films which are incredibly poignant and touching when they work and a great slog to get through when they don't. And unfortunately this one doesn't work. The film is a diptych that focuses on a Colombian family of three (mother-father-teenage daughter). The first half focuses on their lives as a family and the ways in which they function and the ways in which they don't. The second focuses on what happens when a member of this family is removed and the other two must adjust to life without that person. Unfortunately the first half of the film doesn't do a great job of establishing who these people are or making us fall in love with them in a discernible way. Filmmakers like Denis or Ozu or Akerman make it seem like small-scale films about domestic life are easy to make, Rodriguez shows us how hard it is to make one that's successful.
It's too bad because Rodriguez IS a good director, you can see it in her total command of the tone of the film, but the actual scenes don't offer much in terms of building up the emotional value of the film (possibly because she allowed them to improv their dialogue based on scenes she provided). The result is naturalistic sure, but also disappointing and the 80 minutes I spent with the film felt a lot longer.
Bigelow gets it wrong
I'm a huge fan of director Kathryn Bigelow and when I heard that she was making this film and when rumours leaked out that it was going to primarily be focused on the Algiers motel murders I was more excited than ever. It seemed like the perfect project for Bigelow to tackle.
Unfortunately the result is a messy, gloopy, half-committed mess and Bigelow never quite succeeds at bringing to life a half-baked script.
Now to start off the film is not solely focused on the Algiers Motel incident. It's a film in three parts, the first dealing with the start of the riots in Detroit, the second zeroing in on the terror at the Algiers, and the third showing the trial that happened as a result of the Algiers murders.
Right away Bigelow gets it wrong. The rioting that took place is poorly explained and she and writer Mark Boal actually mostly shows the start of the riots from the perspective of the police, bizarrely making it seem like rioters were just interested in looting despite the fact that there were multiple reasons why they were angry and lashing out. As a result the first third of the movie is just like a noxious clash of violence and terror as Bigelow introduces and obliterates so many characters, the violence seeming random and unending and not in a good way. The final third of the movie is similarly sloppy; I've seen court room dramas handled with more grace, and subtlety on Law & Order.
However the middle section, at the Algiers, is where most of the pieces come together. If there's one thing to trust Bigelow on it's scenes of torture and she spares nothing when it comes to these scenes. Now I've heard criticism saying that these scenes amount to torture porn and I disagree, the violence in this section is necessary to show just how brutal what happened was. Bigelow isn't glorying in the moment but she isn't flinching away from it either. This happened and she wants her audiences to know it and understand it and feel angry and hurt and ashamed because of it.
Unfortunately the rest of the movie just doesn't rise to the level of the middle section leaving the film as a half-baked mess. Only because Bigelow is such a talent is the film still somewhat worthwhile to watch because despite everything there is much to criticize and some to admire.
The best parts of the movie are the cast (almost uniformly stellar but Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, John Boyega and Jacob Latimore are standouts) and the costumes. There may not be many speaking roles for women in the film but there were a lot of women extras and the clothes they wear are FANTASTIC.
A missed opportunity from Bigelow.
Lady Macbeth (2016)
Despite being filmed mostly in staid long-takes Lady Macbeth is incredibly riveting, a neo-Victorian film that gets just about everything right.
We first meet Katherine (played by Florence Pugh, the "Macbeth" of the title) at her wedding to a man about twice her age. On their wedding night, instead of sleeping with her, he looks at her naked body and then goes straight to sleep. Katherine's husband, despite being twice her age, is somewhat of a meek man, kept under the thumb of his even bullying father who likes to bully Katherine as well. Eventually these two men leave, one because he has no sexual interest in Katherine, the other to punish her with isolation, but left to her own devices Katherine finds life in the remote manor serves her quite well: she is free to sleep, walk and eat when she wants, and most importantly she also has the freedom to strike up an affair with an insolent serving man.
Despite the staid nature of the piece filled with corsets and repression the movie has plenty of sex and violence, used to great effect. Every actor among the small cast is also incredibly fantastic here.
