1917 – Film Review

Sam Mendes returns from the world of James Bond (after the absolutely awful Spectre) with a World War One movie, in memory of his grandfather who fought in the conflict.   It’s an Oscar favourite, the kind of film that ticks across several categories, and its being sold as a triumphant achievement in filmmaking that has to be seen on the big screen.  The chances of the film falling under its own weight, and ‘one-shot’ style, were very high going into this one.

It’s 1917, and two young soldiers who have already seen their fair share of action are given the mission to get behind enemy lines to pass a message on to a commanding officer.  That simple, effecting plot, pushes the film forward with great force in the film’s opening.  Before learning how insane the job is, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Prince Tommen from Game of Thrones) picks partner Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Pride) to go with him, and they set off in haste after receiving the orders from a chubby Colin Firth.  The commanding officer they need to get to is in charge of a company that is unknowingly walking into a German trap of great armaments, and it is a company Blake’s brother is a member of.  And so, despite Schofield’s hesitations they rush to jump over the trenches into no man’s land.  This set up allows for a thrilling first twenty minutes, where the two men hurry through the trenches, the Steadicam pulling in front of them.  Going over the front line, the stress of moving across no man’s land is inevitable, and Mendes evokes a lot of tension with his fluid camera, like the mission they are on, however, this has a time limit.

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The one-shot, unedited, constant rolling picture is thankfully not a gimmick here, at least for the first half of the film.  It is a very effective technique when characters are walking towards something, and there are variations in height and scenery to keep it interesting.  Probably the most mind-boggling shot of the film is in that first sneak to the German line, where the camera goes down into a crevice, tracking the two men across a body of water.  It is an exciting build-up, that is unfortunately let down once they have made it past the German trenches.  Not to say the film is particularly dull from there on, but certainly the highlight of the film is that gripping, daring hop over the front line.  Then comes the one cut in the film, that’s right, an obvious unhidden cut in a one-shot movie.  This is not a problem; however, it does signify a big slice down the middle of the film.  In this second half, Mendes slips into one of his classic characteristics – over-sentimental, florid imagery that comes across as incredibly pretentious.  Schofield dashes through a film set playground of catholic church iconography, that looks so fabricated that it cannot repeat the tension of the opening act.  Then the energy of the Steadicam is lost in a silly and melodramatic central scene that stops the plot dead in the tracks.

Mendes’ emotional connection with the story is obvious, and what he does manage to capture is the absolute horror of war, at times replicating the same feeling that The Thin Red Line does – the feeling of fear and hopelessness of the soldiers.  This is a respectable viewpoint to take, though it leads to a flawed film, whereby Mendes floats too long in mushy motifs and makes the one-shot idea pointless for a good chunk of the runtime.  Luckily, he has crème de la crème of Hollywood cinema Roger Deakins shooting for him, meaning there are some extraordinary shots towards the end of the film that stop the film from being boring.  The inclusion of the odd huge star popping up throughout the film was welcome as well, which is usually distracting, but here it added some gravitas, and a new lease of life at times when it really needed it.  George Mackay does his best with some awful lines of dialogue, and Mendes should have really kept the focus on the camera rather than the actor.  It is possible to achieve empathy in a war movie, rattling along, not worried about having scenes of quiet to prove it cares about the people too.

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The forceful nature of those quiet scenes really tarnished the anticipation of the initial conceit of the film and leaves it nowhere near greatness.  It is one of those films, where it’s curious to wonder about those who have been completely amazed by it.  The film has a fine pacing and fine message, and is expertly well constructed, but there is nothing extraordinary about it.  Its nomination in Best Editing at the Oscars is a strange one (one in your face cut, and a few covert ones) and its nomination in Best Original Screenplay is even stranger.  The script is a bad one, and a World War One film working on the memories of a family member is not entirely original concept, whether Mendes (and Krysty Wilson-Carins) penned it from scratch or not.  Although it is hard to dog on a film this noble, it is another example of a product sold to mainstream audiences as a filmmaking feat, where really it is just extremely unremarkable.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Methodical and Melancholic

In an interview for Little White Lies, film-maker Barry Jenkins said that in his early 20’s an ex-girlfriend gave him Giovanni’s Room (1956) to read after they broke up, as she hoped it would help him to mature as a person. I saw this, and ordered the acclaimed novel of Amazon straight away, not really in an attempt to grow up (though perhaps I need it), but more as an attempt to match my intake of art with one of the great working artists. For those that don’t know, Giovanni’s Room is a novel written by James Baldwin about a man living in Paris, who has an incredibly sensual affair with a barman called Giovanni whilst he is waiting for his girlfriend to return from Spain. The book covers the burning passion of the encounters, and the subsequent guilt afterwards, along with the trials of the heart the characters put upon each-other. It is a remarkable experience to read Giovanni’s Room, and at 150 pages long, it only takes a few sittings to get through it, however the journey is so exquisite that you wish that it was longer. Like any piece of fiction that touches on love, I was entranced by it, holding onto every word, every sentence and every segment of dialogue. It is beautiful literature, that works as a narrator recollecting memories, reaching for emotions over specific events, and Barry Jenkins reproduces this style in If Beale Street Could Talk. The film is an adaptation of one of Baldwin’s later works, that I haven’t read yet (it’s in the post), however you can see Baldwin’s prose breathing through Jenkins’ directing.

