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Midway (2019)
Vivid CGI lesson in naval history
13 November 2019
The last movie take on PEARL HARBOR (2001) was largely spoiled by a soapy love story. There's only one wife featured in Midway and she's just there as a token Woman Who Waits For Her Husband's Return. What Roland Emmerich gives us this time is a solid chunk of naval history, superbly illustrated by the GGI effects he used so thrillingly in INDEPENDENCE DAY and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.

With lengthy scenes of both the Japanese and American battle planning, the movie shows how the Japanese superiority after the 'infamous' damage they inflicted on the US navy at Pearl Harbor was overcome, mostly thanks to radio intercepts and code-breaking by the guys at Naval Intelligence (sorry, ladies).

Back stories are minimal, in keeping with the documentary style of the film. Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid give un-showy performances as key admirals and all the fighter pilots play as a team, much as they would have in wartime, with nobody pushing for extra screen time. Good to see Luke Evans on solid form; he reminds me increasingly of the young Richard Harris, and I hope he has an equally substantial career ahead of him.

The CGI bombing at Pearl Harbor and out in the Pacific is nothing less than awesome. Here and there the aerial combat scenes (and camera-shots behind ordnance) give off a PlayStation flavor, but overall MIDWAY does eloquent justice to a turning-point moment in 20th-century history.
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Doctor Sleep (2019)
Spooky return to The Overlook
8 November 2019
Stephen King was said to be unhappy with Stanley Kubrick's take on THE SHINING. I was too: key elements of the novel were excluded, and Jack Nicholson seemed completely manic from the outset, which diluted his transition to psychopathic under the influence of the hotel's ghostly residents. Hopefully Mr King is happier with the movie of his belated sequel; he co-wrote the screenplay with director Mike Flanagan.

The 'cannibalization' of teenagers makes for a much nastier tale than a haunted hotel. This is a long picture (two and a half hours) but it rarely flags. The flashbacks to Danny's boyhood recreate very exactly highlights from the Kubrick movie. It's hard to say which is scarier, revisiting The Overlook or Rose the Hat and her gang of life-stealers, but I can say that this is a thriller-chiller that may haunt your dreams for longer than THE SHINING did.
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Forget the plot. Enjoy the ride!
31 October 2019
Hard to believe that James Cameron has both a writing and producing credit on this mash-up. The action is mostly in Mexico (even the new Terminator is Hispanic), presumably for budgetary reasons, but the CGI hasn't been scrimped on. Chases, explosions, meltings and remoulds and cyber-skeletons - it's all there, with a climax in the turbine room under a dam that could almost be a recycled Bond-villain's lair.

Linda Hamilton and Arnie are looking a bit weathered (can cyborgs age?), but they bring a curious kind of warmth to the patchwork storyline. Forget sense - there's isn't any. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
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Joker (2019)
Over the top - and then some
23 October 2019
This movie reminded me of Kubrick's version of Stephen King's THE SHINING. It has the same sense of darkness enveloping the characters. But, like Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), Arthur Fleck is manic - a maniac, really - from the start. The violence escalates (and how - I can't believe this movie got away with a 15 rating), but there's no real explanation of what made Arthur the way he is. Thanks to all the other movies in the Batman franchise, we know where the Joker is headed, but we need an 'origins' prequel to this one.

Robert de Niro, playing a talk-show host, brings a reminder of dark roles he has vividly brought to life. But Joaquin Phoenix's performance, like Heath Ledger's in 2008, is a tour-de-force: over the top, and then some.

A deeply disturbing movie. And worryingly likely to be seen as celebrating violence.
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Downton Abbey (2019)
The Pink Camay of Soaps
9 October 2019
If you liked the TV series, you will love this. If you didn't, you probably won't go near it, in which case you'll miss one of the year's biggest treats for non-teenage audiences.