It's hard to believe this is director William Oldroyd's first feature film because he has such a controlled and beautiful vision. One of the details I especially appreciated is that he includes more than one black character in the film, something that adds depth and subtext to what happens later in the film as it goes from a mediation on feminism to a meditation on racism and all without the film overplaying its hand or becoming didactic.
A must see.
To the Bone (2017)
Even before it was released to general audiences the think pieces started coming out about Marti Noxon's directorial debut To the Bone. So many think pieces argued over whether the movie had a right to exist and the potential triggers it might have for anyone currently suffering through an eating disorder (and warning, despite Noxon's claim that she was careful not to include anything that might trigger someone with an eating disorder the film does have a few moments that feel gratuitous).
Unfortunately, on every level, it's just not a very good film. Lily Collins plays Ellen, a 20 year old wise-cracking artist with a dark sense of humour who happens to be anorexic. We first meet her as she is coming out of her latest inpatient program weighing even less than she did when she came in. Appalled, Ellen's stepmother pulls some strings and manages to get her to see Dr. Beckham whose unconventional methods are supposed to cure Ellen. He insists on yet another inpatient program which Ellen initially tries to resist, only to succumb when her younger sister pleads with her to go.
The problem is this movie isn't as interesting as it thinks it is. Anorexia is a serious subject worthy of study in fiction and in film, but even though writer/director Noxon and star Lily Collins are both in recovery from the disease their approach feels as clichéd as your average TV movie. Everything from the way that Ellen wears layered dark clothes and makes sarcastic "witty" comments that are supposed to show how great she is and wise beyond her years, to the fact that Beckham's unconventional methods seem to be the pretty conventional method of showing off things of beauty, engaging in therapy and not talking down to his patient are incredibly cringe worthy. The frustrating thing is that there are some interesting moments in the film, like how the supposedly happy go lucky model recovery patient Luke turns out to have a bit of a dark side, but even this is barely covered.
Collins is great and rises far above the material, but it's unfortunate that this passion project, which does take a couple of interesting turns, seems more committed to staying with the paint by numbers typical approach than in offering us anything truly unusual.
A star making performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw
If actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw becomes a full fledged Hollywood star, and I sincerely hope she does, it can be traced back to this film, her first leading role and one she handles with grace and beauty.
The movie Belle itself is a somewhat mediocre film that white washes a lot of unpleasant history. The purpose of this is actually pretty nobel. As the movie itself points out a lot of historical depictions of black people involve them secondary, suffering or in pain. Belle shows a young black woman as fully romanticized and loved as any Austen heroine. To wit: Belle is about Dido Elizabeth Belle the daughter of an unnamed black slave mother and a captain of noble birth. We first meet Dido as a child when her mother is dead and her father has appeared to rescue her. Despite the fact that the two are estranged he reassures her that he loves her very much as he did her mother and takes her from the hovel where she is living to the luxurious estate belonging to his uncle. Despite some objections from his aunt and uncle, Dido is reluctantly welcomed into the bosom of the family estate as a companion for her cousin Elizabeth, another unfortunate cast off family member (albeit one who is white). The movie rejoins Dido again over a decade later when she is a young woman ready to be courted and full of questions as to how she can live in a world where she is privileged over other young ladies and yet discriminated against on the basis of her skin colour.
The script doesn't always flow when making these points but it is saved by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (utterly charming). Sam Reid makes for a handsome and passionate hero. The film is also incredibly luxurious and gorgeous though the editing can't hide the fact some awkward moments that seem to imply that certain scenes didn't get all the coverage they needed.
Still a must see for fans of historical romances.
Night Moves (2013)
Kelly Reichardt isn't a filmmaker for everyone but I like her slow moving contemplative dramas which often give audiences something to really reflect on. Not so with Night Moves her most boring preachy film to date. The film follows Josh and Dena, a young couple who also happen to be passionate environmentalists. Their plan is to hook up with a connection of Josh's who will help them put their beliefs into practice by blowing up a dam.
The acting is good and the film is beautiful as befits a Reichardt movie. The dialogue and plot however are godawful. It's not that I don't believe in what the characters are saying, but they're some pretty awful unpleasant preachy people to spent a couple of hours with. The whole thing is a joke and will only appeal to the kind of granola hipsters that appear in the film.