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Barry Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight (2016) won ‘best picture’ at the Oscars, so you could say there was a fair deal of pressure on him for his next attempt, especially since many critics have cited that film as a masterpiece. Moonlight is an art-house film, that I enjoyed but didn’t love, because I think that it has more flaws than people care to point out, however I appreciate its importance and its technical mastery. Beale Street is a triumph, and a true adaptation of the feelings that Baldwin evokes in his writing, with my main point being that Jenkins has transformed a novel to a film, and not simply wrote a movie script from a book that he’s a fan of. It’s essentially a love story, about two young people who have grown up in the same neighbourhood together – Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). They are torn apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, and sent to jail, only learning that Tish is pregnant with his child once he is inside. Jenkins weaves the plot around this event, by showing the relationship beforehand and the attempts after by Tish’s family to free Fonny by clearing his name. The film has a rhythmic and lyrical sensibility to it, where scenes flow together smoothly, with the camera moving like a floating poltergeist watching down on their surviving family. It is soft and florid at times, creating a weightless and dreamy look to the flashback scenes of Tish and Fonny, but that doesn’t mean it is not vibrant, or lifeless. The colours are warm and hue-y, with Jenkins pushing in and out from the characters as though we are focusing in on their thoughts. A stunning score by Nicholas Britell is placed over the top of all this, and the music is where the film begins to strangle you, leading you to be lost in the world of the film. The track titled ‘Agape’ is the one that will break you. This melancholia is constantly present in Baldwin’s writing, as is an honest respect for romance, and lust, which Jenkins threads throughout the runtime.

Jenkins has made few films, and people have only been properly aware of him since Moonlight, but he already has his own style and signature moves. The most obvious example of this would be the way that he makes his actors stare directly at the camera, but much has been wrote about that, by far more qualified people than me. What I enjoy about his film-making, is his compassion and his lack of cynicism when it comes to romantic and poetic moments. He treats these moments with a tactile advance, and in Beale Street, you can’t help feel full of love and joy during these scenes. Whether its Tish’s sister telling her to un-bow her head, or a wonderful scene between Fonny and his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), where Daniel tells him of the trouble he faced in prison. It’s a great scene not only because of the content of the discussion, but Jenkins positions it perfectly, where the camera slowly drifts from Fonny to Daniel as they speak and the performances the two actors give are completely captivating. The sex scene is endearing, where Jenkins elongates the build up in silence, until Fonny reminds her that she is safe, and that he would never hurt her. Jenkins fills the screen with their bodies, and we can see the sweat pouring off them, as they tentatively come closer together, framing them with no perversion, relying on their acute chemistry. Baldwin’s sex in Giovanni’s Room is much of the same, where it is formulaic to a point of mechanical physical contact, and people are attracted to one another so they do something about it, in an essence of sweetness and raw human nature.

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Another aspect of Baldwin’s writing that Jenkins manages to capture is the story playing out like the narrator is recollecting memories. Tish is guiding us through the events with her voice, remembering details of how she feels physically, staying distant from what is actually happening. This makes the experience emotionally investing, because you are keying in and out of moments as Tish remembers them. Jenkins structures the film very precisely, where the time frame is very loose, cutting back and forth between before Fonny was imprisoned, to after, whilst making it unclear and unimportant how much time has passed. The film has an easy pace at the beginning, then suddenly we are introduced to the crux of the story (Fonny being falsely accused of rape), where the pace becomes quicker and sharper, and then Jenkins mixes the plot engrossment with more abstract notes of cinematography. It is less kinetic and more large brush strokes crossing across several canvases. The end painting is a lush one where the melancholia is obvious, yet it is the methodical way in which Jenkins situates the scenes of the film that make it powerful. It’s an editing feat by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, where they allow Jenkins to pragmatically flick back and forth through the story, to envision a climatic message that you’ve been lost in for two hours. More directly, the film is that gorgeous balance between wandering artistry and scientific story-telling, similar to how Fonny feels about his own work – he is an artisan, not an artist.

This isn’t a review of the film, but I haven’t even mentioned how alive the performances are, from all the cast. Many have pointed out Regina King’s matriarchal force, but I would look to the two leads, and Kiki Layne as Tish in particular because she is the real soul of the movie. Basically I was in love with this film as soon as it begun, and in awe, but also sadness by the end. It is ultimately a heartbreaking tale of systematic and societal racism crushing down on an innocent and affectionate relationship, and by staying close to a love story, Jenkins is uncovering more wider issues, something that James Baldwin did all the way through his career. He was a key cultural civil rights activist, something that Jenkins claims not to be, but of course he is inadvertently achieving that anyway through mirroring Baldwin’s behaviour. I don’t know why love and romance affects me so much, but Giovanni’s Room got me, as did If Beale Street Could Talk, and as have countless other tales of amorous sentiment.