As on TV, the movie teeters between soap opera and sitcom, here and there coming close to a parody of itself. Geraldine James has been invited to play a somewhat Queen Mumsical Queen Mary, not the Teutonic battleaxe she's usually sold as. Violet, the dowager countess (Maggie Smith), and Isabel, Lady Mary's mother-in-law (Penelope Wilton), are very much a comedy duo, exchanging barbed remarks. Dame Maggie steals every scene she's in; she's built a career on this, Lord love her!

OK, it's just a soap about posh folk and their servants, but it's the Pink Camay of soaps. Julian Fellowes has provided a witty and whimsical screenplay, the production values (and the frocks!) are off the scale, and Hampshire's Highclere Castle once more does glorious duty as the Grantham estate. The cast are all on top form and clearly enjoyed every minute of it.

As did I. Let's hope they give us another instalment in a couple of years.
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Judy (II) (2019)
Falling off the rainbow
3 October 2019
A biopic of Judy Garland has been promised on and off for decades. Finally it's here. And worth the wait! Renée Zellweger is sensational, recapturing not just the look of Garland, but her walk, her gestures and that edginess she so often displayed as her addiction to pills sent her career into a tailspin.

As biopics go, this is a good one. There are only a few moments when the performance teeters into parody. I'd like to have seen more of Liza Minnelli, who perhaps wasn't happy about the movie. When Judy is not belting out songs on stage, the film gets a bit mawkish, but I guess Judy's life was mawkish. There's a charming scene when she goes home with a couple of gay 'stage-door johnnies' and they try to cook her an omelette. The pair re-appear towards the end, demanding their money back at the box-office when Judy has been replaced by Lonnie Donnegan. Who wouldn't!
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Ad Astra (2019)
Hiccups and constipation
26 September 2019
To the Stars. Great title - not strictly true, since we don't get any further than orbiting Neptune. AD ASTRA seems to be reaching for comparisons with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it doesn't quite make it. Our astronaut hero has a couple of hiccups on his way to Neptune and is much given to introspection, thinking about his missing dad and his failing marriage. Brad Pitt is not in such fine form as he was in the Tarantino movie a few months back: introspection occasionally looks more like constipation.

2001 had a 'mythic' quality to it which AD ASTRA just doesn't have. It is an odyssey, and the complex father-son relationship brings faint echoes of classic Greek tragedy, but it falls short of epic. Maybe we've become a bit blasé about space movies since Kubrick's day (1968). The STAR TREK chapters in which Mr Spock died and was resurrected did 'mythological' a lot more effectively.
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Fast and - well, yes - furious
18 September 2019
Yes, we've been here before. Twice. This is the second attempt on President Trumbell and the third movie in the HAS FALLEN. Gerard Butler is beginning to look in need of an adrenalin boost, as well he might. It says a lot for him and the writer (and the CGI guys) that the Mike Banning shtick still has the capacity to thrill audiences. This formula is recycled from the DIE HARD franchise and, before that, from THE FUGITIVE. Bruce Willis's charisma kept DIE HARD tanked up through episodes 2 and 3 before flagging with Part 4, so now might be a good time for Mike Banning to retire. There's another bunch of high-octane movies whose name escapes me, but I seem to remember they have managed to stay consistently fast and furious.
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Acting (and painting) masterclass
11 September 2019
As the title indicates, this is very much a film about Lowry's mother Elizabeth, a chronically ill malingerer, housebound and demanding. She despises almost every one of his early canvases, but when she warms to a picture of ships in the local canal and gives him two shillings to submit it to an exhibition in Manchester, she opens the door to his future glory. A showdown at home is the dramatic climax of this essentially domestic and un-dramatic narrative.

Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave give performances which we have seen in other films, subtly shaded to fit this restrained and evocative story. Adrian Noble has directed a slow-burning movie with few "fireworks", but it offers an acting (and painting) master-class.
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Pain & Glory (2019)
Penelope Cruz - incandescent!
29 August 2019
Shot as always in a lush Technicolor from the era of Lana Turner, this is a slow, episodic movie, more than a little reminiscent of Fellini's 8½ or Tornatore's CINEMA PARADISO, with the same pervasive sense of nostalgia. In the boyhood flashbacks Penelope Cruz plays Salvador's mum. Like Sophia Loren in her early Italian movies, Cruz has a luminous beauty that makes her mundane scenes totally incandescent. Antonio Banderas and the other two male leads are all into middle age but still stunningly handsome.