You're honestly better off watching a documentary on climate change.
The Beguiled (2017)
When women strike back...
Sofia Coppola's latest is a period piece set during the American civil war in Virginia. While wandering through the forest scavenging for food, a young school girl comes across a Yankee soldier. Seeing that the man is severely wounded and thus no danger to her, she brings him back to the private girls school where only a handful of pupils, the headmistress, and one teacher, have settled down to wait out the war. The girls and women, having been left alone for so long without male attention, are quick to throw themselves in the path of such a devilishly handsome romantic man, while the man himself, John McBurney, is all too willing to seduce and be seduced in the hopes that he can wait out the war in this cushy harem of white cotton clad ladies.
Though she has an Oscar for writing I've always found Coppola to be at her best with her directing and that's very true of The Beguiled. You can tell she had a blast with the time period and the costumes because she luxuriates in the atmosphere. No shots are wasted and all are beautiful. The soundscape in the movie also plays an incredible role. There are a lot of things happening off screen (the war for one) but we hear it in the sound of the booming canons that disrupt the girls as they set about their work.
The film is also an ensemble piece, but while there isn't a weak member among the cast, Coppola favourite Kirsten Dunst stands out as a fragile and repressed teacher whose youth is quickly wilting away, and Nicole Kidman is hilarious as the commanding no-nonsense headmistress.
The trailers for this give away too much of the plot in my opinion. If possible it's best to see this blind and let Coppola's slow atmospheric's and dark humour take over.
A short sharp piece, well made and worth seeing.
Stalker is my favourite type of science fiction: the kind that asks many questions, gives few answers and in which a lot of the magic is based on the imagination and not what is presented on screen.
The film follows a Stalker i.e. a man who works illegally as a kind of sherpa, taking people into the "zone" a site that was hit by a meteor and has since been abandoned. On this visit that we accompany him on, the Stalker has chosen to usher in two men, one a writer, the other a scientist professor. Because what they are doing is highly illegal and dangerous the Stalker insists that they refer to themselves only by their professions. As they enter the zone we learn more about the journey, including why it is considered so dangerous and why so many are willing to take the risk to go there.
The movie is not for the faint of heart. The short summary proffered above takes over an hour to explain in terms of the movie. Furthermore the shots are incredibly long, often lasting several minutes as we follow these men on their journey. But is it ever worth the ride. Shot mostly in long abandoned locations the film is brutally gorgeous. And the questions, when they come, are fascinating and interesting asking the most of what it means to be human and how that manifests itself in our desires.
A beautiful fairytale for adults
Okja is a sort of scifi fairytale, one that is explicit with its very simple messaging but is nevertheless beautiful and heart wrenching.
Bong Joon-ho begins the film in 2007 when the CEO of a food corporation that is heavily invested with GMO's tries to revamp their corporate image by announcing a competition between 26 of their best super piglets. The super piglets are sent across the world to be raised by farmers and in ten years one lucky pig will win the title of Best Super Pig (and then apparently be consumed). Fast forward to 10 years later when a thirteen year old Mija, a country girl living in near isolation with her grandfather, is raising her super pig in the idyllic landscape where they play, forage for apples, and fish together. Things go awry however when she discovers that Okja (her pig) does not belong to her and will be carted off to America. From here on the movie turns into an adventure story as Mija must brave the world in order to be reunited with Okja.
The film is wildly cartoonish in tone, but if you go along with it and let yourself be enchanted by this world you'll find yourself on a wonderful emotional journey. Some cheap CGI made me at first scoff at Okja, but as the movie goes on she seems more and more real till by the end I was near tears watching the film. Great performances by known and unknown actors alike. Just a great movie through and through.
