Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category


Posted: April 21, 2023 in Cinema

Writer and director: George O’Hara


“When something is burned, its particles are released into the atmosphere to last on forever”. These words resonate strongly with Sid, a novice astronomer who is soon to leave this universe and seeks ways of leaving some tiny mark of his existence.

Kindling tells Sid’s story during a brief Summer period when he is reunited with boyhood friends. He is about to celebrate the third anniversary of being told by doctors that he has up to three years to live. Written and directed by George O’Hara, the film sets out to be a celebration more than a wake, telling us to value family and friendships while we still have them.

The film also pays homage to a perhaps dying vision of rural England; green rolling hills, rustling woodlands, rippling streams and water lilies sleeping peacefully on a small pond. Captured beautifully by David Wright’s cinematography, it all seems much too idyllic, but O’Hara is reminding us that we only borrow the places that we treasure; we cannot own them forever. Likewise our friends.

As Sid, George Somner gives the film is beating heart, embodying the spirit of resilience that pushes the character forward. For him, life goes on until it doesn’t and bonds of friendship are unbreakable. The return of his four friends who have left to build lives elsewhere, sparks the idea of having a huge bonfire onto which each will throw items of personal significance. The friends, Digs (Wilson Mbomio), Dribble (Conrad Khan), Plod (Rory J Saper) and Wolfie (Kaine Zaijaz), each given distinct characteristics by O’Hara, are acted superbly and perhaps their stories deserve to be developed further.

Equally touching is Sid’s platonic friendship with Lily (played with great charm by Mia McKenna-Bruce), a young lady who is unaware of his condition and not part of the group of five. She has low self-esteem, unable to find a direction or purpose in her life. Sid’s efforts to encourage and strengthen her, perhaps hoping that a part of him will live on, illustrate the writer/director’s themes of loss and renewal.

The drama is bolstered by stirring performances from Tara Fitzgerald as Sid’s over-protective mother and Geoff Bell as a father who just wants to be a bigger part of his son’s short life. They are struggling to function as normal while grieving inside for Sid, who is still among them. Harry Brokensha’s soft rock music enriches the film’s youthful spirit and its mood of melancholy.

Kindling is at its most powerful when it is understated, but it walks a fine line between solid drama and mawkish sentimentality. When, particularly in the final third, it crosses that line, it feels forgivable because of the film’s overriding tone of positivity. Nonetheless, best advice is to watch it with a box of strong tissues to hand.

Tomorrow Morning

Posted: September 6, 2022 in Cinema
Ramin Karimloo, Oliver Clayton and Samantha Barks

Writer and composer: Laurence Mark Wythe

Director: Nick Winston


In recent times, film musicals have proved to be a precarious business. A few, such as The Greatest Showman, have become gigantic hits, while others…well let’s not dwell for too long on Cats. It seems that few have hit the middle ground, but maybe Tomorrow Morning will find it; a modest musical, it could be destined for modest success.

This bitter-sweet British film is adapted from a stage musical which appeared off-Broadway in 2011, having had a short London run in 2006. The setting is Wapping, by the side of the River Thames, which is made to look gorgeous and director Nick Winston never misses an opportunity to bring Tower Bridge and the Shard into shot. These are images of which the London Tourist Board will approve, but the opulence seen throughout the film could contrast starkly with real life in inflation-hit Britain during the coming Winter.

In essence, the film is Kramer vs. Kramer with songs. A 40-ish professional couple with a cute, precocious 10-year-old son split up and fight over custody of their luxury penthouse apartment. They are Will and Catherine (spelled with a “C” in case of confusion); he is a writer, frustrated to be working for an advertising agency and struggling to come up with a strap line for a campaign to promote diamonds; she is an artist who is achieving growing success with her paintings.

Intercutting with the divorce storyline, the film goes back a decade with scenes set around the time of the couple’s wedding. As we could all have guessed that Will and Catherine were once blissfully happy, it is difficult to see the point of these scenes, apart from letting us know what she looks like in a white dress and he without his beard.

Ramin Karimloo and Samantha Barks are accomplished musical theatre performers and they fill the leading roles with considerable charm. As their best mates, George Maguire and Fleur East make lively contributions, helping to add a feel good glow to proceedings.

When the parallel stories face being dragged under by their predictability, solid supporting performances come to the rescue and inject much needed touches of comedy. Anita Dobson is Will’s bossy boss,  Harriet Thorpe is Catherine’s fussing mother and Henry Goodman is her stern-faced solicitor. Tasty one-scene cameos from Omid  Djalili in a bathtub as Will’s father and a blonde Joan Collins as Catherine’s glamorous, man-eating, octogenarian granny add to the film’s buoyancy. At the other end of the age spectrum, Oliver Clayton inevitably steals scene after scene as Zach, the boy torn between his parents.

Musically and thematically, there are strong similarities to Jason Robert Brown’s chamber musical (also filmed) The Last Five Years, which shows far more insight and invention in tracking two people joining together and breaking apart. The key difference is that this film shows the beginning and (probable) end of the relationship, but skips over the intervening years and fails to investigate fully the key questions of how and why disenchantment set in.

Writer Laurence Mark Wythe shows a clear understanding of how a screenplay and songs need to work together in a film musical to drive narratives and flesh out characters. His lyrics are generally strong, his tunes are generally bland, but, however mediocre the songs may be, the film would have become a pretty dire affair without them.

We are not going to wake up tomorrow morning to find that musical cinema has a massive new hit, but this film deserves an audience and should provide a comforting escape from bleak times ahead.

Shepherd (London Film Festival 2021)

Posted: October 15, 2021 in Cinema

Writer and director: Russell Owen


If the universal experience of grieving could be translated into a cinema genre, would it be a horror story? Writer and director Russell Owen’s film explores this possibility as it follows a man traumatised by the death in a car accident of his pregnant wife, who he knows had been unfaithful to him. Feelings of loss, betrayal and guilt blend together in a toxic brew that gradually becomes increasingly horrific.

Eric Black, played with a steely glare by Tom Hughes, is the strong silent type, not given to outward displays of emotion. The word most frequently passing his lips is “Baxter”, the name of his faithful dog. After an aborted suicide attempt and rejection by his censorious, Bible-bashing mother (a fearsome Greta Scacchi), he takes a job on a remote Scottish island, seemingly uninhabited, apart from by the sheep which become his charges.