Conversations between Salvo and his dying mother, his former players and an ex-partner are very protracted, but the love that Pedro Almodovar has for these actors (or the people they're based on) is deeply moving and keeps the viewer engaged (this viewer, anyway).

The elegiac tone and the obsession with his declining health makes you wonder if this is Pedro's 'swansong'. Hopefully not.
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Darkest picture of Hollywood since DAY OF THE LOCUST
15 August 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Once we learn that DiCaprio's neighbors in the Hollywood Hills are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the viewer has an uncomfortable feeling about where this story is going to end. Except that it doesn't - exactly. Tarantino has a few tricks up his sleeve. Doesn't he always?

All Quentin's trademarks are here. Weird camera angles. Sudden short flashbacks. A loud score of pop hits. Non-stop profanity. Graphic violence, of course, even before the gory climax. There's an ever-present sense of homage to yesteryear Hollywood. At 2 hours 41 minutes the movie is a long haul, and your expectations of where it's going are a major element of the suspense. ONCE UPON A TIME is more coherent than PULP FICTION or KILL BILL. Solid performances from DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are the glue that holds it together. Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen are grafted a bit clumsily onto the screenplay, along with Tate And Polanski.

This is the darkest study of Hollywood since John Schlesinger's DAY OF THE LOCUST (1975). It leaves a nasty taste, but I guess that's another Tarantino trademark.
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Life in the Stoned Age
2 August 2019
Patched together from interviews and old home movies, this 100-minute documentary charts the 10-year romance between Leonard Cohen and the woman he called his 'Muse', Marianne Ihlen from Norway, whom he met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960.

There were other women - many of them, sometimes more than one a day. Free Love, fueled by drugs - acid, uppers, downers - was just an excuse for promiscuity, but promiscuity was mandatory in the 1960s. And not without casualties: suicides and deaths from overdoses. Marianne had a son by her first husband, Axel, whom we see as a happy child on the island. Like other children of that era, he ended in an institution.

Cohen has given us some great songs, and his dark gravelly voice is one of the iconic sounds of the last sixty years, but Nick Broomfield's unflinching documentary paints a portrait of an egotistical, self-destructive man who took up women and dropped them as casually as a Kleenex.

Three months before he died and knowing death was coming, he sent a love-letter to Marianne who was in her final days. So maybe, the man had a heart. His songs seem to say so, but his life rather less so.
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Yesterday (III) (2019)
Even obliterated, the Beatles are the real stars
4 July 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Himesh Patel (whom we know in the UK from EastEnders) acts and sings his way persuasively through the slightly klutzy central role. Ed Sheeran almost steals the show, playing himself (a natural klutz!) in a charming send-up. Danny Boyle has directed this at a snappy pace, but the most visible contribution is clearly Richard Curtis's script, with his trademark mismatched love-story. Other erasures from human memory caused by the power-cut are fed to us at clumsy intervals - did CocaCola pay for product DIS-placement, I wondered? And the central mystery - what has actually happened to the Beatles? - is neatly addressed. I particularly liked the late appearance of two other people who know that Jack is a musical thief.

The other most visible contribution is the Beatles' back-list - we are constantly reminded just how powerfully their songs are engrained in our consciousness. There may well be Sing-Along screenings of this next year.
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Rocketman (I) (2019)
Elton: the Plain Unvarnished Truth. As if!!
7 June 2019
Hot on the heels of Rami Malek's Oscar-winning turn as Freddie Mercury, we have Taron Egerton going into camp hyperdrive as Elton John in this musical extravaganza charting the rise to superstardom of young Reggie Dwight from Pinner in suburban northwest London. This is not exactly the "plain unvarnished truth", since once his career took off Elton didn't really do Plain or Unvarnished.