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People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” – James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room.

 

GO AND WATCH THIS FILM. IT IS BETTER THAN ANYTHING YOU WOULD OTHERWISE SEE.

The Favourite – Film Review

Yorgos Lanthimos is a unique film-maker, with a unique style that is sometimes tricky to get on with. His characters usually have a strange, disconnected dialogue, and they are alienated from any kind of real world, which means that they all seem like the same person. The experience is one of mild amusement, that is boosted by Yorgos’ fantastic eye for detail, and composition, however his films always feel as though they are missing something. I think he has discovered that something with The Favourite.

Set in early 18th century England, a weak Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) lays in bed, whilst members of parliament come and go to advise her on the war against France. Sometimes when they visit, she is too frail to see them, so her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs in her place. Sarah has to deal with the bickering between the Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) and leader of the opposition Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Quickly we see Sarah’s resilience and strength against them, with Weisz fierce biting tone. During these discussions on which tax to raise so that they can afford to keep fighting against the French, a new servant arrives – a young woman who has ‘fallen from grace’ after her father went mad, and burnt down their manor with his family still in it. Abigail (Emma Stone) rises through the ranks, and soon is promoted form servant to Sarah’s maid, where she can begin to closely interact with the Queen. They build a relationship that is different to the one Anne has with Sarah, and so jealously, and scheming starts to strife between the three of them.

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The triangle is where the film is, and where Yorgos’ comes alive as a film-maker. He has loosened his grip on his style to allow the characters and actors to breathe. Each of them feels alive with their own strengths, weakness, desires and needs. Lady Sarah is controlling, and sharp – she understands the needs of the country, whilst worrying about her own husband (Mark Gatiss) going to war. Her relationship with Anne is loving, and their history is clear, but Sarah is often cruel to the Queen, being the only one not scared to put her down. Anne doesn’t need putting down any further, as she has an eating disorder, stuffing her face when she’s sad, and she’s in constant pain thanks to a serious gout infection. She relies on Sarah, but gets upset when Sarah is mean to her, consequently Abigail is a breath of fresh air for the Queen, and tells her exactly what she wants to hear, that she is still beautiful and respected. Stone’s character is someone who has had to learn how to survive, and there is an unmatched tenacious, persistent attitude to her. The way the three actors play them is superb, and their chemistries are strong but different. Colman and Stone coming together is about excitement, and fun, where Weisz coming together with Anne is about affection, and honesty. Yorgos frames them without showing off, and allows them to move, and act. He lets them act! Colman’s performance at first is almost a Sophie from Peep Show level of absolute disgust, then we learn that there is a deep sadness to her, and a particular scene with her and Stone in the middle of the film is totally heartbreaking. Weisz is tougher, and scarier, especially late on where her physical appearance changes, and her aggressiveness is personified. The standout is Stone, because she goes through so many different levels of emotion, and it’s not fully transparent how much of her is simple manipulation to get what she wants. She is transfixing when she is on the screen.

All of that lovely character stuff aside, the film is of course very funny. Yorgos has never had any trouble with humour, his 2015 film The Lobster wins you over because of the strange laughs. In this film, the script has more heart to it, and thus the humour is more joyous, and quotable. There is a scene where young suitor Masham (Joe Alwyn) is chasing Abigail around a woods, that is genuinely hilarious, but there are little lines throughout that will get you. A lot of this comes from the male characters in the film, because they are quite farcical. Nicholas Hoult is terrific as a golden scumbag, James Smith as the Prime Minister who is obsessed with his racing duck is amazing, if you are a fan of his portrayal of Glenn Cullen in the BBC comedy The Thick of It (his character in the film is great any way), and any Joe Alwyn – Emma Stone interaction was loads of fun.

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The film in the end becomes less of a silly period comedy, and more compelling as view of where the characters are situated, sort of in the air of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) . There is a certain change in the scenery, and set up of power around the Queen by the final scene, and the gear down to this in the penultimate moments is completely engrossing. Even in the very last shot, where Yorgos is suddenly portraying a different message to the one pushed during the majority of the film, it is still very moving. The balance of comedy and drama is the line to sell when describing the success of the film, and you can’t argue with that. This is an accomplished piece of work, that will reap the rewards of time and repeat viewings.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes! The film is split into sections, or chapters and it is worth going to see just for the one titled ‘What an outfit!’

Widows – Film Review

Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame is a personal favourite.  It does everything a great film should do – capture emotion on screen, and create emotion for those watching it.  His other films aren’t too shabby either, with Hunger (2008) being a true artistic vision of real story, and 12 Years a Slave (2013) a comprehensive cinematic experience of large themes.  He’s an elite director, with a wonderful eye for detail and a transcendent relationship with his actors.  Widows is a new step for him, a jump into the genre movie with the weight of expectation on his shoulders.