Apart from an unreliable telephone, Eric’s only contact with the outside world is Fisher, a darkly mysterious ferry woman, played by Kate Dickie as a cross between a prison warder and the Grim Reaper. Haunted by menacing visions of her, his mother and his dead wife (Gaia Weiss), he surveys the island, finding a dilapidated  cottage for shelter, a shipwreck, a disused lighthouse and an unforgiving exterior landscape which offers no prospect of redemption.

Cinematographer Richard Stoddard captures the bleak terrain to chilling effect. Roaring winds, crashing tides and atmospheric music are heard incessantly on the soundtrack, gnawing at the brain and giving no respite from the hostility all around. Creaking floorboards and things that go bang in the night are the stock in trade of horror films and the lighthouse sequence borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the originality of the film’s locations tends to outweigh the most obvious clichés. 

Hughes brings out the vulnerability of Eric, a man gripped by the twin terrors of grief and isolation, and gives the film depth as it moves between psychological dram and supernatural horror. The film’s skill in walking the thin line that separates paranoia from the paranormal makes it unnerving and helps to hold the audience enthralled. A short epilogue back on the mainland feels slightly misjudged and possibly unnecessary, but it still leaves enough intriguing questions unanswered for the film to linger in our thoughts long after the closing credits have rolled.

Buster Keaton Collection (Volume 3)

Posted: August 26, 2020 in Cinema

Directors: Buster Keaton, John G Blystone and  James W Horne


Around a century after the golden age of silent film comedy, we remember Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and The Keystone Cops, but maybe less so Buster Keaton, who is rated by many as the greatest cinema comic of them all. This limited edition three Blu-ray disc collection of three newly restored feature length classics aims to redress the balance. It comes with multiple informative extras, including a 60-page book, to satisfy cinéastes, but a key test is whether the three films are still up to entertaining 21st Century audiences.

Slight of frame, with a pallid complexion, Keaton’s stone-faced features are accentuated by monochrome cinematography. On looks, he would not be out of place in a horror movie, but he casts himself as the little man, ill equipped to conquer adversity, yet invariably doing so. Audiences like to identify with underdogs and Keaton is one of the screen comedians who gives us early prototypes for such characters.

Our Hospitality (1923) is directed by Keaton and John G Blystone, accompanied here by a symphonic score composed and conducted by Colin Davis. Set in the early 19th Century the film begins in melodramatic style with a shoot-out between the feuding Canfield and McKay families. Baby  William McKay is then sent to New York to be raised by an aunt and, 20 years later, now played by Keaton, he returns to claim his inheritance. The Canfields will stop at nothing to kill him, except when he is receiving hospitality in their home, which would be contrary to the family code of honour.. 

The film has two lengthy sequences which are packed with comic invention. The first covers William’s journey from New York to the Blue Ridge Mountains in one of a line of stage coaches pulled by a steam locomotive along a makeshift railway track. The climactic sequence is a chase through mountains and rivers with plenty of daredevil antics, probably performed without stunt doubles and certainly without green screen technology. The film has dashes of romance and a devoted dog, but sentimentality is kept firmly in check, allowing comedy to reign supreme.

Keaton alone directs Go West (1925), which begins with a caption reading: “Some people travel through life making friends wherever they go, while others just travel through life.” Keaton’s character, named on the credits as simply “Friendless”, is shunned by humans and animals alike, thereby giving the comedy a Chaplinesque air of pathos, particularly when the character becomes attached to Brown Eyes, a lame cow. Accompanied by a jazz influenced score, composed by Rodney Sauer, the film is less structured than the plot driven Our Hospitality and it follows Keaton’s lonely adventures as a drifter, moving from coast to coast stowing away on freight trains.

The middle section, set on a bleak cattle ranch, is overlong and eventually feels drained of comic potential. However, the film moves to a dazzling climax with a cattle drive led by Keaton, through the busy streets of Los Angeles. It is beautifully choreographed mayhem and we have to keep reminding ourselves that what we see on screen is real footage. Repeatedly, expressionless bovine faces mirror Keaton himself, forming part of a succession of surreal images that will live long in the memory.

College (1927) is directed by James W Horne with Keaton and, again, it is accompanied by Sauer’s music. It could be seen as a template for modern day teen romcoms with Keaton, in his early 30s at the time of shooting, playing Ronald, the brainy bookworm in high school who is besotted with Mary, the most popular girl around. He follows her to college, working to pay his way, and is persuaded that the way to win her heart is to excel at sports. 

A warning has to be given here that the film contains a short sequence in which Ronald takes a job as a black waiter, possibly acceptable in the era of Al Jolson, but likely to be seen as offensive today. The triumph of the minnow is at its most touching in College, but the film comes across as the weakest of the three in this collection. This could be because its visual gags, mostly drawing on Ronald’s lack of athletic prowess, have become over familiar through repetition in the intervening years.

2020 has been a miserable year and fresh supplies of laughter could be running low. This collection is a timely reminder that there is plenty of comedy gold in them there Hollywood hills and it is well worth mining.

Available on Blu-ray from 24 August 2020

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writers and directors: Joel and Ethan Coen


Being one for whom Joel and Ethan Coen can do no wrong (okay I may be overlooking The Ladykillers), every new film from the Brothers seems to me like a major event, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, already a prize winner at the Venice International Film Festival, turns out to be a major, major event. 

An anthology of six short stories set during America’s pioneering days in the second half of the 19th Century, the film looks at first to be paying homage to the traditions of the Old West. However, on closer inspection, it is not doing that at all. It is paying homage, both highly critically and deeply cynically, to Old Hollywood and its classic Westerns of the ‘30s-‘50s, now largely consigned to the dustbin of political incorrectness, but still embedded firmly in American and world culture.

