CHURCHILL

“…David Higgs has worked some magic here, conjuring  up some of the stand-out cinematography of the year to date.”

Wayward Wolf.

A few years back a statue of Winston Churchill that stands outside the Houses of Parliament in London, was desecrated by protestors. I forget why. It was nothing personal against him if memory serves sufficiently, and the perpetrators were swiftly rounded upon by most of British society.

Let’s face it, whether you concur or not, it’s a very sticky wicket that you’ll bat upon if you decide to disparage anything relating to that particular period of British political history, let alone the seemingly Teflon wartime Prime Minister himself.

But this protective attitude, or rather a slight reversal of it, is what makes Churchill such an intriguing biopic.

The film focuses on the tail end of World War II, a time in which Churchill’s usefulness as a military tactician was fast being called into question. It was after all the minds of General Bernard Montgomery of the Allied forces and General Dwight D. Eisenhower of the U.S army that were overseeing the implementation of the impending pivotal Operation Overlord.

Churchill, in comparison, whilst undoubtedly committed to the last, was perceived now as something of a dinosaur; increasingly out of touch with the technology and methods of modern warfare, despite his insistence that there was much that could be learned from the lessons of World War I.

At least that is how he is portrayed in Jonathan Teplitzky’s piece.

A stubborn, sometimes belligerent old man, he is portrayed wonderfully well by Brian Cox. Rarely without twin props of cigar and tumbler of Scotch in hand, he shuffles about from here to there, insistent upon being at the centre of everything and having a decisive say in all matters. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that owing to his age, this can no longer be the case. He is depicted as a proud man struggling to accept that he is nearing the time when perhaps he has outstayed his usefulness as a fully hands-on Prime Minister. Instead, with King George VI in agreement (James Purefoy), a new era is ushered in; an era of Winston Churchill ‘The Statesman’ – whether he likes it or not.

His long-suffering wife, Clementine (the excellent Miranda Richardson), is portrayed as a woman somewhat battle-hardened from a life duelling with an unshakeably headstrong husband. Theirs seems to be a union of respectful support and dependability above anything else.

Although Teplitzky’s film veers away from any temptation to depict the conflict itself, the heightened emotions and sense of trepidation of impending battle are brilliantly captured through the interplay between Churchill (Cox), Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Montgomery (Julian Wadham). We are left in no doubt of the sheer gravitas of the situation that confronts the three men, all of whom acknowledge – to varying degrees – a duty of care to minimise potential troop fatalities, whilst still appreciative of the need for strong, single-minded decision making for ‘the greater good’.

It’s visually a most seductive film that leans heavily on the use of sweeping vistas, some beautiful staged ‘stills’ and the use of striking silhouetted imagery. Certainly David Higgs has worked some magic here, conjuring  up some of the stand-out cinematography of the year to date.

Quite how historically accurate a portrayal of Winston Churchill this is, might well be open to debate, but it makes for an intriguing study of a much revered historical figure in a guise that perhaps won’t be entirely familiar to all.

HELL ON EARTH

“Religion after all has a habit of bypassing all avenues of logic, insisting instead upon both giant leaps of faith and the defence of the utterly unprovable.”

Wayward Wolf.

Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS – Hell on Earth from hereon in – is a Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested-directed National Geographic documentary chronicling the tragic events that have befallen the people of Syria (and indeed the country in general), and the knock-on Global effects that have unavoidably followed over the past decade or so.

You can tell that this is an American, National Geographic production. In amongst uncensored gratuitous scenes of dead bodies, scattered limbs, and general carnage, a small boy, out of his mind with grief and anger following another devastating bombing raid on his city, has his somewhat ‘expressive’ disapproval of the Syrian president edited – for swearing.

One can’t help but smile at the ludicrosity of it. Moments of levity such as this however are few and far between in this most harrowing account of what can only be described as an utter on-going nightmare.

The film analyses, in a very linear fashion, the events that led to the on-going civil war in Syria and how ultimately the fallout from that and International military intervention both there and in Iraq and Afghanistan has given rise to radical groups of Muslims hell-bent on imposing, through fear and force, their particularly unsavoury interpretation of Islam upon large swathes of the Middle East.

Watching this bleak but powerful film, one can’t help but be hugely affected by its devastating message, on a worryingly personal level. Previous generations in ‘The West’ have of course had their own set of explosive political issues to contend with. One thinks back to the 1980s and the fear of the Irish Republican Army, and of the cold war and its seemingly omnipresent threat of nuclear armageddon. Never though was it quite on the same sort of hysterical level that we see in the world today with the threat of ISIS and religion-influenced terrorism in general, very much a global concern.

However, unlike obstacles and threats to peace that were faced in the not too distant past, and for which there was at least some scope for negotiation, there is perhaps no negotiating with religious fanaticism. Religion after all has a habit of bypassing all avenues of logic, insisting instead upon both giant leaps of faith and the defence of the utterly unprovable.

A heady cocktail of corrupt regimes, the actions of insurgents, disenchanted and opportunistic religious fanaticism, and the meddling military intervention of Western super powers has not only brought the likes of Syria and Iraq to their knees, but heavily implicated much of the rest of the world into these troubles too both through subsequent unsustainable levels of mass immigration, and through vengeful terrorism in Allah’s name.

Indeed, regardless of who is doing the fighting, and whoever happens to be on the receiving end of it, Hell on Earth is awash with one constantly recurring sentiment: “Allahu Akbar!” (God is greater).

I should hope so too.

Mercilessly executing their fellow man as they go, some of those fighting in the prophet’s name are not exactly setting the bar very high.

It’s a big mess, that’s for sure, and one that’s very effectively and powerfully captured in Junger and Quested’s hard-hitting film. If there is a criticism to be made it is that a combination of information overload and the film’s very quick-fire pace and delivery make it rather difficult to absorb all content, effectively. Subsequent viewings may prove to be beneficial. On a similar note, the film’s brisk pace leaves little space and time to contemplate and ponder some of the more emotionally-charged and unsettling content – but perhaps that’s a good thing?

Benefiting from innumerable sources of both official and amateur video footage, as far as slick, informative, and relatively impartial documentaries go, Hell on Earth, though at times difficult viewing, successfully manages to capture this most troubling period in human history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colossal

“By the end, even the director seems to have given up the ghost if the clumsy, half-baked final chapter is anything to go by. “

Wayward Wolf.

Colossal falls into the category of ‘quirky’ cinema. Quirky cinema then tends to divide into one of two categories: ‘well written, surprisingly deep and meaningful beneath the quirkiness’ or ‘quirky for quirky’s sake’.

This Nacho Vigalondo directed piece is entrenched firmly in the latter camp.

Politely yet firmly nudged out of her (her boyfriend’s) New York apartment, unemployed party girl, Gloria, (Anne Hathaway), returns to her home town. There, she stays in an empty, furniture-less house that presumably belongs to her, though this is not established. Here in small town America she intends to get her life back on track again.

A chance meeting with Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) – an old acquaintance whom she vaguely recalls from their primary school days together – is initially a positive thing. Oscar owns a bar and invites Gloria to work there, at least until she’s settled back in the area again.

Gloria accepts and she, Oscar and a couple of other regulars strike up a sort of ‘after hours’ friendship, and her life soon drifts back into an all too familiar routine of late nights and alcohol.

It’s only when news comes from South Korea that a giant monster has begun to terrorise residents of Seoul, that Gloria’s unspectacular small town existence begins to liven up through a quite astonishing discovery. She is somehow connected directly to these herculean happenings that are playing out on the other side of the world.

It seems that at 8.05 am each morning, whatever physical movements that Gloria makes within the bounds of a local kids playground, are replicated exactly by the Godzilla-esque beast so many thousands of miles away. But whereas Gloria’s footsteps are merely innocent shuffles through the Autumn leaves, the monster’s are huge destructive hammer blows to both Seoul’s buildings and to its people in the streets below.

It’s certainly a ludicrous not to mention hugely ambitious narrative that director Vigalondo must sell to his audience, and one that consequently requires a massive suspension of disbelief on their part, to put it mildly.

Unfortunately, the whole shebang suffers badly from a combination of poor writing, ill-explained phenomena and plot holes as large as the monster’s considerable footprints. Despite Hathaway and Sudeikis putting in convincing turns in the film’s key roles, Colossal sadly comes across as little more than an incoherent, mad adrenalin rush of overblown ideas. By the end, even the director seems to have given up the ghost if the clumsy, half-baked final chapter is anything to go by.