McQueen co-wrote the film with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and it stars just about anyone you can think of.  It’s an ensemble cast, with Viola Davis at the centre as the grieving wife of a criminal, played by Liam Neeson.  When gangster come politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) knocks on her door looking for the money her husband stole of him in his fatal heist, she has to band together the wives of the rest of her husband’s deceased crew, to pull off a job to pay Manning.  Set in contemporary Chicago, a political race is also mixed in there, with dodgy product of the system Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) going up against wildcard Manning.

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For a movie with a simple premise, there is a lot going on.  In the first hour I was wondering where all the threads would come together, and why there were so many players bouncing in and out scene by scene.  However all this mix and matching is entertaining, thanks to this incredible cast and quick pacing.  The movie races along, but McQueen gives each actor time to breathe.  Davis had the potential to be annoying in this role, but is measured enough to keep the film’s empathy balanced, rather than over the top.  Farrell is sleazy, but mostly pathetic and it was like watching a dog that had been run over most of the time.  Elizabeth Debicki is totally believable as the underdog, and the highlight of any of the actual heist stuff.  The standout by far is Daniel Kaluuya, who is absolutely terrifying, in a fun way, and his scenes probably took the shine off the rest of the movie.

After the first hour, the film gears towards the heist more, and this was a negative for me.  The least interesting thing about this film is the heist, because when it came down to it the stakes felt very low, and unimportant.  I would have been happy if the film got to the final act and the characters were like actually no we can’t pull this off, credits.  And I’m not saying the women weren’t convincing as capable of doing it, they were, but seeing them try and get on with their lives after losing their husbands was more intriguing.  So the film becomes a bit of a romp, which I’m fine with, because it was well directed, and exciting.  However the political games between poverty and the institutionalised, Kaluuya’s madness, and Debicki’s new means of income completely overshadowed the need for a final act robbery.

There is a real sense of place throughout the movie, and its greatest strength was its geography.  The best scene in the film is a shot from a car bonnet, where you can hear Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his assistant (Molly Kunz) talking candidly in the back of the car, but you can’t see them.  It’s a single take where the car moves from the projects to the suburbs, and perfectly illustrates the contrast in wealth in such a short amount of distance.  And that idea of a decaying, façade-ridden city is the theme that worked the most.  McQueen and Flynn throw in added social issues towards the end of the movie, that didn’t have an impact because of their briefness.  There’s also a third act revelation that felt unneeded, and it made the final few moments unsatisfying for me.

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This is one of those films where there is a lot to talk about, which I like.  I understand why the majority of critics have applauded this film, it’s good and I enjoyed it.  There were a few things that didn’t sit right with me, and it’s a shame that the better parts of the film stayed in the background.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes.  In the end this movie is a solid cinema experience, for any mainstream audience, something I wouldn’t say for McQueen’s previous films.

The Wife – Film Review

The silly takeaway from this film is that winning the Nobel Prize for Literature seems pretty lame.  A life’s work given the greatest nod of approval is essentially a jet lag poisoned trip where you’re bothered by intruding sycophants the whole time.  That would be the silly take, but not a false one.  The Wife is directed by Bjorn L Runge, and is based on the novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer.  It’s about, unsurprisingly, a wife, played by Glenn Close, who is questioning her life choices after her husband (Jonathan Pryce) wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.  They travel to Stockholm, so that he can receive the award, and with them is their son (Max Irons) – a struggling writer, living in his father’s shadow.  Creeping behind them, desperate to write the prize winners biography, is Christian Slater’s Nathaniel Bone, a man poking the fire for a story.

From the beginning, Joan’s (Glenn Close) struggle is recognisable.  It’s a burning resentment that is not a new thing in her life, you can see it in her eyes.  And at first it’s a simple notion of being pushed to the background, seen as the leaning post for the genius husband.  It’s not jealousy, but melancholy for years spent being a crutch and a kiss on the cheek as she passes through the study.  This is what I was expecting for the rest of the film, and almost sitting in sympathy for Pryce’s character also.  He’s a brilliant writer, a proud father, and a loving husband – he shouldn’t feel guilt for his wife’s underlying un-fulfilment?  His level on the scumbag scale and the faults of the characters is something you should discover on your own, and the discoveries work.