At times it feels as if the Brothers are acting as tour guides, leading us around every landscape and every studio set once trodden on by John Ford. All the clichés are here too: sharp-shooting cowboys, a gun dual, a lynch mob, whisky-drenched saloons, travelling entertainers, gold prospectors, a wagon train, a stage coach. All here but spiked with savage and unexpected twists. Here also are scenes, shocking to more enlightened modern audiences, of Native Americans portrayed as marauding Red Indian savages. If these scenes prove to be controversial, we have to ask how could the Coens have highlighted the massive injustices done to a noble race by the film industry without illustrating what those injustices were.

The film’s title is also that of its first segment, a riotously funny tale of a singing gun slinger (Tim Blake Nelson), a character in the mould of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. It is followed by Near Algodones, also jokey, in which a bungling bank robber (James Franco) finds his nemesis. Now the film gets darker with Meal Ticket, a profoundly disturbing story, told in dimly-lit scenes, of a travelling impresario (Liam Neeson) and his limbless star attraction (Harry Melling), who recites pious tomes to dwindling saloon bar audiences. This segment is the stuff of nightmares.

All Gold Canyon is lighter and marked by glorious cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel), as a prospector (Tom Waits) searches painstakingly for gold and battles to protect his find. The cinematography is also stunning in The Gal Who Got Rattled, the story of a young woman (Zoe Kazan) who, along with her brother and his noisy Jack Russell terrier named President Pierce, joins a wagon train heading for an uncertain future in Oregon. This is the longest and most engaging segment incorporating action, romance and tragedy among the contradictory elements that once filled Western movies, accompanied by a lush orchestral score by Carter Burwell, in the style of Aaron Copland.

The film’s ending is as dark as its beginning is light. The Mortal Remains could be described as a journey through Purgatory to Hell. The passengers on a stage coach which has a dead body on its roof are a lady (Tyne Daly), an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), and Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a trapper (Chelcie Ross). It is a doom-laden conversation piece that remains deliberately enigmatic.

Throughout the film, human life is a cheap commodity. The Western cinema genre, which forms a key part of America’s cultural heritage is laid bare and, as a consequence, all the arguments of politicians who eschew compassion in favour of greed and champion the right to bear arms are exposed as empty. It seems as if the Coens are posing the intriguing question of whether the ailments afflicting modern America are rooted in its history or in Hollywood, which proliferated and magnified flimsy myths and legends. With all this in mind, I am now leaving this site for a couple of weeks to visit the Deep South and Tame (?) West of the USA. Wish me luck!

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Posted: July 17, 2018 in Cinema

Writer and director: Ol Parker      Songs: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus


Our wonderful Summer has just got even sunnier. It’s time to forget about high art and think about guilty pleasures, time to take another trip back musically to an era of dancing queens and disco kings, time to take in the warm sea breezes and bask under the cloudless skies of the idyllic Greek islands, time for unashamed escapism.

The 2008 film version of the long-running stage show Mamma Mia!, which celebrates the songs of ABBA, broke UK box office records. More recently, The Greatest Showman, which transcended poor reviews, has been a huge hit, suggesting that the appetite of British cinema goers for film musicals has not diminished. With these facts in mind, the creators of this new film, which is part-sequel and part prequel, did not really need to work too hard to make it a hit, so the pleasant surprise is that they have done such a good job in making it as least as enjoyable as its predecessor. Largely, this is due to a screenplay by writer/director Ol Parker which bristles with witty lines and a clever storyline, developed by Parker with original writer Catherine Johnson and the master of romantic comedy, Richard Curtis.

Precise casting matches familiar character with their younger selves and makes the jumps backwards and forwards in time feel effortless. We join the story with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) planning to re-launch the Hotel Bella Donna, with her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) now gone and her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) planning to further his career in New York. As no one seems to have suggested DNA testing during the course of the last decade, she remains the girl with three fathers – Sam (Pierce Brosnan/Jeremy Irvine), Harry (Colin Firth/Hugh Skinner) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård/Josh Dylan).

The film takes us back to when the young Donna (Lily James) receives her degree from her Vice Chancellor (Celia Imrie) and heads straight for Greece, stopping only to be bedded by three strangers en route and arriving pregnant. The word “slut” would not be suitable for a film like this, not even if spoken by Donna’s best friends Tanya (Christine Baranski/Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Julie Walters/Alexa Davies), who give us two memorable comedy double acts for the price of one. Watch out for the Abba men Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus doing a Hitchcock with non-speaking cameo appearances and Omid Djalili as a ticket seller (he makes it worthwhile hanging on until after the end credits).

If you always wanted to experience Will from BBC’s W1A (Skinner) singing Waterloo, this is the place to come. Brosnan exercises his vocal chords a little less than last time, managing only to whisper a single verse of, appropriately, SOS. Some of the songs reprise those in the last film, others are lesser-known Abba album tracks, but all are sung and choreographed with verve, some in Busby Berkeley style, including a bobbing armada of pleasure boats for Dancing Queen.

The big name addition is Cher, an Oscar winner who has done a bit of singing in her life. Resplendent in a platinum blonde wig, she is Ruby, Sophie’s long-lost grandmother, who steps down from her helicopter and dispenses the uplifting advice “being a grudge holder makes you fat”. Glancing sideways, she spots an old flame, the hotel manager who happens to be named Fernando (Andy Garcia). Cue a duet. If we take the lyrics of Fernando completely seriously, this pair fought side-by-side in a mid-19th Century North American war, but the sequence is so deliciously kitsch that taking anything seriously is the last thing on our minds.

Reviving a formula that pulls off the seemingly impossible trick of being both sincere and tongue-in-cheek throughout, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again mixes an intoxicating cocktail of sun, sea, songs and super troopers. How can we resist it?