Egerton does a great job capturing Elton's growly vocal style and his weird combination of shyness and monstrous egotism. It's a performance that rivals Michael Douglas's take on Liberace, who is briefly glimpsed on Elton's gran's telly and whom he clearly drew on for inspiration. As in CANDELABRA, the script doesn't hesitate to show the star's battle with homosexuality. Elton has a crush on Bernie Taupin (nicely played by Jamie Bell) who isn't gay but loves Elton and cherishes their Stan-and-Ollie/Eric-and-Ernie partnership. Elton has a stormy relationship with his second manager John Reid (Richard Maddon - fantasy-fulfilling to see him playing gay!). His happy-ever-after with David Furnish comes later than this timeframe.

The other movie I was reminded of was MOULIN ROUGE in the way some of the songs are not just performed but acted into scenes that carry the story forward. Bell and Maddon both get to sing.

Elton's addictions to booze, drugs and sexual excess (and shopping!) are not skated over, just as they weren't in the Liberace movie. ROCKETMAN is a story with a message about the dangers that fame brings with it. At another level it's simply a great musical biopic.
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Red Joan (2018)
From M to OAP
24 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"The spy who came in from the Co-op" is how one British tabloid described the real-life pensioner on whom the Judi Dench character in this movie is based.

I was reminded a bit of Alan Bennett's play on Sir Anthony Blunt, who was finally exposed as the "Fourth Man" in the Cambridge spy ring after years of having his treachery hidden to avoid embarrassing the Establishment. In scenes at Buckingham Palace (Prunella Scales was terrific as HMQ) duplicity was given a dark comic edge. Alas, Mr Bennett didn't script RED JOAN, which could have done with a touch of humour.

It's sort of droll to see Judi Dench moving from playing 007's boss M to the shabbier side of espionage, Dench and Cookson are both excellent, but the zigzagging between Then and Now becomes slightly tiresome, and Joan's attempts to justify her betrayal didn't wash with me. Neither did Blunt's, but Alan Bennett's script allowed the viewer to relish his downfall, which we aren't invited to in Joan's case. We are reminded that the aptly acronymed MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) somehow prevented nuclear launches throughout the Cold War era, but, IMHO, a traitor is still a traitor.
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A slow ramble to the gold rush
20 April 2019
A Western that isn't a Western (no cowboys or Indians), the weirdly titled SISTERS BROTHERS is more than a little reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning UNFORGIVEN (1992) or, further back, Robert Altman's McCABE AND MRS MILLER (1971).

The rambling story only settles down when we get to the goldfields and are introduced to a bizarre twist on the science of prospecting. There's a lot of mumbling and squabbling in the script. Direction and cinematography are uneven: too many gloomy night scenes - and some of the daytime shoots are also very grainy. The last half hour is extremely grim. All four lead performances are rock solid, but none of these characters is particularly likeable, which makes this an Interesting rather than an Engaging experience. It's one of those movies which will probably seem better on a second or third viewing.
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Pet Sematary (2019)
Resurrection shuffle
10 April 2019
Nice poster. Shame about the movie. Another pointless remake. This doesn't add anything to the 1989 version apart from superior special effects courtesy of advances in CGI.

Only minor changes to the story. A family move from the city to the outskirts of a New England village where there's a spooky outcrop in the woods beyond what the local kids have mislabelled as the "Pet Sematary". Trucks thundering past their new house on Day One signal with no subtlety disasters that are to come.

There are more scares before the "resurrection shuffle" than after. The second Second Coming is totally OTT and seems to be sourced from the CHUCKY movies rather than Stephen King's original novel. I'm guessing Mr King was inspired by the 1902 story THE MONKEY's PAW (by W.W.Jacobs) which was somehow more spooky because they didn't open the door when 'he' came back. Not enough for today's grossed-out audience, of course.

John Lithgow is clearly slumming here as the old-timer neighbour who sets the drama in motion but he's the best thing in this. Except maybe the CGI cat.
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Wrestling's come a long way !
5 April 2019
There's a spate of 'Based on a true story' movies this spring. STAN & OLLIE is the best so far. FIGHJTING WITH MY FAMILY, a comedy-drama biopic, is in the Not-as-good-as league, along with FISHERMAN'S FRIENDS.