Yes, there are clearly metaphors at play here, and there’s something of a back story to consider which should help to make better sense of things, but all such subtle devices seem so hopelessly lost within the film’s bungling storyline.

To some extent, Colossal masquerades as innovative film-making, hiding as it does  behind a certain level of deceptive quirkiness. It may well have been Vigalondo’s noble intention to swerve all things cliched and unoriginal, and full marks for that, but ultimately, like so many before him, the allure of Hollywood proves to be too seductive. In a flurry of contrived nonsense, and amidst a tidal wave of mildly motivated Korean extras, Colossal trundles haphazardly towards its inevitable conclusion.

THE SECRET SCRIPTURE

“Rooney Mara… effortlessly seducing each and every man that crosses her path, much to her ultimate detriment.”
Wayward Wolf.
The Secret Scripture is Jim Sheridan’s realisation of the Sebastian Barry novel of the same name.
It tells the story of Rose McNulty, an elderly lady incarcerated for most of her life in a mental asylum. With the asylum due to be demolished, Rose must leave the place that has been her home for over forty years. Either she will be transferred to another unit, or released into the community. This is still to be determined, and it represents something of a quandary for the asylum’s owner whose attempts to ascertain Rose’s current state of mental health have been blunt and tactless, and predictably therefore, fruitless.
Rose insists that she will only ever leave when her long lost son returns in person to take her away from the place.
This is the same son that she killed when he was just an infant – or so the story goes.
Be it amicably or through sedation, Rose has no choice but to leave, and it’s only when psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) agrees to re-assess her himself, that she is granted a brief stay of execution at the facility.
She proceeds then to open up and reveal the contents of her hidden, make-shift diary which has been scrawled upon the pages of an old bible. It is a diary whose content spans much of her considerable life.
With a memory ravaged by time – not to mention multiple electroconvulsive therapies – Rose still manages to recall a fascinating life in which the jealousy, prejudices and vehement political leanings of others have all led to her being locked away from society so unjustly, and for so many years.
It soon becomes clear that the official version of events that led to such a life of hardship for Mrs McNulty, is anything but the real truth.
A narrative that oozes forbidden love, a large dose of injustice and the perils of poisoned political influence, should realistically set The Secret Scripture up to be something of a grand, unforgettable, sweeping, romantic epic, and in some ways it is.
But for a film with such lofty ambitions, it also fails to deliver as it could and probably should.
There’s a general clunkiness about The Secret Scripture, and it’s not for want of decent performances. Rooney Mara in particular convinces as the young Rose, a girl who seems somehow to be not in control of her own sexuality; effortlessly seducing each and every man that crosses her path, much to her ultimate detriment.
No, the clunkiness seems to stem rather from a failure to fully examine and emotionally connect with any sense of depth, the more weighty components of the tale, namely:
A young, tormented Catholic Priest whose jealous infatuation with young Rose can never be anything more than that.
A forbidden relationship between a Catholic girl from County Sligo and a young lad who chooses to ‘betray’ his Irish roots and join the RAF to help with the war effort.
The ‘imprisonment’ – for that is effectively what it was – of a pregnant Rose, in a mental asylum, and the significant ill treatment that she would receive there.
And perhaps more than anything, the realisation that she would never be allowed to keep her child, who, when the time came, would be taken from her, destined to join some invisible wealthy family on the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States of America.
All of these story lines and more, instead, pass us by without us ever truly appreciating what the enormity of their impact would have been. And that’s disappointing considering other films have focused upon similar themes, and done so with far greater impact. The 2013 drama, Philomena, immediately springs to mind.
There’s been a rather negative press surrounding this Jim Sheridan piece and I think on balance that that’s perhaps a little unfair, although conversely, also understandable to some degree. It’s all just a little too neat and tidy and a tad ‘convenient’ and predictable in places.
But that said, this is a film which proves that by employing a directorial approach that is above all honest, whilst exhibiting both a little goodwill and a certain warmth of spirit, you can sometimes cover a multitude of sins.
In spite of its faults and inadequacies – and there are many – The Secret Scripture still manages to tick enough boxes to entertain, delivering a certain level of poignancy and glossy sentiment as it does so, which just about carries it through.

THE HANDMAIDEN

“Sumptuous, elegant cinematography, performances brimming with intent, and a plot that’s as clever as it is wicked…”

Wayward Wolf.

The Handmaiden is a deeply-sensual adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel, Fingersmith.

But unlike Fingersmith, director Chan-wook Park’s version is staged not in Victorian Britain, but in 1930’s Korea, where a seemingly impressionable young girl, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), takes on the role of handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Hideko lives with her uncle on a huge estate in the country, and Sook-Hee will be at her beck and call, both morning and night.

Sook-Hee arrives highly recommended and with glowing references; seemingly the perfect fit for the job. A more than satisfactory scenario for all concerned.

But, as sweet and obedient as Sook-Hee may well appear on the surface, there’s foul-play afoot, for Sook-Hee’s ‘master,’ – posing as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and a prospective suitor for Lady Hideko’s attentions – has a special set of instructions for the young handmaiden to abide by. She is to sing the Count’s praises at every opportunity whilst in Lady Hideko’s company, so as to convince her that she should be with him.

For The Count is a confidence trickster, intent only on getting his hands on Lady Hideko’s considerable impending wealth. Sook-Hee, fearful of the consequences should she disobey him, is just one of a number of young, impressionable girls that The Count holds under his considerable, wicked, dictatorial influence.

This in itself lays the foundations for a straight forward, but nevertheless intriguing tale. The Handmaiden, however, is anything but straight forward. This is in fact a story of subterfuge, whose plot twists and turns, deceives and frequently wrong-foots its viewer, as the distinction between hero and villain become blurred and confused, and any initial assumptions are turned on their head.

Chan-wook Park certainly doesn’t shy away from the gratuitous. Indeed, there are any number of moments when you may choose to avert your eyes, recoil or wince in equal measure. Added to this are the surprisingly long, drawn-out erotic scenes that unfold as the sexual tension builds relentlessly throughout the piece, making The Handmaiden a film to rival even the steamiest of mainstream cinematic offerings. The likes of Mulholland Drive, and more recently, Blue is the Warmest Colour, immediately spring to mind.

Far from being a mere vehicle for generous titillation, however, The Handmaiden is every bit a fully-captivating thriller in its own right, occasionally bringing to my mind at least, Peter Greenaway’s excellent The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & Her Lover – but as I say, that could just be me, in fairness.

It’s a film that has that certain something about it. Sumptuous, elegant cinematography, performances brimming with intent, and a plot that’s as clever as it is wicked, all combining to elevate The Handmaiden high above the many lesser offerings within this genre.

One can only hope that quality Korean thrillers that are unleashed in the Spring, are not long-forgotten come Oscar time.

RAW

“…Garance Marillier’s on-screen transformation from doe-eyed virginal innocent, into an almost demonic lustful deviant is both powerful and highly convincing.”

Wayward Wolf.

“It’s a family affair” enthused Sly & The Family Stone in their 1971 soulful classic, though I’m not entirely convinced that any such genealogical affirmations were pertaining to a generational compulsion to nibble on human flesh!

But I could be wrong.

All contrived cultural references aside for a moment, Raw is director Julia Ducournau’s splendidly squirm-inducing cannibalistic shocker, trumpeting the merits of the deceased as a feast. A film which by all accounts has caused all manner of repulsion and outrage at screenings since its launch.

Good. More of this please.

To be honest, if you boil the film’s plot and key components down into its simplest form, it will probably raise an eyebrow or two of the sceptics amongst us, but so well is Ducournau’s warped vision realised, and so convincingly is it portrayed by all concerned, you can’t help but be drawn into this most peculiar of tales.

There is a scene early on in Raw when a mother almost loses her mind over the fact that a roadside cafe’s lackadaisical approach to food serving technique results in a meatball being inadvertently secreted within a big pile of mashed potatoes and then served to the woman’s daughter. No big deal you may surmise, but so puritanical is this particular family in its dogged devotion to vegetarianism, you’d  assume something far more sinister had occurred given the song and dance that she proceeds to make of it all.

But such a hullabaloo is not without good reason, as will ultimately be revealed.