Screening date: 17 July 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

London Film Festival 2015

Posted: October 18, 2015 in Cinema

a bigger splashA Bigger Splash*** (Italy/France, dir Luca Guadagnino)

Ralph Fiennes’ over-the-top performance steals scene after scene as an ageing record producer gatecrashing the Italian holiday home of his ex-lover, rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her new partner, a “boring” film maker (Matthias Schoenaerts). He brings with him his young American daughter (Dakota Johnson). Marianne has lost her voice following an operation which serves the film well, because it is at its best when nothing is said and rippling sexual undercurrents are brought to the surface by finely nuanced performances and direction. Laboured at times, but, being set in Lampedusa just as boatloads of refugees are coming ashore, the film is a sad and funny reflection on a crazy world.


black-massBlack Mass*** (USA, dir Scott Cooper)

Casting against type works well in this true life tale of Boston’s gangland, chronicling how the Mafia was wiped out by its Irish equivalent and how mobsters, law enforcement officers and politicians formed a tangled web of corruption. A balding Johnny Depp makes a menacing, psychotic gang leader, Benedict Cumberbatch is his younger brother, a Senator and Joel Egerton is their childhood friend, now an FBI agent. Engrossing and violent, but haven’t we seen the like of this many times before?




bone_tomahawk_posterBone Tomahawk*** (USA, dir Craig Zahler)

A real curiosity – a western crossed with a supernatural horror flick. Often, Zahler’s film looks like a re-make of John Ford’s The Searchers, except that the Indians of the earlier film are replaced by sub-human troglodyte savages. Graphic violence and gore abound, but it is the traditional values of strong characterisations that make the film gripping. Underlying it is an ironic comment on Hollywood’s shameful portrayals of Native Americans in the classic westerns.





Brooklyn-Poster-2Brooklyn**** (UK/Canada/Ireland, dir John Crowley)

An adaptation of Colm Tóibin’s novel in which a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates from a small Irish town to New York in the post-War years to make a new life, but then finds her loyalties split. Both Ronan and Emory Cohen as her American sweetheart give wonderfully warm performances, supported in cameo roles by Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters. The film is unashamedly old fashioned and sentimental, but it is so lovingly crafted and beautifully acted that it sweeps all reservations away.


Carol-poster-300x414Carol**** (USA/UK, dir Todd Haynes)

The marriage between Todd Haynes and novelist Patricia Highsmith is made in Heaven and its issue is one of the great films of 2015. Filming in soft focus and framing shots like Edward Hopper paintings, Haynes captures the mood and feel of America in the early 1950s. Rooney Mara is terrific as the shopgirl swept off her feet by the divorcing older woman, Carol and into a smouldering, reckless affair. However, it is Cate Blanchett as Carol who gives the film its iconic moments, confirming her status as the screen goddess of her generation, the true heir to the legacy of Hepburn and Streep.




cemetery4Cemetery of Splendour** (Thailand/UK/France, dir Apchatpong Weerasethakul)

When the director introduces his film and tells the audience that “it’s ok to go to sleep”, it can be very difficult to resist his suggestion. Many of the characters in the film are already comatose, soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness and being cared for in a makeshift hospital in a small Thai town. There is very little plot, just people talking to each other or sitting silently by bedsides. Some scenes are very touching., but, frankly, paint dries quicker.




Chevalier_(film)Chevalier*** (Greece, dir Attika Rachel Tsangari)

Six men in a boat and a woman director. This frequently hilarious Greek comedy on the theme of masculinity takes place when the men are confined together as they return to Athens from a fishing trip. They pass the time by playing the game of the film’s title in which they all judge each other in various randomly selected categories. Quirky and unpredictable, the film’s humour is derived from wry observations of human behaviour.





departureDeparture**** (UK/France, dir Andrew Steggall)

Slow moving, lyrical drama in which wrought and sorrowful mother (Juliet Stephenson) packs up to depart from her family’s holiday home in France and her adolescent son (Alex Lawther, who impresses more with every appearance on stage or screen) departs from childhood innocence. Beautifully acted by the two leads and Phénix Brossaird as the son’s friend, this is a small gem that, hopefully, will not pass by unnoticed.






Desierto**** (Mexico/France, dir Jonás Guarón)

First and foremost, this is a superb chase thriller, reminiscent of an old-style Western, except that illegal Mexican immigrants to the US replace the Indians and we are put firmly on the side of the hunted. Gael Garcia Bernal gives the film a marque of quality with Turmp’s rhetoric and the influx of migrants to Europe providing it with plentiful topical relevance.






Grandma_Movie_PosterGrandma*** (USA, dir Paul Weitz)

Punchy and warm comedy in which Lily Tomlin excels as an ageing lesbian poet trying to help her granddaughter to get an abortion. Great cameo performances in support of Tomlin and a sparkling script make the film an unexpected pleasure. It runs for only 80 minutes and not a second is wasted.






high rise posterHigh Rise** (UK, dir Ben Wheatley)

Dr Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the upper middle level of a high rise apartment block occupied by a regal Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons) in the opulent penthouse and a wild Mr Wilder (Luke Evans) at ground level. Get it? The biggest problems with this film are that the allegory is far too obvious and the narrative, showing the disintegration of a model society, is far too vague. Hiddleston plays it wooden, Irons and the rest ham it up and the only discernible moral seems to be that, when the apocalypse comes, we’ll all be listening to Abba. Wheatley produces some visual flourishes and there are neat touches of humour to hold off the tedium, but, too often, the film resorts to gratuitous sex and violence to gain our attention. An expensive, overblown mess.

officeOffice ** (China/Hong Kong, dir Johnnie To)

A musical set in the Hong Kong business world by an action flick director and screened in 3D – it takes a while getting the mind around the concept and a dazzling opening, in which armies of workers enter high rise blocks that resemble modern palaces, raises hopes for a Busby Berkeley-style spectacle. Sadly, what follows is just a routine tale of ambition, greed, workplace politics and romance, with a few rather pleasant songs thrown in.


sufragetteSuffragette**** (UK, dir Sarah Gavron)

Impressively mounted account of the fight for women’s suffrage in early 20th Century London, made all the more so because it looks at events from the perspective of a working class laundry worker and mother (Carey Mulligan) rather than from that of the regal and aloof Mrs Pankhurst (Meryl Streep obviously). Mulligan gives possibly her best ever performance, heading a stunning cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleason. Don’t say it too loud, but the moral of the film could be that terrorism is sometimes justified. That aside, who’s taking bets on the number of Oscar nominations?


tangerine-poster01Tangerine*** (USA, dir Sean Baker)

Following two transexual hookers and an Armenian cab driver on their intersecting paths around the seedier areas of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, Sean Baker’s film does not completely avoid feeling like a comic freak show, but its most memorable moments come when the underlying humanity rises to the surface.





the-clubThe Club*** (Chile, dir Pablo Larrain)

Chilling Chilean film, set in a remote coastal town that becomes a sort of living purgatory for errant priests – homosexuals and child abusers. Murky cinematography creates hauntingly bleak images for a drama that is relentlessly cruel and often savage in questioning the teachings of the Catholic church.






the lady in the vanThe Lady in the Van*** (UK, dir Nicholas Hytner)

No doubt the presence of the Dowager Countess of Grantham slumming it as yellow van woman will gain most of the awards attention, but Alex Jennings is equally impressive, repeating his Alan Bennett turn, seen previously on the London stage. Otherwise Hytner’s film is amusing, but has little new to offer for those of us who saw Bennett’s play in the theatre.