Seldom do plot developments enhance the complexities of characters, however The Wife is a film where they do.  Suddenly the father/son relationship is in a far deeper mess – beyond seeking fatherly approval, or an attempt to disconnect nepotism.  So go see the film, and enjoy this weight of revelation that the director throws at you.  And Lunge is careful with his projectiles, holding them off until the right moment, coming as trebuchet rocks destroying a castle when they arrive.  The use of that purple metaphor is because the film certainly has its big moments – Oscar screams they could be described as.  Thankfully the performances are superb, and the explosions are engaging because of them.  What can I say about Glenn Close that hasn’t already been said?  This performance is a game of repulsively beautiful 3D chess, a jump on an elevator to different floors in Hotel Psyche.  To quote the film: “She brings out the stillness and the noise.”  The STILLNESS and the NOISE, the RISING ANXIETY and the VOMIT OF EMOTION.  She’s terrific, and when she takes best female actor at the Academy Awards I’ll be watching in glee.  Pryce tackles her well, and on a character level is not a serious match for the tranquillity of Joan, or his disturbed son – something Pryce nails, where he presents those sad inadequacies.  Special mention to Christian Slater, who was probably thrilled at the opportunity to do some actual acting, something he’s quite skilled at.

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So what comes of this slow rise to a satisfying denouement?  A nuanced experience, softly photographed and precisely written.  Screenwriter Jane Anderson converts the novel to be a full frontal message, which is impactful despite its lack of thematic ambiguity.  In fact, scratch that, the film manages to be both transparent and open-ended, due to a final interaction between Slater and Close.  If you can’t tell, I loved the movie, and connected to it a great deal.  The flashback scenes of young love, competitiveness, inefficiency and some hopelessness hit close to home, and give a sense to the history of the characters.  It’s one of those where the players have more to tell, and have more going on between the scenes that we never see.  Watch the film to see an attentive director capture the essence of human relationships through brilliant acting, and hopefully the film will stay with you when the point of the film becomes crystal clear.

 

Worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes, fuck Venom, and go to your smaller cinema and catch this before its run ends.

Follow me on Twitter: @insiderobbie

Lady Bird – Film Review

This is the last of the big awards season films to come out in the UK, and I’ve been looking forward to it for ages.  It is Greta Gerwig’s first directorial effort, and she also wrote the screenplay.  The film is a coming of age drama/comedy charting Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson’s (Saoirse Ronan) last year at high school in Sacramento before leaving for college.  She’s desperate to leave the area, despite the wills of her mother (Laurie Metcalf).  In this year she falls in love, out of love, tackles the tough relationship with her mother and begins to wonder what she really wants.

One thing to note about this film is how much audience participation it invoked.  There were gasps, yells, noises of disgust, loud laughs and cries whilst this movie played.  It indicates a film where people care, and that’s important.  Right from the very beginning we understand the most important relationship of the film: the mother daughter one and the incidents that come from their time together are really moving.  There is cause to make a noise during the shocking or upsetting moments, because the characters are so well presented.  It also happens to be very well acted across the board.  Soairse Ronan is honest and convincing in the lead, because she seems so natural to the role.  Every decision she made felt believable, which is thanks to some good writing, but I think mostly down to Ronan’s ability to clearly care about the person she’s playing.   Laurie Metcalf against her is beautifully ignorant, though also heartbreaking and the two of them have a terrific chemistry.  Their scenes together can be amusing or despairing.  And the rest of the cast do well, especially Lucas Hedges’ Danny who shows a great range and Beanie Feldstein’s Julie, who is most likeable character you’ll ever see.  I can’t forget to mention legendary Tracy Letts as the father, because his melancholic nature brings out some of the most sincere pieces of storytelling.

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In short the film is very good, and satisfying.  Gerwig obviously has filmmaking skill, and it’s a very pretty watch.  To look at the film deeper there are some issues I have with it, that aren’t too major.  It kinds of falls into recycled high school drama now and then and there are moments of blandness.  The film never the reaches the heights of being an amazing piece of work, because a lot of its moving parts didn’t astound me.  When the film is brilliant, it’s highlighting on home, unmet expectations, depression and parental connections.  It’s less brilliant during the high school tropes, and I think my cynical British mind is making me view it this way.  Our high school experiences are much different to US’s, so there are moments when I’m like: “yeah okay, I get it, please move on”.  However the film is excellent as a whole because it’s really funny, it’s well shot, has good characters and there are fantastic odd moments that’ll definitely make you smile.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes! This film doesn’t have a massive release so it’s definitely worth going to a smaller independent cinema to go see it!

Phantom Thread – Health and Eating

This film is so perfect that I cannot review it.  It’s not possible for me, and like with last year’s Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049 and Call Me by Your Name there’s a sense that’ll I’ll ruin the experience if I review it.  There’s more to the film then just if it’s good or not, if you should go see it or not.  You should definitely go and see it, even if it’s not the usual sort of film you’d go and see.  It’s worth every penny of your cinema ticket, trust me.  Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius auteur, and with Phantom Thread he’s hit it out of the park again.  The film is doing so many things that it’s really hard to comprehend it all.  It’s a dream-like parable, a character study on a creative obsessive, a romance, a ghost story, an abstract comedy and most of all a film about health and eating.