Her daughter, Justine (Garance Marillier), is being driven to veterinary school. There, she will hook up once again with her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) – also pursuing a career in veterinary science – who is a year or two ahead of her, in her studies. This is no ordinary vet school, however – or perhaps it is? I never studied veterinary science, after all – and in a fashion that we’d sooner probably associate with the likes of an Eton or Oxbridge, all manner of bizarre inductions and initiation rituals are thrust upon the first year students.

One such trial involves the scoffing down of raw rabbit kidneys. This would be insane enough for a non-questioning omnivore, let alone a devout vegetarian such as Justine, for whom the entire notion is preposterous. But against her will, and shall we say ‘encouraged’ by her older sister, despite much protestation and considerable gagging, she sees the ordeal through.

For most, this could probably be chalked off as extreme high jinx, but for Justine, it proves to be the catalyst for something altogether more disturbing as she awakens a deep-seated, almost compulsive craving for flesh.

More taboo-busting art house picture than horror flick, though bordering on vampirical at times, Raw is unashamedly graphic and ghoulish in its presentation, closely tracking Justine’s rapid and seemingly unalterable descent from innocent beetroot-biter into what is gradually revealed to be both her genetic disposition and destiny, a full-on flesh-feeder – human flesh, at that. Indeed, Garance Marillier’s on-screen transformation from doe-eyed virginal innocent, into an almost demonic lustful deviant is both powerful and highly convincing; an inspired piece of casting from Director Ducournau.

Greatly enhanced by a pulsing and persuasive soundtrack – anchored by Jim Williams’ wonderful recurring, swirling, stately Baroque-tinged and menacing main theme – Raw is a macabre, frequently uncomfortable but darkly humorous film that successfully marries substantial helpings of toe-curling gore with beautifully vivid and seductive colour; an at times almost ethereal experience.

A highly original piece that certainly won’t be forgotten in a hurry, Raw can quite rightly claim its place in the ‘must-see’ list of 2017.

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ALIEN: COVENANT

“…a film that tries far too hard to be everything for everyone, and consequently, on balance, falls short in all departments.”

Wayward Wolf.

Oh how I long for simplicity.

There are a handful of set pieces within Alien: Covenant that hint at what a decent film it could have been, but so buried are they within an over-cooked, rambling backstory, that any impact they may lend the film is fleeting, to say the least.

It was Ridley Scott who took charge of the much-hyped, but ultimately quite frankly poor, Prometheus, and in Alien: Covenant, he once again looks to rediscover a bit of that old Alien magic in the latest chapter of this most patchy of franchises.

Sadly, long gone it seems are the days when we cowered in horror and bit our nails down to the bone in fearful awe of the most excellent Alien, not to mention it’s excellent James Cameron-directed sequel, Aliens. Whilst Alien: Covenant does have its moments, it’s a very pale imitation of what’s preceded it.

Another 2017 release, Life, made no pretence to be anything other than something of a homage to some of the great science fiction films of the last half century, yet despite its relatively unoriginal concept(s), it delivered a tight, neatly packaged and thoroughly entertaining finished product with both considerable impact and laser-sharp precision.

Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, in contrast, struggles somewhat for identity. There’s clearly an ‘epic’ vision at play behind the scenes here. The director tries manfully to engage his audience on far more of an expansive scale and cerebral level than simply throwing rampaging aliens in numbers at unsuspecting space travellers (although there’s plenty of that to be getting on with), but the general impression is that this is a film that tries far too hard to be everything for everyone, and consequently, on balance, falls short in all departments.

Part thriller, part thought-provoking science fiction piece, part action-packed white knuckle ride, part philosophical lament, you name it, this is a film that struggles gamely yet ultimately fails to weave these and other disparate threads together into something resembling a coherent whole.

Alien: Covenant is not helped by both momentum-sapping, drawn-out scenes of unnecessary ponderous self-reflection, and by fairly weak characterisation.

Although Michael Fassbender (playing both David & Walter) and Katherine Waterston (Daniels) turn in strong performances, and as whole-heartedly as all other parts are played, there’s something of a disconnect here between viewer and character, and I doubt that there will have been too many tears shed by the viewing public as the cast are predictably whittled down in number via various grisly means, leaving the remaining few to battle it all out in overly exaggerated bloated fight sequences.

Where Alien: Covenant does however score highly, is in the ‘memorable, hard-hitting set pieces’ department. Indeed, never let it be said that Ridley Scott doesn’t know how to shock, or to sear disturbing imagery into our collective grey matter.

There are certain franchises that tend to garner a generous tidal wave of goodwill regardless of the true quality of their output, attracting something of a blinkered, head-in-the-sand devotion by the masses. The Alien franchise is one such example. But the truth is that there have been just two truly excellent Alien films in the series, and the rest, no matter how much you dress them up, or who’s been pulling the strings, have largely been regurgitated re-hashes of the original, admittedly excellent concept.

There’s no doubt that there were good and very grand intentions behind Alien: Covenant – this is a film not without its positives, rest assured – but it’s probably all  best summed up by the rather sign-posted ‘twist’ at the film’s conclusion. Well executed, but rather predictable and ultimately all a bit unnecessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MINDHORN

“…Clive Parnevik – a semi-naked man so laid-back Dutch, he’s visually virtually orange.”

Wayward Wolf.

The all too often ‘hiding to nothing’ that is stretching a simple comedy concept into a full-blown feature film continues unabated here with Sean Foley’s, Mindhorn.

Based upon Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby’s screenplay – both of whom have key roles in it – this is the story of Richard Thornton, a washed up has-been actor who briefly in the 1980’s had a taste of the high-life, portraying slick, on-screen, no-nonsense maverick Isle-of-Man detective, Mindhorn. A sort of naff Magnum P.I – light.

Resplendent in brown leather jacket, roll-neck sweater and grey brogues, our ‘action’ hero is also the proud wearer of a special eye patch through which his artificial eyeball can literally see the truth.

All faltering one-liners, thick head of hair and generous moustache, our bionic Bergerac (thank you Julian Barratt), goes about the task of solving the island’s assorted crimes and misdemeanours along with his glamorous sidekick and all-round ‘bit of totty,’ Patricia Deville (Essie Davis).

Fast forward twenty-five years and Richard Thornton, a now tubby, bald jobbing actor for corporate videos and adverts, receives a call out of the blue from the Isle of Man police. His presence is ‘urgently’ requested on the island to aid in solving an actual case of murder.

Delusional oddball ‘The Kestrel’ (Russell Tovey), is the chief suspect in the case. Refusing to give himself up to the police, he insists that he’ll only talk to detective Mindhorn, oblivious to the fact that the Isle of Man’s favourite corruption-correcter is of course nothing but a fictional character. Nevertheless, step forward Richard Thornton, a.k.a Mindhorn. Not quite the man he once was, but in reprising his semi-famous alter ego of yesteryear, Thornton is now duty bound to perform the role of his life…

Mindhorn follows that not so original, rather well-worn path of mixing comedy with farcical crime caper. Done to death? Sure, but when done well it always seems to provide a solidly reliable platform upon which decent comedians and actors can strut their stuff.

And strut, they do…

With Julian Barratt on board, Mindhorn is a film that need not worry too much about employing any tired concepts, nor concern itself with the struggle to adapt comedy for the big screen; Barratt absolutely steals the show from start to finish portraying a man of massive delusions and a toe-curling lack of self-awareness. Crucially though, Thornton, whilst being a fairly tragic character, is also one with whom one can’t help but empathise. This man was once Mindhorn, so just where did it all go wrong?

Simon Farnaby, on the other hand, plays Thornton’s one time stunt double and hugely smug love rival, Clive Parnevik – a semi-naked man so laid-back Dutch, he’s visually virtually orange. Both in the 80’s and still to the present day, the pair of them are unable to set aside an ongoing petty spat, as they continually spar in a game of one-upmanship for the lovely Patricia’s attentions.

In fairness, she’d probably be quite happy without either of them.

With Baby Cow Films on board, it’s no surprise that aspects of both The Mighty Boosh and various Alan Partridge-esque elements are very much in evidence. Shades of Alan Partridge’s mega-fan and stalker, Ged, in particular spring to mind. Indeed, Steve Coogan himself portrays successful, all-round pompous git, Peter Eastman, a sort of more glamorous Tony Hayers – type character, with the power to commission (or not) the Mindhorn box set re-issue that Thornton covets so greatly.