Trumbo PosterTrumbo**** (USA, dir Jay Roach)

Worthy bio-pic of Dalton Trumbo, the American screenwriter blacklisted for communist sympathies in the 50s and 60s, who won two Oscars writing under pseudonyms. Bryan Cranston breaks good as the abrasive title character and Helen Mirren bites as the Queen of Mean, columnist Hedda Hopper. There is plenty for film buffs to chew over, with big names such as John Wayne, Edward G Robinson and Kirk Douglas passing through, although the inimitable Ronald Reagan is seen only as himself in newsreels. The film is slightly too long and meanders a little in its final third but it is still a searing indictment of American fascism in the McCarthy era and it will be interesting to see whether Hollywood has purged itself enough of its sins to feel able to include it in this year’s Oscar nominations.

London Film Festival 2014

Posted: October 20, 2014 in Cinema

A Little Chaos*** (UK, dir Alan Rickman)

Alan Rickman must have chosen this for his second film as a director out of nostalgia for his glory days on stage in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Watching the film feels a little like gatecrashing a fancy dress party, seeing an array of recognisable thesps all prancing around in lavish costumes and wigs – except for Kate Winslet whose hairstyle could have been the inspiration for the film’s title. Winslet is summoned to the court of Louis XIV to build a garden at Versailles (presumably Alan Titchmarsh was otherwise engaged) and falls for her boss, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a star of French films who affects a near-perfect English accent to play a Frenchman (fair enough, he’s actually Belgian). She also falls foul of the wicked Helen McCrory – after Cheri Blair, Medea and this, surely Cruella deVil must be next for her – and Rickman himself gives us a sinking Sun King. Some of this is actually intended to be funny, particularly whenever the splendid Stanley Tucci appears as the Comte de Something, sending it all up mercilessly in a performance that seems a little like an impersonation of Rickman. It all adds up to the most memorable British account of French history since Carry On, Don’t Lose Your Head. On the plus side, this is possibly the best film about gardening ever made and, maybe not for all the right reasons, it turns out to be a real guilty pleasure.


Dearest*** (China-Hong Kong, dir Peter Ho-Sun Chan)

An uneasy mix of human drama and action thriller, this fact-based film centres on child abduction in modern China. A divorced couple (Huang Bo and Hao Lei), living in Shenzen, scour the country for their missing boy and become involved with a support group of parents with similar plights. The plot has several surprising twists, some seeming less true to life than they probably are and it meanders far too much in the final quarter, which is saved only by an excellent performance by Zhao Wei as a foster mother. Nonetheless, the film, beautifully shot and well acted, always holds the interest.


Foxcatcher**** (USA, dir Bennett Miller)

Bennett Miller’s excellent Moneyball probed the grubbier side of Baseball and he now turns his attention to Olympic Wrestling with an astonishing true story. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play brothers in the US team preparing for the 1988 Seoul games; both are enticed under the wing of John du Pont, a self-deluding billionaire “coach”, who describes himself as “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” and is obsessed with impressing his dying mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Beginning as a sports movie, the film turns into a damning indictment of the corrosive effect of excess wealth in American society. The driving force is a creepy performance by Steve Carell as du Pont that has the word “Oscar” written all over it. Totally absorbing from first minute to last, there will not be many better American films in 2014.!


Mr Turner***** (UK, dir Mike Leigh)

Timothy Spall’s magnificent performance is the centrepiece of Mike Leigh’s film, which is as finely detailed and richly textured as a great oil painting. He plays the artist JMW Turner, grunting his way through many scenes, but dialogue is often rendered superfluous when all the characters, even the minor ones, are so vividly drawn that we feel as if we know them personally. Leigh regular Lesley Manville appears only in a delightful one-scene cameo, which emphasises the artist’s fascination with light. In meatier roles, particularly memorable are Paul Jesson as Turner’s stricken father and Marion Bailey as the homely widow with whom he chooses to spend his final years. This is not the usual story of an artist penurious and unappreciated in his own era; Turner was a celebrity during his lifetime, widely (if not universally) recognised as a genius and fleeting appearances by Constable, Ruskin and even Victoria and Albert underline the point. The background details of early Victorian life are also fascinating, as are images of the landscapes and seascapes which gave Turner his inspiration. To call this film a masterpiece might be to steal one description too many from the art world, but it would not be far wrong.


Men, Women & Children** (USA, dir Jason Reitman)

A character in this film points out that hardly anyone used texting on the day of the 9/11 attack, which reminds us just how quickly the social media revolution has engulfed us. This is an ensemble piece telling interlinked stories of relationship problems involving teens and their parents and showing what happens when RL (real life) intrudes on the virtual world. It starts out as a smart modern comedy, but loses its bearings at about half way, becomes serious and opens the door to an array of tired cliches. At least, after all these years, I have finally seen an Adam Sandler film, but maybe I shouldn’t have bothered.


Phoenix**** (Germany, dir Christian Petzold)

Neither completely true-to-life, nor melodrama, nor thriller, but a little of each, the strange mix of genres becomes part of this film’s hypnotic allure. It tells of a Jewish woman (Nina Hoss) who survives a concentration camp at the end of World War II and attempts to rebuild her life, reconciling past with present, thereby reflecting the dilemma of the German nation at that time. A plot that is full of improbabilities includes echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, bringing psychological complexities to the relationship between the woman and her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) and adding further layers to the slow-paced drama as it builds to an enigmatic conclusion. An intriguing and absorbing film.