Read Mark Kermode’s review here for some context: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/04/phantom-thread-review-paul-thomas-anderson-daniel-day-lewis

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My own obsession of nutrition and dieting stems from the Joe Rogan Experience.  This terrific podcast, hosted by comedian and UFC colour commentator Joe Rogan, often has health experts on as guests.  They come on to de-bunk myths about food groups, and discuss the better ways to fuel your life.  Rogan himself is a fitness fanatic, who mostly keeps a strict Ketogenic diet and has a constant exercise routine.  The Ketogenic diet is very popular right now, and consists of a low carb high fat intake, which leads the body to naturally burn energy.  Many, including Rogan, proclaim it has improved their life drastically.  They feel less tired, less anxious and sleep better – not to mention being much fitter.  And that’s what a lot of people don’t realise about what they are eating, and how much it affects them.  It may seem silly, but if you’re particularly down, you should try and change your diet for the better because it is massively important.  The changes you make should be the correct ones though, and not the ones cycled out falsely for years.  Sugar is the worst, and saturated fat isn’t all that terrible.  The food pyramid taught in schools has in some way ruined the lives of many people who believe the wrong thing about what’s good to eat.  It’s outstanding the amount of people slowly poisoning themselves by eating loads of bread and pasta – foods our bodies just aren’t built for digesting.  The point is that what we put in our bodies has a huge affect on us, and Phantom Thread features a lot of eating – something that I think is significant in the film…

 

Breakfast

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Some of the film’s most amusing scenes occur around the breakfast table.  Woodcock’s day is ruined if he is unsettled whilst having his breakfast.  This means no confrontation, no loud buttering of toast or any form of interruption as he works.  He requires his mind to be totally on his work, and is uninterested by anything else whilst he does it.  Breakfast being the most important meal of the day is a fallacy really, but for Woodcock it is crucial.  He needs a clear mind, and doesn’t have the time for the worries of the women in his life.  This is because his dressmaking is everything, and to battle his anxiety and grief over his mother he designs constantly. He can’t tackle it any other way.  Eating can be a cure for anxiety, and often if you feel anxious, you probably just have an empty stomach.  Anderson uses breakfast, and Woodcock’s attitude towards it to show how geared he is to always be creating.  It also highlights his distain and boredom for almost anything else.  The scene in the beginning of the film where his current companion is bothering him with an argument shows how no-one comes close to his mother, or his work.  When Alma comes into his life, she too is annoying at breakfast.  Yet there is a bite to Alma, and she’s not going to be dominated by Woodcock.

Eating breakfast is usually an inconvenience for Woodcock, and he gets up to do some work first.  It’s not that he just doesn’t have time for confrontation while he draws, and picks at eggs, he doesn’t have time for the luxury of it.  The intensity in his creativity is ever-present during these scenes, and Anderson uses them as a starting point to build this strange character.  It’s the foundations of his extraordinary nature of a loveless, deeply focused man.  There also comes moments of humour from these scenes, where Alma inadvertently strikes back at Woodcock by being more annoying.  Being irritated by people’s weird little habits is a human thing, and so in a minute way we sympathise with Woodcock.  Only till we realise that all he needs is a bit of time to relax.

 

Indulgence (I love this bit of gorgeous physicality from DDL in this shot…)

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Every now and then Woodcock indulges to a great degree, and for particular reasons.  It comes when the anxiety has gone, and he feels brief moments of contentment.  For example early in the film when he meets Alma, and instantly has a connection with her, he is relaxed.  He’s in the country away from his work and he engages with someone who completely captures his attention.  And so he orders this extremely extravagant breakfast that seems to never end.  It’s interesting because often we indulge when we feel down, or are feeling lazy.  Woodcock indulges when he is on top of the world.  This is because he’s not fighting anything or chasing that desire to re-create the wedding dress he made for his mother.  He’s at ease, and so goes to the extreme when he’s eating.  There’s madness to this, because the meal he orders seems too big for anyone to eat.  Surely he would feel sick after all that food?  This indicates the dream-like nature of the film, and Anderson’s choice to use motifs to tell a story, rather than reality.

Woodcock only indulges on his own terms, and when Alma attempts to spoil him by evacuating the busy house and cooking him dinner – he’s not amused.  His controlling attitude and his need for everything to be precise come out in this part of the film.  It’s the first indicator of Alma losing faith in him and shows a broken dynamic between them.  There’s hopelessness to her admiration for him, and so it churns a cycle of events that lead her to take more drastic actions to get his full attention.

 

MAJOR SPOILERS…

 

Poison

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The third act revelation in this film is an interesting one, because it subverts our expectations to some degree.  Woodcock is built as the villain, and the one capable of malice.  Alma’s use of the poisonous mushroom to weaken Woodcock so that he becomes malleable and caring is not a plot twist but advancement in character.  It’s the use of a plot device to have character development instead of a narrative move.  Anderson uses as almost a point of romance, something the film is full of.  The outstanding soundtrack from Jonny Greenwood has lush romantic tones that sweep the film along.  And the relationship between Woodcock and Alma is gentle and loving at times.  The poisoning brings a new level of caring however, and removes the toxicity between them.  Woodcock’s health on the demise shadows thoughts about the care-system in general.  It’s the kind of thing where injured soldiers fall in love with their nurses.  Suddenly Alma is all he needs to survive.