It’s all great fun, and consistently delivers the goods with a generous helping of genuinely funny, actual laugh-inducing spoken and visual gags. Yes, there are one or two lulls in it, and occasional moments when it all appears to be running out of puff, yet it always successfully manages to stay on course and hauls itself back from the brink.

By all accounts, Mindhorn – with frequent comedic references to Bergerac’s John Nettles, throughout –  was devised to be as much a heartfelt homage to 1980’s detective shows as it was to be a merciless send-up of the much-loved genre (something that it executes splendidly, I should add), and on balance it achieves both goals. It even goes so far as to incorporate that most mandatory of appendages to 80’s TV stardom, the hit record – all perms, guitar solos and rolled-up suit jacket sleeves on big-spectacled keyboard players.

“You can’t handcuff the wind” – indeed.

Absolutely destined for cult status amongst students, comedy aficionados and anoraks the length and breadth of this country, Mindhorn is by some distance the funniest film of both this and the last few years.

 

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

“…a wonderfully poignant, thought-provoking piece, guilty only of perhaps being a little too subtle at times in divulging the key components of Julian Barnes’ intricate narrative.”

Wayward Wolf.

Considering The Sense of an Ending is a film that contemplates past memories – and taking into account the often considerable amounts of time lapsed, our often rather muddled, incorrect recollection of them – it probably hasn’t been the wisest of ideas for me to have waited quite so many weeks to finally get around to reviewing it.

Additionally, if truth be told, there had been a few loose ends that I’d failed to connect within director Ritesh Batra’s excellent vision of Nick Payne’s adaptation of the Julian Barnes novel of the same name. Suffice it to say, the passing of time has not helped in this regard, rendering even more inadequate my already ropey grip on the film’s finer points of debate and uncertainty.

Nevertheless, fading memories or not, what I can quite confidently pronounce is that The Sense of an Ending is a superbly realised piece of work, with Jim Broadbent in particular, in fine form – although that will come as no shock to anyone familiar with his vast body of quality work.

Tony Webster (Broadbent), is a retired divorcee with a small Leica camera repair shop which keeps him busy in his twilight years. Curmudgeonly and rather intolerant by nature – christened ‘The Mudge’ by his pregnant daughter and ex-wife – Webster lives a simple life of routine, perhaps typical of a man his age?

Such quotidianness is however disturbed somewhat when Webster receives notification that he has been left the diary of an old deceased friend, Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), in the will of the mother of an old-flame, Veronica (Veronica is played in her youth by Freya Mavor, and latterly by Charlotte Rampling).

This is a strange occurrence for a couple of reasons: Why would Adrian’s diary be in the hands of Tony’s old girlfriend’s mother in the first place? And what possible reason could there be for passing it on to Tony, in the event of her death?

The prospect of this gift from beyond the grave understandably piques Tony’s interest and his imagination is let loose on something of a trip down memory lane. He recounts very special times from his school and university days when he first met both Veronica and Adrian. One vivid memory stands out, that of a long weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in which Tony was introduced to her parents. Veronica’s winsome, effortlessly beguiling mother, Sarah, (portrayed by Emily Mortimer – an exceptional piece of casting) particularly captivates the young Tony.

Little however does he realise just how important a role Sarah will come to play in shaping the fate of so many people that he holds so dear.

Manouevering skilfully between Tony’s present, and the at times rose-tinted memories of his past, director Batra slowly cuts through the fog that has somewhat confused Tony’s recollections, to reveal a number of at times unwelcome truths; truths that until now, had remained largely out of sight and mind – partially buried in the ever-amassing sands of time.

Charlotte Rampling’s relatively brief role as the older Veronica, is powerful, yet sweetly understated, whilst Harriet Walter convinces entirely as Tony’s ex-wife, Margaret, who, whilst still being friends with him, wears that look of slight exasperation in his company; clearly possessing only limited tolerance for the silly old fool’s mildly obsessive later-life flights of fancy.

The Sense of an Ending truly is a wonderfully poignant, thought-provoking piece, guilty only of perhaps being a little too subtle at times in divulging the key components of Julian Barnes’ intricate narrative. But creating a little mystery and uncertainty in the minds of your viewers can never be a bad thing, in my experience at least.

Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the year to date.

 

 

GET OUT

“…a pair of hired hands, whose demeanour could reasonably be likened to that of Carlton Banks (Fresh Prince of Bel Air) on ketamine…”

Wayward Wolf.

What appears to be Jordan Peele’s first official outing as a director, has seen him take on one of those films whose narrative and plot reveals will probably fool no-one. I second-guessed pretty much every last attempted twist and turn that played out for the film’s duration.

And truth be told, I enjoyed every last minute of it.

Proof positive that if you choose to do something, and do it well, it’s always worth doing whether it’s pushing boundaries or not.

Get Out is a tense, at times deeply awkward and darkly humorous piece which, initially at least, pits ‘loved-up’ couple, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an African American lad, and his white girlfriend, Rose (Jennifer Connolly’s long lost sister? Allison Williams), against her well-meaning but ‘trying-way-too-hard’ all-round embarrassing caucasian parents. The parents are seemingly intent upon making their African-American guest feel as welcome as possible through a succession of strategically-placed cringeworthy positive race references, and by illustrating a deep devotion to Barack Obama. Think David Brent’s Equality Street, and you’re on the right track.

It’s all harmless enough, though Chris’s suspicion that something may not be quite right is aroused on the realisation that The Armitages employ a black maid and gardener to work on the family estate. This, naturally, is all justified by way of a reasonably plausible back story, but on closer inspection there’s definitely something a little ‘off’ about a pair of hired hands, whose demeanour could reasonably be likened to that of Carlton Banks (Fresh Prince of Bel Air) on ketamine – an almost total betrayal of their African-American roots.

Nonetheless, Chris’s primary task in hand is to be positively charming in order to impress Rose’s parents; something he seems to be well on his way to accomplishing until a late night ‘encounter’ with Rose’s mother, Missy, (the ever-beguiling Catherine Keener), puts a serious dent in any such plans.

From thereon in, Chris must face the daunting truth that he is not so much being accepted, as forced into Rose’s family circle.

But should one want to, how does one Get Out?!

As mentioned previously, if one takes a step back from the action, Jordan Peele’s eerie tale offers few genuine twists or shocks, and quickly evolves into a fairly straight forward, albeit slightly off-the-wall thriller.

No matter, it’s highly entertaining stuff, and successfully fuses the macabre and the sinister with the seriously off-beat and comical – Chris’s constant text and phone commentary with fellow African-American best friend, professional cynic and security guard – the larger than life Rod (Lil Rel Howery) –  is a constant highlight, throughout.

Kaluuya’s solid lead performance, a strong and believable chemistry between him and on-screen girlfriend, Williams, the substantial weight provided by a good quality support cast, and the insightful, albeit playful undercurrent of race and its perceived ‘place’ in society, all serve to bind this piece together, convincingly.

Get Out may not be overly original, but if we accept that there’s a specific winning formula that should be aspired to for any movie of this type, then it’s only fair to say that in this instance, director Jordan Peele has absolutely nailed it.

 

 

 

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT

“I still remember when ‘horror’ films were not so much the ironic, tongue-in-cheek, ‘knowing’ tips of the hat to the genre that they’ve become…”

Wayward Wolf.

The Belko Experiment has been described as “Office Space meets Battle Royale“, which on balance is probably about right. Absurdly comical, yet horrific and unnerving at times.

In truth, I’m a little torn on this one. I still remember when ‘horror’ films were not so much the ironic, tongue-in-cheek, ‘knowing’ tips of the hat to the genre that they’ve become, but genuinely disturbing experiences in their own right, in which the director would set out to frighten the living beJeezus out of those that might dare to watch them, with scant chance of any light relief along the way.

Of course, as with any genre, only a small percentage of attempts ever truly succeeded in achieving this – think Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing, The Blair Witch Project and so on – but they were all created with one sole purpose in mind, to be properly frightening, for frightening’s sake.

Greg McLean – no stranger to ‘straight’ horror – best known as he is for a piece of horror very much cut from that particular cloth, Wolf Creek – is the director responsible for The Belko Experiment, which is essentially a darkly humorous, ironic horror, centered around the rather awkward theme of kill or be killed.