Rosewater*** (USA, dir Jon Stewart)

Jon Stewart (the American television satirist) makes a decent job of telling this story of an Iranian-born western journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) who returns to his home country to cover the 2009 rigged re-election of Ahmadinejad. Falling foul of the authoritarian regime, he ends up in jail, suffering torture so that he will confess to espionage and be made an example of. The specific details, covering relatively recent history, are fascinating, but, from about a third in, the film follows the path of just about every movie about brutal incarceration ever made and the prevailing feeling becomes one of deja vu.


Serena* (USA, dir Susanne Bier)

Having scored two huge hits, the Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence partnership seemed on course to become the new Tracy/Hepburn. Sadly. they have hit the buffers big time, incapable of giving any life at all to this dreadful, humourless costume melodrama. The plot creaks, the dialogue stinks and none of the actors can do more than go through the motions. Shame on the Festival organisers for allowing such a turkey to be included.


Son of a Gun** (Australia, dir Julius Avery)

An Australian heist movie, it starts in prison where a young guy (played by Brenton Thwaites with a fixed look of bewilderment) falls in with the wrong sorts and, on release, he joins a gang out to plunder tons of gold bullion. Ewan McGregor never looks comfortable as the hard man mastermind, but, playing the mandatory girl hanging around to share the spoils, Alicia Vikander (see also Testament of Youth) confirms her status as a big star in the making. First time director Avery mounts some slick action sequences, but the whole enterprise is let down by a screenplay which merely re-works a predictable plot, under-develops the characters and burdens the actors with bland, stilted dialogue. How this very ordinary little film ever made it into the Festival’s official competition is a major mystery.


Testament of Youth**** (UK, dir James Kent)

Without wishing to seem disrespectful to the fallen, it has to be said that maybe we don’t need to be told yet another World War I story just now. However, it would be a travesty if commemoration fatigue was to dampen enthusiasm for James Kent’s impeccably crafted film. What makes the story different is that it sees the War from the perspective of a woman, being adapted from Vera Brittain’s memoir of her own experiences. The events depicted are, on occasions, so unbelievable that they could only possibly be true. The story begins in 1914 when Vera, at the vanguard of female emancipation, begins studying at Oxford and it ends in 1918 with her scarred permanently by her experiences and committed to being a lifelong pacifist. A literate script is brought to life by a strong cast of established actors and promising newcomers. Most notable is a wonderful performance by the young Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as the headstrong, determined Vera. This film is a dark horse for the awards season.


The Drop**** (USA, dir Michael R Roskam)

Will Brits soon make American leading actors completely redundant? Here, Tom Hardy resembles a cross between DeNiro and Stallone, playing Bob, a hard man with a heart who works as a Brooklyn barman for his cousin (James Gandolfini) on the fringes of organised crime. A psychotic killer (Matthias Schoenaerts, taking a break from gardening – see above), a Pit Bull puppy and the Chechen mafia all cause him problems as he struggles to keep out of trouble and get closer to his dog walker (Noomi Rapace). This is a fairly routine crime thriller which is elevated to a higher level by Hardy’s mesmerising performance.


The Imitation Game**** (UK-USA, dir Morten Tyldum)

Playing an autistic genius hardly takes Benedict Cumberbatch outside his comfort zone, but he is excellent as a man who found the way to beat the Nazis and invented computers as a by-product, yet fell victim to a very English form of fascism. This film is a stirring if belated tribute to AlanTuring, now rightly recognised as a national hero. When the first four faces you see on screen are Cumberbatch, Rory Kinnear, Mark Strong and Charles Dance, you know you are in safe hands and, in a very impressive cast, only Keira Knightly looks a little out of place, playing a Maths wizard working alongside Turing who becomes his “fiance of convenience”. She typifies the Hollywood-style gloss that occasionally threatens to swamp the film; however, the superb writing and acting always win through.


The Keeping Room** (USA, dir Daniel Barber)

An odd choice of subject for a young British director, this film creates a post-apocalyptic vision of a civilisation broken and lawless in the wake of the American Civil War. There is much to impress, including the leading performances. in an account of the struggle of three women to overcome the odds and survive. However, the central narrative thread is weak and the relentlessly grim brutality becomes very wearing.


The New Girlfriend**** (France, dir Francois Ozon)

Francois Ozon moves into Pedro Almodivar territory for this gentle comedy. The first 20 minutes seems like an abridged version of Beaches and then, barely giving us time to wipe the tears from our eyes, Ozon springs the first of several surprises which it would be unfair to reveal. With two very strong central performances from Anais Demoustier and Romain Duris, the film first embraces and then celebrates human diversity. It is all deliciously audacious and it manages to be both funny and touching.


The Salvation** (Denmark-UK-South Africa, dir Krtistian Levring)

Many nationalities (Danish, Scottish, Welsh and French spring immediately to mind) feature in the cast, Eric Cantona as number two baddy (thankfully with no more than a handful of lines to speak) being one of the more notable oddities. To be fair, this could be a reflection of the fact that many nationalities did indeed emigrate to the American West in the pioneering days. After a misleading start, the film turns out to be a revenge western in the Leone/Eastwood mould, a straight fight between the good, the bad and the ugly in which few in any of the categories are left standing at the end. A promising plot line is introduced with the suggestion that the gang terrorising a town is just a front for big oil corporations, but, sadly, this leads nowhere and cliches continue to abound in a film that would have been routine 40 years ago, but now has appeal only because of its novelty value.


Whiplash**** (USA, dir Damien Chazelle)

JK Simmons is terrific as the hard-hearted, bullying monster mentoring an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller). The film follows a well-used formula, but still springs surprises and, even when the strings tugging at our emotions are clearly visible, they still do the trick. Lots of great jazz music is the icing on the cake of a film that is not too demanding, but provides top class entertainment.


Wild*** (USA, dir Jean-Marc Vallee)

On the face of it, a film in which a character played by Reece Witherspoon treks hundreds of miles along the Pacific Coast Trail of California in order to “find herself”, is one to avoid at all costs. This is a road movie with few cars, but most of the interest in Nick Hornby’s intelligent screenplay arises from flashbacks to the woman’s earlier life. Witherspoon reminds us that she once won an Oscar and Laura Dern also gives a moving performance, with the result that the film rises well above the ordinary.