Soraya/Paige's story is somewhat predictable: will she make it to the giant stadium for a title bout at "Wrestlemania"?. Zak's story is a lot more involving, as he struggles to settle for broken dreams.

I didn't find this grabbed me emotionally in the way that Clint Eastwood's MILLION DOLLAR BABY did but it's an agreeable movie, with believable performances all round, crisply scripted and pacily directed by Stephen Merchant. Dwayne Johnson, who they tell us sold the story to the studio money men, seems immensely likeable. The wrestling scenes are a joy to watch - so much more spectacular than what we used to see on black-and-white TV screens when I was the age of Paige and Zak!
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A MARIGOLD-style crowd-pleaser
23 March 2019
If you liked THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, you'll be inclined to like this; it will help if you're a fan of sea shanties.

Despite its slimline script, FISHERMAN'S FRIENDS has a lot of charm. We're in POLDARK territory, so the scenery is a guaranteed hit, and the fishermen are a likeable (mixed) bunch. All in all, there's a healthy dollop of the feel-good factor that made THE FULL MONTY and the MARIGOLD HOTEL movies such crowd-pleasers.
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A gay 'bromance'?
27 February 2019
We're used to watching Melissa McCarthy in loud potty-mouthed comedies. Here she's in a lower key - still foul-mouthed - as Lee Israel, a lesbian New York writer of celebrity biographies whose sales are not keeping up with the rent or her whisky consumption. She hits on the idea of forging letters from famous dead authors and selling them to collectors of literary memorabilia. The money rolls in, and so does a down-on-his-luck near-neighbour Jake, also gay and also a big boozer. They drink together - rather a lot - and a friendship is 'forged'.

This is a sort of gay 'bromance'. Not a lot happens and there are no big surprises, but as a character study it works perfectly. The two stars are on winning form (or not, as it turned out) - Grant has never been better - and the script strikes exactly the right balance between comedy and drama. It's a lot like repertory theatre and leaves you wanting to applaud the actors. Another small 'gem' this winter, like STAN & OLLIE.
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Boy Erased (2018)
The cure for homosexuality
15 February 2019
Our hero's Gay Conversion Program consists of humiliating public confessions, aggressive shouting from a convertee turned 'converter' and being thumped with Bibles by others in the group - a second definition of Bible-bashing which could only have come from American (or perhaps African) fundamentalist Christians. Homosexuality is a form of demonic possession which must be exorcised. In this area Southern Baptists and Ugandan bishops sing from the same hymnbook as Shia ayatollahs and Sunni clerics (not all of them in distant deserts)

This is not an easy movie to sit through. It frequently stretches credulity, although - the end credits remind us - over 700,000 young Americans have been submitted to procedures like this. Russell Crowe and (especially) Nicole Kidman are very believable as the parents conflicted between parental love and what they see as a violation of God's holy purposes. Lucas Hedges has given some fine performances to date and he works hard at this role, but - was it him or the script? - to me he didn't seem quite gay enough or tormented enough. An intrusive score of bland pop ballads quickly went from ironical to tiresome. If BOY ERASED didn't quite live up to its rave reviews, it did fire me with righteous - and even unrighteous - anger. Mission accomplished.
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Stan & Ollie (2018)
Wears its heart on its sleeve
2 February 2019
Coogan and Reilly are pitch-perfect as the two old hams; no-one could have played them better. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arlanda are terrific as their wives: Lucille (Henderson) watches Ollie's drinking like a hawk; Ida (Arlanda) loves to talk about the acting career she never really had before marrying Stan. There could almost be another movie about the lives of the wives.

Laurel and Hardy bicker like the old married couple they sort of are; they come close to falling out. Their act - especially the dance routines - was quite camp for its time, but there's nothing here to suggest a gay relationship (something of a relief after this year's early crop of lesbian rustling under the bedcovers!).