It would be unfair however to suggest that The Belko Experiment doesn’t contain genuinely unsettling moments that are designed to strike fear into your very core. It very definitely does. There is perhaps after all no better vehicle for unnerving an audience than converting something that would be considered a perfectly safe, albeit dull haven – such as people’s banal, every day working environments – into the scene of untold terror. Better still, why not make it a setting from which there really is genuinely no escape, no matter how hard you try.

The events take place in a lone-standing, non-descript concrete office block on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia – the home of Belko Industries – in which an English speaking staff from a whole variety of backgrounds assemble for work as they would on any other day. With their morning coffees barely touched, they are suddenly informed via an unrecognised voice over the building’s intercom, that they cannot now leave the premises. The thought of being marooned at work would be bad enough for some, but when that’s followed up with an insistence that the staff must murder two of their number within half an hour “or there will be repercussions,” then you’ve got all the ingredients right there for a properly bad day at the office.

And so, to the jarring sound of impenetrable external shutters slamming shut over each and every window and feasible means of escape, the Belko experiment begins…

With more than a whiff of a Big Brother surveillance society pervading, it becomes increasingly clear to one and all entombed within the building that there is no escaping this growing, potentially gruesome crisis, and it’s not long before critical divisions begin to appear among the employees, and fractious behaviour abounds.

There are those insistent upon calm and reason, whilst there is a splinter group believing that in light of rapidly unfolding events, the only route forward is to consider the good of the many, and to make some extremely tough decisions. These are decisions that are not going to bode well for some. One thing is very clear though; ultimately everyone is bound to play by the same rules; the rules being set by this mysterious, elusive voice, and there appears to be not a damned thing that anyone can do about it.

It is this sense of desperation and helplessness that is the chief triumph of The Belko Experiment and Maclean conveys this effectively throughout the piece. It is particularly interesting to watch the gradual decay of inter-employee relations, as petty work rivalries soon escalate out of all control. An increasing sense of despair envelops and disables many, yet it drives others to decisive, brutal action.

Even forgiving the film’s rather clumsy, somewhat unnecessary conclusion, and the unavoidably tension-sapping effect of employing an overly familiar cast – something of a who’s who of minor roles in American film and TV – there is, however, no doubting that The Belko Experiment is a highly effective horror whose approach lies somewhere between old school frightener and post-Scream era dark humour.

My only minor ambivalence to The Belko Experiment stems from a personal preference of what a horror by definition should be, and thus probably shouldn’t be considered to be any sort of noteworthy criticism, as such.

Take it for what it is.

There’s nothing particularly innovative here if truth be told, and it’s far from an original concept in the first place, but what it does have to offer is handled well. It’s refreshingly punchy with good momentum and mercifully doesn’t dwell heavily upon any distracting personal back stories that would offer little or nothing to the film as a whole.

The Belko Experiment is a well executed (excuse the pun if you’d be so kind) modern horror that should inject a suitably unsettling 90 minutes into your day.

 

 

 

LADY MACBETH

Lady Macbeth is a simple, powerful and above all hugely memorable film.”

Wayward Wolf.

My own relative theatrical ignorance paid off handsomely with this preview screening of Director William Oldroyd’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Based in some small part on William Shakespeare’s character, Macbeth, it tells the story of a young lady, Katherine (Florence Pugh), sold into marriage, along with a worthless piece of land. It’s a close call as to which of the deal’s two assets is of less value to the purchaser and needless to say, the marriage is entirely inadequate and loveless, thanks in the main to the husband whose inability to consummate the relationship appears to have driven him to become a bitter and hurtful piece of work, if he wasn’t just that already, that is.

Together with his sour-faced father, they barely give Katherine the time of day, yet are insistent that she adheres to the son’s every whim, wish and demand.

The calling away of both husband and father on a matter of some urgency begins a chain of events in Katherine’s life that will completely re-shape it forever. The catalyst for such a dramatic turnabout is the appearance of a newly-hired stable hand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), whose mischievous, rugged and earthy charms ignite deep, lustful passions within Katherine; urges that she simply can’t help but act upon.

But having tasted this particular forbidden fruit, there really is no going back considering the stunted, soulless alternative on offer to her. Indeed, Katherine really might just do about anything to ensure that this new found freedom to both be herself again and to begin to impose some authority about the place, is never denied her again.

Lady Macbeth, whilst being by definition a period drama, feels far more contemporary in its approach and outlook than that. Sparse and minimal in its direction, it’s a piece refreshingly devoid of unnecessary clutter and it never attempts to overcomplicate what is essentially a very simple, straightforward plot. Instead, director William Oldroyd concentrates on both strong characterisation and ensuring that the narrative is delivered with unconfused precision and impact.

Florence Pugh plays her part with assured aplomb, gradually morphing from patient obedience, into reckless, scheming abandon. She is very much a young woman who recognises that her time has come, and is unafraid to use and manipulate those around her, partly out of desperation, yet ultimately for her own selfish gain.

Lady Macbeth is a simple, powerful and above all hugely memorable film, delivered expertly by all involved.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

ELLE

“…this is a woman whose experiences earlier in life have resulted in something of a twisted psyche…”

Wayward Wolf.

When the central theme of your film is that of brutal rape, yet the gravity of such an incident is then somewhat downplayed, and almost brushed off by the victim herself, it tells you that this is not a conventional Director’s take on the well worn theme of unwarranted assault and retribution.

No stranger to sexual or violent content in his films, Director Paul Verhoeven takes hold of the reins in this his slightly warped thriller, Elle.

Michèle Leblanc (the reassuringly superb, Isabelle Huppert), is the boss of a successful video games company. She is gradually revealed to be head-strong in character, yet slightly unbalanced in both her demeanour and actions. This can almost certainly be attributed to the fact that she is the product of a highly disturbed childhood – her father having been an appalling and reviled convicted mass murderer – which has rendered Michèle a somewhat erratic personality, and rather emotionally detached from the events that occur in her day to day life.

Michèle falls prey to a masked intruder on her own doorstep, and a forceful sexual assault takes place. Far from exhibiting the behavioural patterns of hysteria and self-loathing that we might have expected, she doesn’t so much as even notify the police, instead choosing to remain calm and carry on.

It’s curious behaviour to say the least, but one senses that this is a woman whose experiences earlier in life have resulted in something of a twisted psyche, enabling her to just accept things that others would consider far too taboo or utterly repellent.

It becomes apparent that Michèle’s rape was not in fact an isolated incident when a personalised pornographic animation is emailed to her at work, this time portraying her, once again, as the victim of a rape. True to character, Michèle calmly sets about trying to track down the perpetrator believing, understandably, that it must be someone from the workplace, and that these two recent events must therefore be linked.

But, we must consider that she works in an industry accepting of what would otherwise be considered extreme or sexually inappropriate, yet one that justifies such content by compartmentalising it into something rather more fantastical and crucially, unreal. It should also be considered that Michèle’s rather quirky ‘anything goes’ personality is something of a magnet of attraction for a rather unstable friend-base. The chief protagonist of a workplace stunt such as this therefore may be much harder to get to the bottom of than it could have been in anyone else’s walk of life.

With all of this and an exhibitionist elderly mother who enjoys living disgracefully with men less than half her age, it’s probably of some personal relief to Michèle that the kindly new neighbours that have moved in next door seem to be upstanding characters, and offer her, crucially, a stable influence in her life. They are very much the antithesis of the often self-inflicted car crash that Michèle’s life can have a tendency to degenerate into, with only the tiniest amount of effort.

The neighbours – Patrick in particular ( Laurent Lafitte), will play an increasingly influential part in her life, but if there’s one thing that Michèle has learnt, it’s that appearances can sometimes be deceptive, leaving her to ponder exactly which people she can really trust, and what their real motives may be?

Elle is a brilliantly spun web of intrigue and dysfunction, and Michèle is very much the common denominator at its very centre.

Paul Verhoeven paints this middle aged woman as something of a dichotomy. On the one hand she’s a stylish lady in control of her affairs and actions, yet on the other, a woman with self-destructive tendencies, only too willing to surrender all control, along with any self-respect that she possesses.

Verhoeven’s Elle is a psychologically intense piece, in which he positively delights in challenging his audience, pushing the boundaries with risqué, confrontational content, and in the process, blurs all lines of division between the concept of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’.