London Film Festival 2013

Posted: October 17, 2013 in Cinema

Abuse of Weakness** (France, dir Catherine Breillat)

At this screening, writer/director Catherine Breillat appeared, clearly still suffering the after effects of a stroke. The film concerns a female film maker who suffers a massive stroke and, during her recuperation, becomes obsessed with an habitual criminal, allowing him to drain her of her considerable funds. He abuses her for her weakness and she, in turn, abuses him, using her weakness as an excuse. Mostly she abuses herself. The biggest asset in this tortuously slow film is the superb performance of Isabelle Huppert as the central character. Breillat may be commended for wanting to share the psychological traumas suffered by stroke victims, but there is a lot more to admire in her film than there is to enjoy.

Don Jon*** (USA, dir Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stakes his claim to be the next Clint Eastwood with this macho comedy which he writes, directs and stars in as Jon, a young New York bartender who is obsessed with porn. The arrival of Scarlett Johansson on the scene threatens to break his habit and, thereby, turn the film into a predictable chick flick; thankfully, this pitfall is well avoided and, even if the script could benefit from touches of Woody Allen’s dry wit (“sex with someone I love”), it is sufficiently original to provide ample amusement. The appearance in a supporting role of Julianne Moore serves as a reminder that another film, “Boogie Nights”, once delved in to the porn industry; if this does not quite deliver the cynical humour of that film, at least it is not a rom-com.

Eastern Boys**** (France, dir Robin Campillo)

The boys of the title are a gang of young men from non-EU Eastern European countries, staying illegally in Paris and living off the proceeds from petty crime and prostitution. After they have descended upon the apartment of a gay man to rob him of all his possessions, one of their number returns to form an uneasy relationship with the man. Robin Campillo’s film is part human drama, part thriller and it works well on both levels. Olivier Rabourdin and Kirill Emelyanov underplay the main roles and the characters’ struggle to find a common language means that the dialogue is sparse; however, their failure to communicate their feelings to us actually works to the film’s advantage by making the unpredictable plot developments still more surprising. The film moves at a slow and meticulous pace, building to a superb climax that is both nerve-racking and emotionally satisfying.

Ida**** (Poland/Denmark, dir Pawel Pawlikowski)

This was voted the Best Film in competition.

Ida, is a young girl, sent as a small child to a convent and now ready to take her vows as a nun; but, before doing so, she is sent out to meet her only known relative, an aunt. Set in the early 1960s and beautifully shot, entirely in black and white, this film is a journey of discovery for the girl as she tries to unearth the truth about the fate of her Jewish parents. The Polish landscape in town and country appears bleak and unwelcoming; this is a nation that continues to be haunted by the ravages of World War II. Agata Kulesza plays Ida, showing little emotion. The film would have had more dramatic impetus if we could have known Ida better and had more insights into her inner thoughts, but her beauty and her stillness serve well to symbolise a nation that has had its heart ripped out. Very moving.

Like Father, Like Son*** (Japan, dir Hirokazu Kore-eda)

A gentle and heart-warming Japanese comedy concerning two married couples who discover that their 6 year old sons were swapped in the maternity hospital just after birth. As the mothers are both portrayed sympathetically, the focus is firmly on the fathers – one a high-flying architect who may, very occasionally, find time to spend with his family, the other a lazy, hard-up shopkeeper who is an attentive and loving parent. So, are genetic ties more important than the bonds developed during 6 years together as a family? Is it better for children to learn to play the piano or to fly kites? Should fathers be best at raking in cash or at mending broken toys? The film’s themes are fascinating and sometimes complex, but the writer/director approaches them with the lightest of touches and always keeps us entertained.

Mystery Road*** (Australia, dir Ivan Sen)

The unusual setting of the Australian outback gives a twist to what is otherwise a routine crime thriller. Aaron Pedersen, playing an Aboriginal cop is at the centre of almost every scene and there is a strong sub-text relating to the tensions between Aborigines and the white community. After the screening, the veteran actor Jack Thompson, who has a cameo role in the film, talked eloquently about these tensions and threw considerable light on the undercurrents to the narrative, thereby making what had seemed a very average film far more interesting. On the plus side, the cinematography is stunning and the unusual setting and characters give the film a distinctive feel. But, unfortunately, the languid pace and confusing plot are sleep-inducing, particularly in the early stages, and the film’s claims to realism are blown away by a ludicrous shoot-out finale.

Parkland*** (USA, dir Peter Landesman)

The writer/director has a background in journalism and has produced a well researched documentary style account of the ordinary people involved, by chance, in the Kennedy assassination – the hospital staff, security officers, the man shooting a home movie, the assassin’s family. Real footage is integrated well with dramatised reconstructions. Seeing Zak Effron at the head of the cast list was not encouraging, but the film is well acted and stalwarts such as Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden and Paul Giamatti provide a touch of class. As there is no central focus, the film lacks a dramatic knockout punch. It is always interesting but it deals with footnotes to the pages of history and, just as they are easily forgotten, so will this film be.

Philomena**** (UK/France, dir Stephen Frears)

With an ever dependable director and much loved star (Judi Dench), this could hardly fail, but it turns out to be more than worth the accolades and success that will inevitably come its way. It tells of Martin Sixsmith, former BBC Washington correspondent who, after being “resigned” as a spin doctor with the Blair mob, takes on what he at first sees as a demeaning job, covering a human interest story. Philomena is an elderly lady who, 50 years earlier in Ireland, had given birth to an illegitimate son; she was forced to take refuge in a convent from which the child was effectively sold for adoption in America against her wishes. The film is produced and co-written (from Sixsmith’s book) by Steve Coogan who also plays Sixsmith. He is perfect for conveying the world weary cynicism of a journalist down on his luck and the humorous relationship between his and Dench’s characters as they search for the son is what drives the film. Being fact based, the story does not follow a traditional Hollywood format and is all the better for that. What is most surprising for what is essentially a lightweight comedy/drama is the strength and passion with which it denounces the Roman Catholic church for its pious hypocrisy and deceitfulness. Funny and very moving, this film is even better than its thoroughbred pedigree could have led us to expect.