STAN & OLLIE wears its heart on its sleeve - an affectionate tribute, beautifully written, splendidly directed and magnificently played, to a comedy duo who were deservedly loved by millions for a few decades in the mid-twentieth century. A joy from start to finish.
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Colette (I) (2018)
Gay ladies in gay Paree
25 January 2019
The CLAUDINE novels were the FIFTY SHADES of their day (Paris in the early 1900s). Dramatising Colette's battle to be credited, against her husband's wishes, as the author of the books, the new movie also dramatises their marriage, how freely I'm not sure. Colette (Keira Knightley) is initially happy with her husband (Dominic West) and seemingly very happy with their energetic sex-life, but then she falls in love with an American millionaire's gold-digging wife (POLDARK's Eleanor Tomlinson). Later she becomes the great love of Paris's most in-your-face butch bitch, Missy (Denise Gough). Colette's affairs are reproduced in the Claudine books, making her a scandalous success in society as well as book sales.

Plot-wise, the movie has to build a mountain out of a series of mole-hills, the moles being Colette and Willy's frequent changes of partners. Unlike this winter's other lesbian love-fest THE FAVOURITE, with its bawdy comic overtone, Colette is played very straight (ahem), so it's not quite so much fun. Bravura performances all round. Sumptuous cinematography beautifully recreates Belle Epoque Paris, and with gorgeous frocks and throbbing sex scenes the movie is definitely a feast for the senses.
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The Favourite (2018)
Queen Anne: gouty, doughty - and gay
3 January 2019
It's the early 1700s. England's war with France is not going well, and the Queen is playing with her rabbits. She has 17 rabbits, in memory of the 17 children she lost or miscarried. When she's not playing with rabbits, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), gouty and doughty, is playing with her latest squeeze, Sarah Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).

Yes, dear fellow citizens of the realm, our sometime sovereign lady Queen Anne was a "friend of Dusty" (long before Dusty). There is (Wikipedia) historical evidence (mostly letters) of a whole series of attachments to ladies of the court. In the movie Sarah's cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) inveigles her way into the palace and, surprisingly soon, into the Queen's bedchamber. The feud for Anne's affections has ramifications in Parliament as well as in the palace.

There are some lesbian scenes here, plus a small amount of heterosexual sex in the movie - played for laughs - and a large amount of swearing, with liberal use of both F-word and C-word. The somewhat camp vulgarity and the brisk pace of the narrative will have reminded many in the audience of the CARRY_ -ON comedies. I was more reminded of THE MADFNESS OF KING GEORGE, Alan Bennett's royal Regency romp, which wore its lese-majesty with a similarly brazen air of triumph.

The acting by the three female stars is nothing less than glorious. The male cast members are also outstanding in more ways than one. There are some weird camera angles which I found distracting and some of the music score is painful to hear, but this is another right-royal romp, tragi-comic with a bias towards comedy, not quite as enjoyable as Mr Bennett's, but a splendid visual feast.
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Tulip Fever (2017)
Fifty shades of tulip
13 December 2018
Based on a book by Deborah Moggach, who gave us the original story for THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, TULIP could hardly be more different. For starters it's a lot more raunchy, with sex scenes that could almost be out of FIFTY SHADES - except than there isn't any spanking. In 17th-century Amsterdam, when tulip bulbs are changing hands at the kind of price we associate with Chanel fragrances, Sophia Sandvoort (Alicia Vikander) starts cheating on her much older husband (Christoph Waltz) with a handsome young artist (Dane DeHaan). Sophia's cook (Holliday Grainger) becomes jealous after her own lover is shanghaied.

The tulip bubble is about to burst, and with it comes the inevitable crisis in the love affair. Despite an intelligent script and good performances, TULIP FEVER Fever is a bit like period soap opera spiced up to porno-lite. As in soaps, the storyline is predictable and the characters over-familiar, but the cinematography is gorgeous and production values are high. In a similar league to Scarlett O'Hara, Sophia Sandvoort is not an entirely sympathetic heroine.
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