Whilst it may not possess the sort of twist or reveal that you might have anticipated, Elle is far more than just a simple whodunit or thriller. A twisted, stylish, tense and intriguing piece that will leave you dissecting its unsettling characters, ideas and concepts for quite some time to come.

IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD

“…Dolan has come up with yet another film of quite devastating impact.”

Wayward Wolf.

Director Xavier Dolan is no stranger to confrontational, explosive content, and his latest piece, It’s Only the End of the World – based loosely on Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play – continues in a familiar vein.

Employing the incredibly effective, yet highly claustrophobic technique of using tight close up shots pretty much throughout, Dolan’s film conjures up a suffocating, unsettling, and deeply awkward air, right from the start.

Louis (the softly-spoken Noah Wyle-alike, Gaspard Ulliel), is returning home after an absence of some twelve years. A cursory glance at the film’s synopsis in advance of any viewing will make sense of much of the film’s content, however, going into it blind as I did left much room for ambiguity. There are certainly many ways of interpreting the array of dysfunctional and erratic behaviour on display without necessarily coming to any sort of concrete conclusions, let alone the correct one.

For those that wish to know: Louis is returning home to announce that he is terminally ill and that he is not long for this world. Exactly what is wrong with him is never established owing to the absolute barrage of issues and the undercurrents of family bitterness and self-interest that completely swamp Louis and any attempts he may make to announce his news during the visit.

Chief protagonist in conjuring up the absolute tsunami of ill-feeling that seems to completely envelop the family is older brother, Antoine (an absolutely sensational bordering on unhinged performance from Vincent Cassel), whose anger-fuelled sarcasm and acerbic ripostes do little to encourage a free-flowing dialogue of compassion amongst the family members.

Younger sister, Suzanne (the ever impressive Léa Seydoux), so keen to catch up with and indeed get to know the brother that’s been absent for most of her formative years, is given scant opportunity to do so thanks in part to her own selfish interests, but chiefly due to the ever-present dark cloud of misery that Antoine insists on hanging heavy over the party.

A strong -willed mother (Nathalie Baye), and Catherine (Marion Cotillard), complete this particular gathering of doom, in amongst whom, Louis waits patiently and nervously for the opportune moment to announce his grave news.

It is a moment that never comes, although there are insinuations during the film that some family members may be marginally less clueless of Louis’ intentions than others.

The whole thing remains fairly ambiguous, though Dolan does superbly well to ramp up the atmosphere and tension throughout to the point at which something surely has to give.

Or perhaps not? You’ll need to see for yourselves.

It’s Only the End of the World is a dialogue-heavy piece, yet Dolan finds ways of administering his own brand of agitated energy and dynamism to proceedings, made so much easier thanks to an absolutely stella cast performing at the very top of their games.

With the highly effective use of montages and a score that successfully swells the already palpable levels of negative tension to at times unbearably bloated levels, Dolan has come up with yet another film of quite devastating impact. A highly challenging piece that frequently threatens to boil over, yet, is just about reined in sufficiently to keep us guessing right through to the film’s ambiguous conclusion.

THEIR FINEST

“…perhaps the show-stealing role is taken by Bill Nighy with his comical portrayal of the puffed-up thespian figure, Ambrose Hiliard.” 

Wayward Wolf.

Lone Scherfig’s WWII drama, Their Finest, strikes well the tricky balance between romantic comedy and serious content. Barring a sudden entrance from Rowan Atkinson, War, after all, is probably not much of a laughing matter.

Catrin Cole (a delightful performance from Gemma Arterton), is the demure, softly spoken Welsh girl from Ebbw Vale. She has moved from the valleys to London along with her partner, Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), who feverishly attempts to establish himself as a fine artist of worth, having been promised opportunities within the field relating to the on-going war effort.

Life’s a struggle though. Financially-speaking, Catrin and Ellis can barely afford the rent, until that is she unexpectedly lands a job writing scripts for the British film industry. But the struggles are of a very different kind when it becomes apparent to Catrin that her writing talents are somewhat undervalued in her new role owing to her gender, and she is consigned to writing throwaway ‘female slop’ as opposed to anything that may be considered at all worth while.

Somehow though, through sheer hard work and a canny knack for saying the right thing, she lands herself an opportunity to co-write the script for a military propaganda piece, intended to lift the spirits of the allied forces. For this, Catrin joins a small team of writers, namely, Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), and Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Buckley is a character that is hard to warm to. Tom’s initial negativity gives rise to friction between himself and Catrin, yet ultimately a fairly complex and involved relationship develops between the pair. The three of them are tasked with pulling together the script for a piece based vaguely upon true events. It is in many ways as ridiculous as it is inspirational, not helped by the constant meddling from those in lofty positions of military power, insistent upon shoe-horning in edits on a whim to suit each and every war ‘fad’ of the moment. Nonetheless, Catrin flourishes in her role and becomes an indispensable part of the set up.

All the while, bombs are falling around about her, over the City of London. The blitz, in full effect, makes for a surreal, hurdle-ridden backdrop to this rather charming tale.

Considering the setting and subject matter, it’ll come as no shock to suggest that there is something overwhelmingly British about Scherfig’s film in that Richard-Curtis-esque Four Weddings / Notting Hill fashion. Such an achievement is brought about chiefly through a collection of lightly-stereotyped, yet intriguing characters. As already mentioned, Arteton is excellent, whilst Huston and Claflin are well cast in their respective parts, but perhaps the show-stealing role is taken by Bill Nighy with his comical portrayal of the puffed-up thespian figure, Ambrose Hiliard.

Hanging on for grim death to the remnants of his acting career, Hilliard is deeply bitter of the fact that war has rather savaged what he’d anticipated would be his golden twilight years in film. His eccentric agent, Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan) – complete with a dishevelled sheep’s head ensconced in his bag (a treat for his constant bull terrier companion) – is at best professionally adequate, but generally below par for the frustrated Hilliard’s career-needs. Living, as he does, in his own rose-tinted bubble of self-importance, yet more than aware of the slow, painful death of his career, the last thing that Hilliard needs is a pandering agent with relatively little clout in the industry.

Whilst it may well lack a little depth and consequently fall some way short of being considered a classic of British cinema, as far as bitter-sweet, and frequently poignant feel-good stories go, Lone Scherfig’s gentle tale of one girl’s single-minded determination to overcome the considerable odds stacked against her, is hugely enjoyable, and very possibly Gemma Arteton’s finest hour, to boot.

 

POWER RANGERS

“A group of ever so slightly wayward kids… A sort of watered down Breakfast Club for this generation…”

Wayward Wolf.

The relentless drive to rediscover every ‘lost’ super hero franchise of yesteryear continues unabated with this very 2017 take on the old ’90s kids TV series, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

A group of ever so slightly wayward kids thrown together through various improbable circumstances – A sort of watered down Breakfast Club for this generation – unwittingly find themselves to be the ‘chosen ones’ in the fight against the dastardly deeds of Rita Repulsa, a fallen Ranger-turned evil entity, whose reign of wrong-doing had actually commenced many millions of years previously.

Indeed, her initial plans to weave a web of wickedness had unfortunately (for her) been thwarted by the minor inconvenience of a meteor wiping out all life on planet earth.

Fast forward then to the present day, and a group of fishermen catch the preserved remains of Rita on their boat, in amongst their fishy loot. Apparently this is the cue that Rita’s grisly remains has been waiting for, all these millions of years, and she doesn’t waste any time jumping back to life, and wreaking havoc upon the local community.

Meanwhile, our angst-ridden teen heroes-to-be unearth some lost power crystals which are by all accounts of great importance to Rita and her pernicious plans for world domination. It’s not long – again through sets of circumstances too silly, convoluted and improbable to go into – before our new Power Rangers are fully embroiled in a bid to oversee Rita’s downfall, whilst she, in turn, plans to disarm them of their shiny crystalline bounty, and make good on her manifesto of mayhem.

Or something.

Naturally it’s all nonsense, and it’s fair to say that by the time we reach the film’s cacophonous conclusion, any semblance of subtlety the film may have professed to entertain, has been well and truly trodden underfoot both metaphorically and literally, by some ham-fisted direction and an array of huge CGi creations, intent on beating seven bells of shite out of each other.