Saving Mr Banks**** (USA, dir Lee Hancock)

Closing the Festival, that rarest of things – a quality film from one of the big Hollywood studios. This film about film-making is a mixture of comedy and drama which is sheer enjoyment from first to last. Emma Thompson plays PL Travers, author of “Mary Poppins” and the film covers her clashes with Walt Disney over the filming of her book. It also flashes back to her early days in Australia when she doted over her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and witnessed the pain of her mother (Ruth Wilson); and then a nanny landed on the family’s doorstep. Thompson and Hanks wring every possible laugh out of the culture clash comedy, but it is the haunting portrait of a woman severely damaged by childhood traumas that will live longest in the memory.

Starred Up**** (UK, dir David Mackenzie)

This won the award for Best Screenplay of the films in competition.

Jonathan Asser’s first screenplay draws from his own experience as a psychologist leading a prison therapy group. The central character, played by Jack O’Connell is a young offender, transferred to an adult prison because of his uncontrollable violent behaviour, who finds himself on the same wing as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn). This taut, absorbing film is unflinching in its depiction of prison brutality and is shot in a naturalistic style, with the threat of violence hanging over every scene. Sometimes the dialogue is difficult to decipher, but the performances from a largely unknown cast are very strong and the insights into the psychology of violence give the drama emotional depth.

12 Years a Slave**** (USA, dir Steve McQueen)

Many films win Oscars for ticking all the politically correct boxes, but this does not necessarily make them great films. So is this, the current Oscar favourite, a great film or just a worthy one? Based on an autobiographical book by Solomon Northup, it tells of an accomplished black violinist who is abducted from his home in Saratoga, New York State and sold into slavery in Georgia in the 1840s. As would be expected of Steve McQueen, the cinematography is exquisite and every shot is perfectly framed; he creates many images in the film that are likely to prove unforgettable. He also draws magnificent performances from all his cast, particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and Michael Fassbender as a demented plantation owner, although the latter exemplifies one of the film’s flaws, It portrays the slave owners and traders too simplistically as demonic ogres; if it is possible for us to accept that they believed in their rights of ownership and needed to protect their financial investments, we are given no help in understanding why they behaved with such extreme inhumanity. The other problem lies with a narrative structure in which the central point that slavery is an abomination is so overwhelming and pushed so relentlessly that all plot deviations and sub-texts are excluded. This results in the middle of the film becoming bogged down and predictable. The story needs something to hold us in suspense, wondering what the next development could be or how things will ultimately be resolved. Yet how can this be possible when even the title gives too much away? Nonetheless this is a story that needed to be told and needed to be told as vividly as it is here. With people trafficking rife across Europe, slavery is not a problem that was consigned to history in the century before last. Here, the depiction of slavery is graphic and unflinching, but, speaking in a quieter voice, the case aganst it was argued much more eloquently in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. This is a very good film, but not quite a great one.

Under the Skin** (USA, dir Jonathan Glazer)

A weird superimposition of surreal images on a very real setting, which sees an alien getting into the skin of Scarlett Johansson to roam around Glasgow and surrounding areas, picking up various stray men on her way. Several of the sequences would be striking as shorts, but, strung together and stretched out to feature length, they become repetitive. The lack of a narrative thread and an emotional heart to the film, leaves us uninvolved observers and it all becomes rather tedious.

That I should choose to see a film about motor racing or any film directed by Ron Howard is as likely as catching a cold during the warmest Summer for years. But this is superb and I enjoyed it enormously despite the cold. Peter Morgan’s script is intelligent with razor sharp dialogue, the acting by the two leads is top class and the racing footage is breathtaking. Going back to days when two drivers were expected to be killed during races each year, the film focusses mainly on the 1976 Season, and the intense rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), the handsome daredevil playboy and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), the uncharismatic technical geek; its masterstroke is not to side with either driver, each is hero and villain in equal measure and the audience is left rooting for both. All of the period detail may not be quite right and dramatic licence has been taken with some facts (see below), but these are very minor quibbles, because the film is totally absorbing, exciting and, at times, very moving; the two hours literally goes by in a rush.

After this screening, the writer Peter Morgan took part in a Q&A session. SPOILER ALERT. He is particularly noted for re-creating actual events from recent history for stage, film and television (“Frost/Nixon”, “The Queen”, “The Audience” etc) and he began by discussing the responsibility he has to the real people involved. He said that, in the week of David Frost’s death, he had felt guilt about the disproportionate coverage given to the Nixon interviews in the tributes being paid; he felt that this was partly caused by the success of his play/film, in which he had magnified the extent of Frost’s “victory” for dramatic purposes, and that the many other significant achievements in Frost’s life were being overlooked as a result. He collaborated extensively with Lauda in writing “Rush”; his dialogue was written with his voice and speech patterns in mind and the Bruhl replicated them to perfection. Lauda had seen the film three times; on the first occasion he seemed simply curious, but on the second he was overcome by emotion; this was because he had deliberately put his horrific accident behind him and never thought about it; however, seeing it on screen made him realise the magnitude of it for the first time. Hunt’s family were at first reluctant to cooperate but overcame their suspicions; it seems likely that Hunt suffered from bipolar condition, something hinted at in the film. Regarding the accuracy of events depicted, the hitch hiking incident was invented (although Lauda and his wife both felt they would have acted in that way had the situation arisen) and Hunt did not assault the journalist who asked Lauda an offensive question; with regard to this latter incident, Morgan said that it was true to Hunt’s character to launch physical attacks, the journalist really asked that question and so he created the scene to demonstrate the friendship and respect between the two drivers. He also commented on his boundaries in distorting facts for dramatic effect, saying that the audience must be able to believe in what is on the screen; as an example of something that crosses his boundaries, he cited the ludicrous climax of the Oscar-winning “Argo” which he feels (and I agree wholeheartedly) ruins the entire credibility of the film. Finally, on being asked why he had a tendency to write scripts about male rivalries, Morgan refuted the suggestion that he is a one-trick pony and said that he had resolved never to write another such script. However, shortly after making this resolution, he received a commission that no writer could refuse (from Ang Lee) to write about another male rivalry. That should be worth waiting for.