Appropriate Behavior (2014)
Self-indulgent Sundance debut
There's a certain type of movie that Sundance always selects: quirky comedies about lovable oddballs who are in the middle of a crisis and want everyone to know about it. This is Appropriate Behavior. I will say in its favour that there isn't enough bisexual representation in cinema nor is there enough about American- Iranians. This has both, but at the same time writer director Desiree Akhavan doesn't want to examine either aspect in depth. This is both refreshing because these aspects of lead character Shirin's identity are assured aspects of who she is and aren't part of her crisis, and frustrating because aside from these elements there is nothing that makes this movie stand out in any way from the quirky indie comedies that come out every year from Sundance.
Behavior is about Shirin (played by Akhavan). Recently having broken up with the live-in girlfriend her conservative Persian parents thought was her "roommate" the film plays in pieces as we watch Akhavan try to put her life back together without the woman who defined so much of it. As a bonus we are also treated to flashbacks of the rise and fall of her relationship with her ex. It is... not very exciting.
The film is written with so many pithy one liners you can tell it was written to death. This makes for great screencaps and dialogue you can use as gif sets but as an overarching script with characterization not so much. The narrative is fairly elegantly sliced and diced so that you get just the right amount of mix of past and present but at the same time... Just who cares? This feels directly aimed at a group of lost 20 somethings stumbling their way through life, but as a lost 20 something myself I'm sick of seeing these kind of movies (always set in NYC!) and the individual scenes don't really do anything for me. There are still some aspects that make this movie watchable: a threesome that goes wrong (I'm always partial to sex scenes that are good and by good I mean manage to maintain the flow of the story. So many movies just have all plot and emotion stop to get a few thrusts in. Akhavan understands how to continue to build the narrative using the sex scene). The ending of the film is very cathartic and pitch perfect as well.
How Akhavan manages to nail some of the most difficult aspects of filmmaking while flubbing the middle is beyond me. It gives me hope however that she'll continue to improve.
Mosquita y Mari (2012)
A slow, sweet, meditative film on a romance that never quite blossomed
Aurora Guerro's debut is a one of those rare indie gems where the chemistry and beauty override the low budget.
The film is about Yolanda, a nerdy good girl with immigrant parents who burden her with the weight of their expectations that the sacrifices they make will pay off for their daughter. Into her life trips the titular Mari. Mari is Yolanda's neighbour who is also the same age as her. Instead of two protective parents she has a single mom desperate to make ends meet. Yolanda is seen as a burn out by those around her. But Yolanda (dubbed Mosquita by Mari because of the way she hovers around watching Mari) sees something different. The two quickly strike up an innocent friendship with Mari becoming more academically inclined while Yolanda cuts loose a little. Under it all though begins to flirt the feeling that this could turn into a little something more...
It is a beautiful touching film and writer/director Guerrero gets so much right. It's especially rare to see a story about Chicana girls that doesn't devolve into stereotype and lets them be quiet, contemplative and dreamy. The only thing slightly holding Guerrero back is the lack of budget which does make the film feel a little cheap and student-filmish in places. Still a great movie and I eagerly anticipate whatever she does next.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1998)
I first caught this on A&E years ago, back when A&E used to randomly broadcast Masterpiece theatre to fill up their timeslots. It was only at the halfway point but I ended up staying and watching the whole thing. This was in a pre-streaming era so I wasn't able to just hop on a computer and watch the rest... instead I kept my eyes peeled till I A&E rebroadcast it (which thankfully wasn't long, they really had so little content they were constantly showing the same Masterpiece theatre movies over and over again in a loop).
Tess of the d'Urbervilles is based on Thomas Hardy's novel of the same name, a surprisingly progressive piece of late Victorian literature which argues against sexism and for the rights of women. The unfortunate at the centre of the drama is Tess, a lively, blossoming young country girl of 16 when we meet her she is the beauty of her family. Unfortunately this self-same beauty is the cause of all her woes. Her alcoholic father learning that the now peasant class family was once descended from nobility gets ideas into his head that they should be rich still and sends his daughter to the only remaining members of the d'Urbervilles family in order to beg for charity. Her cousin Alec, a predatory lay-a-bout, attracted to Tess's overwhelming beauty treats her as a toy which leads to devastating consequences for Tess.