Nevertheless, and rather unexpectedly, there actually is a certain element of charm (of sorts) about Power Rangers. The five teens-turned-Rangers succeed in being fairly quirky, almost likeable characters, albeit ones playing up to clichéd stereotypes: The Jock (Dacre Montgomery), the cheerleader (Naomi Scott), the autistic nerd (RJ Cyler), the ‘don’t label me / I’m far too alternative’ character (Becky G), and, errr, the other one (Ludi Lin).

Each has a story to tell comprised of their own particular flavour of angsty issues, and it’s only by sharing and overcoming these and thereby successfully bonding together as one, that they can achieve their collective goal, and morph into fully-armoured Power Rangers – and other such Sesame Street-inspired life lessons.

It’s certainly true that Director Dean Israelite’s personal vision of Power Rangers frequently teeters on the brink of plunging over the precipice into a hellish mixing pot of sickly unrealistic, ever-so-clever dialogue in combination with that oh-so-tiresome emo-esque, furrow-browed  inward reflection so typical of modern teen film and television. But somehow, Power Rangers escapes the dreaded drop of misfortune, and muscles on through to become what on balance is actually a reasonably watchable piece of family entertainment, and that in itself is probably some cause for celebration.

It’s certainly nothing special though, even within its own limited genre, but it’s not nearly as forgettable as had been both feared and predicted.

Just exactly what I was doing, watching something like this on the big screen, however, we’ll leave for another day…

GHOST IN THE SHELL

“HONDA appear to be doing rather well for themselves in the future, in case you were concerned…”

Wayward Wolf Film Review.

Place a human brain atop the perfect body and what do you get? When the answer is ‘Scarlett Johansson’ there probably won’t be many in disagreement. But this is not necessarily a flippant, lustful homage to she from the rather aesthetically-pleasing Scandinavian gene pool. Instead, what we have here is the brain ‘rescued’ from a woman unfortunate to have been embroiled in a terrorist attack. This particular cerebral mass has been salvaged and implanted into a cyber-enhanced artificial body in order to create the ultimate fighting machine. An experimental yet soon to be key weapon and deterrent in a city’s fight against terrorism.

This 2017 re-working of the Ghost in the Shell is the latest take on a concept that originated as a Manga back in 1989 and has since been used to create films, TV series’ and video games, by all accounts. You could say it’s something of a Japanese institution.

Unable as I am personally to compare and contrast Hollywood’s new take on things with any of the franchise’s former incarnations, inquisitiveness nevertheless has led me to cast a cursory glance around the internet which has revealed something of a scathing air of disappointment surrounding Rupert Sanders’ film. It appears to have garnered very little of the reverential acclaim afforded its 1995 animated predecessor of the same name.

Set amidst the futuristic backdrop of a fictional Japanese city in the mid twenty-first century, the threat of terrorism is no longer just that of imminent physical destruction. There is now additionally the increasing issue of mind-hacking, and so it is clear that a special type of counter-threat will be required in order to keep that in check.

Step forward Major Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson). Cast loose from the Hanka Robotics base in which she has been assembled, she sets about tracking down a particularly sinister hooded character, only, all is not as it seems. Given time it becomes apparent that not only is this supposed terrorism threat anything but, but that she herself is not quite the ground-breaking, unique creation that she’d been led to believe.

Visually, Ghost in the Shell ticks an awful lot of boxes and should be commended generously on this level. Fantastical sky-scraping backdrops of glowing neon are further adorned with assorted holographic advertising imagery – certainly HONDA appear to be doing rather well for themselves in the future, in case you were concerned – whilst a degree of industrial grime is retained at ground level; an uninviting world in which the financially-challenged ne’er-do-wells go about their dubious business. Massive amounts of impressively incorporated CGi is omni-present from start to finish, yet rarely if ever does it feel like overkill; somehow always relevant and integral to proceedings.

It’s a shame therefore that the irrefutably excellent visuals of Ghost in the Shell are not matched by the film’s general narrative and direction.

There’s something awfully flimsy and superficial about this particular movie-going experience, though the performances themselves can’t really be criticised. Johansson – ably supported by Juliette Binoche and Pilou Asbæk amongst others – portrays her part human / part cyborg character suitably well. Medium close up shots of her occasional dead-eyed pauses for thought and reflection, as she struggles to make sense of the frequent glitches that plague her confused mind – brought about by her old concealed reality poking through the firewall of her freshly installed, ‘new’ reality – are a particularly nice touch.

However, if the opinions of the wise sages of internet land are anything to go by, Ghost in the Shell has been stripped bare of its more complex and involving story arches in favour of a more straight forward action movie formula. No surprise there I suppose. Another unfortunate sacrifice at the Hollywood table of banal mediocrity.

Perhaps that’s a little harsh, although admittedly I did find my attention waning from time to time. The film is after all somewhat lacking in depth, tension and suspense, and struggles therefore to really sustain one’s interest. There’s also definitely a sense that the entire thing could have benefited from a slightly more risqué certification. Some scenes of combat – thwarted by the safety of the 12A rating as they are – possess neither energy nor impact. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need mad levels of gratuitous violence to be convinced, but I do need things to be a little more visceral, heart-felt and generally believable.

Perhaps it’s just a Manga thing? We should of course remind ourselves that this is, after all, comic book stuff, albeit comprised from slightly more adult themes.

Let’s end on a positive note though, namely, Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell’s electronic score. With its healthy influence of Vangelis shining through from time to time – it bleeps, squeaks, swoops and arpeggiates along nicely, perfectly encapsulating what the world of movies has insisted to us over the years that ‘the future’ actually sounds like. It’s a score that contributes heavily to the rather seductive, yet to all intents and purposes, deceptive aura that surrounds this Scarlett Johansson-centric blockbuster.

Ghost in the Shell, more than anything, offers yet another all too common opportunity to suspend our disbelief for a relatively inoffensive couple of hours of slightly entertaining, mildly perturbing activity, and I guess if that’s your bag, then more power to you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CERTAIN WOMEN

“…this is unashamedly thoughtful, contemplative cinema done well…”

Wayward Wolf Film Review.

As un-rushed and devoid of intensity as the cold and wind-swept location in which it’s set, Kelly Reichardt’s tale of small town life and aspirations, from the perspective of four women, is a slow-paced affair to put it mildly.

In a rather bleak, wintry Wyoming setting, three vaguely intersecting small town stories are explored in Certain Women, each examining the lives of independent women, empowered to search for and achieve their life goals, yet each experiencing variable levels of frustration in attempting to do so, be that on a personal or professional level.

Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer, attempting (in the nicest possible way), to shake off a client who stubbornly refuses to accept that he no longer has a legal leg to stand on in his long drawn-out attempts to claim sufficient compensation for a work-related injury. Whilst seemingly harmless enough, he will prove to be sufficiently perturbed to try just about anything in order to gain ‘justice.’

Gina (Michelle Williams) on the other hand is, together with husband Ryan (James LeGros), embarking upon a project to build ‘their’ dream home in a pretty, secluded country setting. Gina appears to be the one leading the way with this project, determining both the look and authenticity of the prospective build. Ryan is noticeably taking a back seat in this project. There appears to be no love lost between the couple. Whilst it’s hard to fathom exactly what it is that Gina wants, it seems as though Ryan would just like her to lighten up a little. Certainly if there ever was any, genuine affection has long since lost its way in their relationship.

The third story is of a stable hand (portrayed sweetly by Lily Gladstone), going through the predictable daily motions of her work. She is somewhat isolated, working outdoors away from most of humanity, with just the horses and an enthusiastically scampering pet dog for company. Perhaps out of desperation she enrols in an evening class (workplace law or something of that nature), in a nearby town. She has no interest in the subject matter, and the tutor of this class – a trainee lawyer by the name of Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) – has very little interest in, or knowledge of the subject matter either, teaching the course largely off-the-cuff and under duress, quietly peeved at her employer for putting her through the excessively long commute that’s involved in getting there and back each week.

Over the passing weeks, our rancher grows increasingly fond of this rather indifferent educator, whose once weekly appearance pretty much forms the highlight of her ‘stable’ existence (pun intended). But there’s a certain inevitability about her ultimately unrequited affection in this instance.

Much in the same way that the 2016 film, Paterson, achieved its impact through only very slight variations in what were essentially highly repetitive, relatively inconsequential daily routines and occurrences, Certain Women follows along similar lines. Whilst it is effectively a piece devoid of any true resolution, it nonetheless paints a thought-provoking portrait of mutually shared frustrations.