Without our full health we become different people, and unable to fulfil our potential.  Woodcock’s revelation and subsequent submission indicates a massive change in his character.  Suddenly he is content, and changes his life to revolve around Alma, instead of the work.  This is because he has finally finished grieving for his mother and can move on.  He doesn’t have to seek perfection in his dresses, searching for the stitch that will bring the feeling of his mother back.  The right stitch has come in the form of this unbalanced and physically unhealthy relationship with Alma.  It’s a strange connection they have, but no doubt one full of actual love.

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This is a remarkable film.  It could be Anderson’s most accessible at the surface level, but still with a thick subtext.  Daniel Day-Lewis’ Woodcock is assured, though soft and idiosyncratic against Vicky Krieps’ insecure but charismatic Alma.  Their binding together is shown as a to and fro as they eat and live together.  Woodcock’s sister (Lesley Manville) intervenes, appearing to be the master of her own health and not the one bit unstable.  The instability creates the drama and the teetering edge that the film sits on.  At any moment the film could explode with anguish and take you away as the viewer.  In the end consumption and production drive the film, taking plenty of turns as it goes.  When something goes in, a change must occur, and I think Anderson stunningly shows that here.  There’s a mirror to the way the characters engulf and the way they act.  It works on every level, which creates a nuanced and utterly captivating experience.  There are layers, and what I’ve discussed is only one of them.  I cannot wait to see it again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I, Tonya – Film Review

Figure skating isn’t really at the front of mainstream culture anymore, and so many will only know bits and pieces about Tonya Harding.  This film, directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm), is a biopic of sorts – charting Tonya’s journey to the top of the figure skating game and her fall from grace from it.  It involves her relationship with her mother (Allison Janney) and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) as they dip in and out of her life.  The film is told through re-enacted interviews played by the actors and is occasionally structured in a non-linear fashion.

One thing to instantly like about the film is its attitude towards true stories.  It quickly admits the fact that events change depending on who you speak to, thanks to foggy memories and selfish perspectives.  This means that often what the film shows may not be factual, but are truths of some sort – a theme the film delves more into at the very end.  I liked this, because it made the film more in touch with reality.  The film is also portrayed mostly in a farcical, comedic fashion, almost like a Scorsese picture.  Similar in the way that The Wolf of Wall Street poked fun at its outrageously true events, I, Tonya kept a mocking – mostly light tone throughout.  This worked because the narrative fitted, and even though the comedic elements didn’t always land, I think for the most part they felt suitable.

Margot Robbie is electrifying in this film and really drives it.  It’s a true performance, where she captures every element of the character.  She gets her like-ability, but also Harding’s tendency to be brash and aggressive.  I loved watching Robbie in this film, and honestly she’s my choice for the Oscar.  It was nice to see Sebastian Stan in a different role than his marvel universe turn, and he does well in a difficult screen presence.  Allison Janney is essentially a caricature of the horrid mother and she does this superbly.  There is no redemption for her character and Janney plays her disdain for her daughter with such evil eyed skill.  Also Paul Walter Hauser gets a mention as Shawn, Harding’s bodyguard, because he’s hilarious.

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This film is very entertaining, and very well put-together.  The editor Tatiana S. Riegel masterfully crafts the fast moving plot-lines, to make them nuanced and inter-connected.  Its cuts back and forth between little moments seamlessly, which leads the film to be totally engrossing.  When the film ended I was upset that there wasn’t more, though it fulfilled everything it had to say.  This is one I’d recommend to anyone, and the odd problems it has (some of the skating scenes were shot better than others) are glossed over by a ridiculous story and a rousing central performance from Robbie.  Craig Gillespie is one to watch in the next few years.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes.

The Shape of Water – Film Review

This film has garnered the most nominations at this year’s Oscars, and it about deserves all the recognition.  Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro it tells the tale of the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who is a cleaner at an Area – 51 style government research facility in a sub-realistic 1960s.  One day the scientists roll in a lizard like creature that Elisa quickly builds a bond with.  Learning that the creature may soon be destroyed by the scientists and US government goon Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), she decides to try and break it out.

Del Toro does a masterful job at presenting this idiosyncratic Hollywood world for his characters to live in.  It’s wonderfully shot and the set designs are gorgeous.  The colours and techniques del Toro uses are balanced well and it’s a real pleasure to be in the company of this film.  It also has one of the best ensemble performances I’ve ever seen.  Each character is given time and space to do interesting things.  Sally Hawkins it at the centre and does a good job at portraying emotion without speaking.  The supporting cast is where the film shines though with Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg all being terrific.  Shannon is of course perfect for the evil, creepy baddie willing to go to the extreme to get what he wants.  Spencer is a delight, doing the talking for Hawkins character – adding relief to the film.  Stuhlbarg is a bigger part than I was expecting, and he manages to capture the attention of a different story to the larger narrative.  Jenkins however, is the standout to me as the neighbour and side-kick to Hawkins’ character.  He’s charming, funny and heart-breaking as the ageing man looking back on his regrets and his melancholic loneliness.  It really was a joy watching these characters interact in the stunning world del Toro had built for them.