Whatever happened to Justine Waddell? As Tess she is simply fantastic. I'm not sure she captures the sweet naivete of the character in her early years before tragedy befalls her, but she has such devastating sorrowful eyes that as Tess sinks further and further into misery she tugs at your heartstrings. Jason Flemyng is quite hammy but still terrifying as Tess's cousin Alec and Oliver Milburn (another actor whose career went nowhere) is also pitch perfect as gentleman farmer Angel.
This is just a lovely adaptation of one of my favourite works. Excellent all the way through.
Not really Austen's Persuasion and yet
For any book purist there is much to nitpick about this version of Persuasion. Filled with odd script and directorial choices which include Anne breaking the fourth wall and staring into the camera, a determination to make the film visually dour, and a last minute long-take sequence that borders on the sheer absurd, it is nevertheless anchored by some fabulous acting and chemistry. And isn't that all we really want from an Austen adaptation?
Sally Hawkins plays Anne Elliot, a 27 year old spinster from a wealthy family who was once engaged to the handsome but titleless Frederick Wentworth. Years later Anne is now considered withered, plain and doomed to spinsterhood (Regency England was so harsh to 27 year old women!). On top of it all her impractical and vain father has squandered much of the family fortune. Into this mess ventures Wentworth, as handsome as ever and now graced with a fortune that makes him a very eligible suitor indeed. Everything seems cold between Anne and Wentworth and she resigns herself to watching him marry a much younger woman... but sparks fly between the old lovers and hope grows in Anne again.
The story is one of my favourite Austen books but be warned! If you liked the novel this adaptation eschews huge chunks in order of brevity. And yet I can't help loving this adaptation and it's probably my favourite one. Hawkins is a perfect Anne and Rupert Penry-Jones is an excellent Wentworth. The two of them exchange enough burning glances to light a spark in this rather dour adaptation. With such perfect chemistry it's only a pity that they are surrounded by a better film.
Before We Go (2014)
Belongs to the cottage industry of Before Sunrise imitators
There's a big problem with Chris Evans' debut. That problem is cell phones.
To rewind a little bit: the film is about an incredibly handsome but sad busker (Chris Evans) working at Grand Central Terminal in NYC. Playing for the late crowd he stays long enough to see a woman (Alice Eve) rush out to catch the last train out. Her cellphone smashes as it falls out of her bag as she passes by. He does the right thing and tries to return it to her which is easy as she's missed the last train out. And she's been robbed. And being a poor busker despite his valiant attempts to be gentlemanly and help this woman this man, Nick, has no money. Also HIS cellphone is dead! And on it goes...
It is perfectly plausible in real life that these inconveniences would pile up. In a movie it begins to stretch the boundaries of plausibility, especially since any person watching the film will know it's a romance and that these two attractive strangers will now be doomed to wander the city alone at night together slowly confessing secrets to one another and falling in love... Because yes, this belongs to the little cottage industry of Before Sunrise imitators. Before Sunrise for those not in the know, is a delightful little walking and talking movie from 1995. It also features two young gorgeous heterosexuals walking around a city (Vienna) and falling in love. Unfortunately for all the little imitators that have cropped up since, Before Sunrise is not as simple as it looks. It features two actors with great chemistry, a really genius script, and it takes place in the 90s when cellphones, credit cards and access to the internet weren't as ubiquitous as they are now.
Unfortunately for Before We Go it really pales in comparison to a movie made nearly 20 years previous. Not only does the script not really ever get a handle on the cell phone issue (and I was reminded while watching this of Fort Tilden an excellent contemporary film about getting lost in a city where the characters have access to cellphones and ready cash and still manage to screw up their lives in increasingly hilarious, and yes plausible, ways) but the dialogue isn't that great either the reveal of why Alice Eve's character had to catch that train is dumb. The solution to her problem, when it comes, is dumb AND EASY.