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The film is a hard 15 certificate, meaning that del Toro pushes it about as far as it can go.  This is why he’s a great director, because he’s fearless.  There’s intense violence, and sexual scenes in the film that for the most part land well.  A couple of times I wondered if it was all necessary, but I’m grateful that they didn’t shy away from anything.  The biggest criticism that I can give the film is that it’s a little uninteresting.  It’s an already told story and there are better films out there about US race relations in the middle of the century, and about the cold war.  The relationship between the creature and Elisa is a bit mawkish at times, and I can tell I’ve got everything out of it after one viewing.  It’s not a great just yet, but it’s really well made and I wouldn’t mind it picking up a few academy awards.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes.

5 Reasons Why Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Not a Good Film

Few things first – this film is not terrible, it has some great things about it and if you want to read my initial thoughts here’s my review: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/01/14/three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-film-review/.  I’m not writing this to hate on the film, but rather to try and understand why I didn’t like it and so many others did.  Martin McDonagh is a good director and In Bruges is one of my favourite movies of all time so this is not an attempt to slate him or the cast involved, because they are clearly very talented. The film just didn’t click for me, and here are five reasons why…

 

  1. Comedy Set – Up

This is something I discussed in my short review, because it’s probably the thing that stands out the most.  I saw the film with a big crowd, so when everyone laughed it was loud in the cinema.  There was also the sheep affect where if one person laughs, everyone else does.  From the very beginning the film is set up as a comedy with its staging, writing and character design etc so the audience was instantly laughing.  This meant that when it got to a less funny moment they were still giggling, because the film had settled them in to that kind of movie.  Consequently I stopped caring about everything that was happening, because the situations were comedic rather than dramatic.  I don’t think it’s particularly groundbreaking to make light out of serious situations or make a film that is laugh out loud funny (this film often is) that touches on deeper themes – Mcdonagh did it perfectly with In Bruges.  This film doesn’t work like that, as the situations are too outrageously portrayed.  It is made like a comedy, therefore everything out of that genre didn’t land and overall made the film uninteresting.

 

  1. Sam Rockwell’s Character

Rockwell is one of the most underrated working actors, and has loads of great roles behind him.  He’s great in this film as the twisted cop Dixon, but the character isn’t.  Similar to my first point he’s set up as a joke, to a point where he’s almost a Blazing Saddles character.  In the first half of the movie he’s a complete spoof of a racist, stupid, violent police officer.  So why should I care? He’s not written as a real person, and only becomes intriguing in the second half of the film.

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  1. Pointless Characters

This is the one that I find the most offensive, and it’s not really an offensive film.  It’s that the choices made by McDonagh on some of his characters are really strange.  Why is Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson – the highlight of the movie) wife 20 years younger than him and Australian?  There seems no explanation to this in the film, and it adds nothing to Harrelson’s character.  Everything in a film has to be there for a reason, but there’s no reason to write her as that?  Maybe it’s a weird artistic choice or maybe it’s because filmmakers have this perverse problem of casting younger women to be wives of their male actors.  Another character that is pointless and just played to poke fun at is Mildred ex-husbands new girlfriend.  She is shown as a complete idiot, who has no function at all other than to say something daft for laughs.  Ha ha ha! Do you get it?  The husbands ran off with a younger better looking girl! But she’s fucking tool! Isn’t that hilarious?  They’ve simply aimed for the lowest common denominator here, and for me made a really ugly decision.  Why does she have to be really dumb?  Is the film not funny enough already?  They could have made her a normal human, the ex-husband character is a horrible person already – him having a girlfriend with no brain cells doesn’t make him any worse.  Just because you have a female lead, doesn’t mean you can disregard every other female character as a puppet.  Also Peter Dinklage is totally unutilised in the film, and references to his height became too frequent and dull.

 

  1. Boring Direction

This film has one great piece of direction in it, and that’s about it.  The rest of it is shot very ordinary, and at times is quite disjointed.  For dialogue he just cuts quickly between each character, making every conversation lose weight and not once did I feel McDonagh try to say something with his camera.  As well as this he occasionally makes weird jumps to action that leave you feeling a bit bemused.  There’s a bit with a knife that is so out of character and out of place that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  It must have been another joke.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI

 

  1. The Deer

I despise it when a director has a random bit of CGI in to break the drama.  In one scene Frances McDormand talks to a deer (that looks like a cartoon) to tell her everything that she’s feeling.  AGAIN, did we need that? It pulls you completely out of the film, and it is so cringey.  After that I gave up on it all.

 

 

Like I said in my review if you go into this film thinking it as a strange comedy parable, you’ll probably enjoy it.  However the poor choices McDonagh made lead it to be nothing more than that.  It is not a good film.