Chris Evans fans will be pleased though. The guy has charisma in spades and once Alice Eve's character gets over her fear that this guy Nick might be a creep rapist stalker, he's able to romance her with seductive looks. If you find Evans attractive and are willing to suspend your disbelief about how absurd a situation can get then by all means, watch this movie and allow yourself to be seduced by the romance. For everyone else it should be a hard pass.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
A fairytale to frighten the young and old alike
There are many things that makes The Night of the Hunter so iconic. The film is an almost childishly innocent tale about a preacher of a faith of his own making (Robert Mitchum, note perfect). This preacher is a man who not only talks to God, but thinks God talks back, giving him permission to court, marry, and murder lonely widows to obtain their fortunes to build a church grand enough for the preacher to adequately worship God in. At the same time as the preacher is arrested for an innocuous offence, Ben Harper, a man tired of always being down and out, robs a bank and gives the money to his children to hide before he is arrested and taken away to be hanged. Harper and the preacher's lives intersect briefly in jail, but it's enough time for the preacher to catch wind of Harper's hidden fortune, and when he gets out of jail he comes a knockin' fully intent on getting Harper's ill-gotten money by any means necessary.
There is honestly nothing not to enjoy about the film. The showiest performance of all is Robert Mitchum, but every actor in this is good, grasping the fairy tale tone of the plot. Charles Laughton's direction is impeccable, the cinematography, the lighting, the shots, everything will take your breath away with its stark vicious beauty. And the score is haunting and exotic, adding to the frighting atmosphere. I've seen this movie many times and each time been completely seduced by the film. One of the greatest.
The Bad Batch (2016)
A mixed bag
I loved writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour's debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. A genre-mixing Persian language black and white vampire flick, the film established Amirpour as a fresh voice, a visionary, an all too rare woman of colour working in a genre that has typically been dominated by casually racist and sexist white men who don't think through the implications of their material. With this in mind The Bad Batch represents both a step up and a step down for Amirpour.
Set in an undefined near-future The Bad Batch takes place in an unnamed zone outside of Texas in which lawlessness rules and "Bad Batch" aka people who are considered deviant in some way, are set adrift. We never learn why Arlen (Suki Waterhouse, serviceable) has been cast out, but we follow her from the second she is dumped in this vicious territory. Quickly captured by cannibals (with gruesome results) she manages to free herself and is rescued by a peaceable hermit. Months later, healed but embittered, she sets out into the wasteland and makes a series of decisions which set the course for the rest of the movie.
First off Amirpour proves herself once again to be a complete master of tone. Her wasteland is an '80s baby's pop-punk dream, filled with mad detritus from the '80s and '90s. The post-production here is really top-notch and filled with clever visuals (there is a ton of signage among the wreckage which gives Amirpour the ability to make tongue-in-cheek jabs at the audience, like a scene in which Arlen contemplates a difficult decision while in the background a sign cheerfully proclaims "THIS ISN'T REAL"). I've heard some reviewers balk at the so-called half-baked romance that takes up the final half of the movie, but to me it feels meditative and real. Much like the romance in Amirpour's debut, this one is as full of quiet suggestion and glances as a Victorian novel adaptation.
What then was not to my taste? Well to go back to the earlier discussion of filmmakers in the genre being sloppy, thoughtless or even downright racist with their messaging... Shortly before the film was officially released a woman at an advanced screening raised some criticism about the casting in the movie and she was dead right. The first question she had was about Jason Momoa being cast as a Latino character named "Miami Man". In the movie Miami Man isn't just any random Latino, he's an undocumented Cuban immigrant with a thick accent. To have Jason Momoa, an accentless American born man of Native-Hawaiian and white descent feels incredibly tone deaf, the kind of ridiculous casting that was something that wasn't given a second thought in the 50s but is incredibly tired now. The second issue raised was the question of a black female character being given a particularly gruesome death... Again, the entire arc of that character and the fact that Arlen's fall, and later redemption, occur because of this woman's death is treated so carelessly within the narrative it would almost feel like a joke or like Amirpour is making a statement on how irredeemable Arlen is if not for the fact that again and again the movie works to make the audience sympathize with her. It's truly baffling and takes what could have been a good movie and makes it incredibly tone deaf and insensitive to the very racism it seems intended to point out.
I hate scoring movies with highs so high and lows so low because it often comes out to a very mediocre score when the movie couldn't be anything further from mediocrity. It's really too bad that Amirpour was so blind to something so essential to her film.