The film’s rather uninviting wintry backdrop possess a raw and remote beauty and somehow perfectly encapsulates the sort of struggle and disenchantment displayed by each of the film’s key protagonists, all of whom portray their parts with subtle expertise. All things considered, it’s probably as close to a perfectly cast film as you could possibly hope for within such settings.

Certain Women slowly probes under the skin of each of its leads to reveal four empowered ladies, yet each of them, to varying degrees, seem to lack the courage of their own convictions; unable, when it really counts, to seize the bull by the horns and get what it is that they truly want; seemingly lacking a little self-belief, remaining somewhat reliant upon others for support and the legitimisation of their intentions.

It won’t appeal to all and I’d hazard a guess that Certain Women will in fact alienate a fair few. It’s admittedly slow, in no hurry to get to the punchline. In fact, there really isn’t one. But this is unashamedly thoughtful, contemplative cinema done well, and all the more power to it.

 

LIFE

“…Life is perhaps something of a homage to some of the truly great futuristic films of yesteryear.”

Wayward Wolf Film Review.

Watching this science-fiction horror got me thinking of the irony that amidst the infinite vastness of outer space, the actual ‘stage’ upon which the vast majority of apparently ‘realistic’ science fiction films are played out, is somewhat claustrophobically small and rather limited; a case in point being Daniel Espinosa’s, Life.

In order that the crew of an exploratory space mission might not suffocate to death, the action must either be contained within the sanctuary and metaphorical ‘four walls’ of their relatively minuscule space station, or should they venture out of these confines into outer space, they must again be contained, this time within life-preserving space suits, anchored firmly to the space station.

Containment is indeed the name of the game and thus the ability for Directors to demonstrate true originality considering the self-imposed man-made limitations of the known science-fiction world, can quite often be severely hampered. This results in scenarios and backdrops becoming all too frequently a little overly-familiar and maybe even reassuring to our eyes, no matter how many supposedly differing tales of missions blasting-off into the great unknown we are subjected to.

On the one hand, Life is a film that most definitely suffers an originality bypass, more than most, its subject matter revolving around content that’s quite clearly been begged, borrowed and stolen from any number of prior science fiction sources.

But on the other hand, it’s equally possible to accept the point of view that Life is perhaps something of a homage to some of the truly great futuristic films of yesteryear.

Alien, Aliens, The Thing, Gravity, Interstellar, they’re all, without question, key influences here in the Director’s thinking.

But is this necessarily a bad thing?

These films were all lauded for their particular plus points, be that the more gritty, industrial and organic feel – the actual rattling nuts and bolts of space travel – that was conjured up in Interstellar, the stunning cinematography and awe-inspiring heart and soul of Gravity, the use of visual tracking technology to create absolutely white-knuckle-esque suspense, in Aliens, or the sheer fear factor brought about through a combination of the unknown and ultimately the horror of knowing, in both Alien and The Thing.

To name but a few. The list could very easily go on.

In the case of Life, each of these elements are employed strategically and expertly – it has to be said – creating a thoroughly convincing yet very straight forward tale of the inevitable perils of poking about too much in space.

The crew of an international space station are part of a mission to intercept some sort of probe that has been collecting ‘samples’ from the surface of Mars. The crew are to then analyse these for any potential signs of life.

Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), is the scientist in charge of analysing and nurturing the single-celled life form that they successfully unearth from Mars’ dust samples.

Its rapid growth and unconventional, unpredictable demeanour soon becomes not only the subject of much fascination, but also of considerable concern for the crew. They are mindful that as ground-breaking as their discovery undoubtedly is, there are bucket loads of unknowns attached to this particular venture, and the mutually agreed upon, over-riding protocol is that no matter how unique and precious this organism’s growth and development may be, if things get out of hand, it cannot be allowed to affect life on planet earth.

Needless to say, when playing with fire, people get burnt. And so it proves to be.

So long as you can sufficiently disassociate this film from all of its more obvious influences and treat it as the nail-bitingly tense thriller that it certainly is, Life will, without question, be a most enjoyable 100 minutes of your time.

The cast is excellent and the characterisation, I am pleased to announce, is surprisingly downplayed when compared with the more exaggerated characterisation of some of the film’s science fiction forerunnersFrom the brash swagger of Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), the sultry authority of team leader, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), to the quietly spoken David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) – whose influence on matters steadily grows as the team’s collective crisis deepens and they flap about with increasing desperation in their attempts to bring a halt to the inextirpable extraterrestrial’s progress.

As for ‘Calvin’ the alien being; he / she / it is deceivingly angelic in appearance. A sort of translucent orchid-like jellyfish creature. Convincing both as some sort of mythical spiritual being and as the relentless predator that it turns out to be.

Perhaps not so convincing however is Jon Ekstrand’s full and rather overblown soundtrack which is effective only sporadically, yet over-bearing and seemingly omni-present. The film at times struggles to breathe under the sheer weight of this excessive sonic onslaught.

Nonetheless, this is but a minor gripe, and is insufficient to detract from the positive impression and sentiment that the film successfully conveys, overall.

Thoroughly engaging to the point where I failed to second guess a fairly predictable yet highly effective twist near the film’s conclusion, Life is a delectable piece of fantasy that tips – in the most brazen of fashion – the visor of its space suit’s helmet in the general direction of the very best of classic cinematic science fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FAI BEI SOGNI (SWEET DREAMS)

“…frequent interjections of black and white footage…in the same manner that was employed in cult 90’s TV sitcom, Dream On…”

Wayward Wolf Film Review.

 

Il Postino, Cinema Paradiso, La Vita è Bella, La Grande Bellezza – Italian cinema is littered with gems such as these. Sentimental, often bordering on the saccharine, but forever compelling, emotionally-charged and beautifully realised films, one and all.

Sweet Dreams is a film whose component parts would appear to place it, at least content and intentions-wise, into the same sort of bracket. The bar is raised so high however that it is therefore perhaps unfair to compare the merits (or perhaps lack of), of Sweet Dreams with the aforementioned films. Try as it might, Marco Bellocchio’s tale of a man’s attempts in adulthood, to come to terms with the traumatic loss of his mother, during childhood, falls some way short of such revered company.

As a young boy, Massimo is firmly attached to his mothers’ apron strings, hanging on to her every word and action. His father, on the other hand, seems a far more peripheral figure in this life.

Little does the young boy realise though, that his mother, (played by Barbara Ronchi), is just as dependant upon her young son, as he is on her. Young Massimo provides her with the perfect distraction from the pain and complications of a hitherto unexplained illness or condition that she struggles with.

It is a condition that ultimately gets the better of her and she takes her own life. The morbid details of her suicide are never revealed to Massimo, and the now motherless child will grow up made to believe that it was in fact her weak heart that gave way; something that never quite sits right with the inquisitive youngster. With his mother now gone, and with a hired nanny and distant father figure barely a substitute, Massimo vows to confide all of his future fears, thoughts and feelings exclusively in a cult television character, Belfagor – a sort of soul-selling exercise; that is, until many years later, a compassionate Doctor, Elisa (Bérénice Bejo) enters the, by now renowned successful journalist’s life, and helps him to confront the trauma of his past.

There are frequent interjections of black and white footage of Massimo’s trusted Televisual confidant – much in the same manner that was employed in cult 90’s TV sitcom, Dream On – which is a nice, if unoriginal touch, and there are strong performances from all, including Guido Caprino as Massimo’s rather stern, emotionally unavailable father. But whether it’s the intentionally withdrawn, rather mono-syllabic performance of the film’s soul-searching lead (Valerio Mastandrea), whose life has become typically cyclic, time and again tripped up by his own unaddressed inadequacies, or a narrative that seems strangely incomplete, Sweet Dreams just doesn’t seem to hold together convincingly enough as a whole. It feels like an oddly disjointed film. Whilst we are reminded frequently of the traumatic events of Massimo’s past, there seems to be something of a chasm between that and the professional existence of his forty-something year old present. Bérénice Bejo’s role as the emotional conduit through which he can finally make the necessary connections and come to terms with the unresolved quandaries of his childhood, comes across, frustratingly, as somewhat undeveloped, which is by no means a slant on Bejo, herself.

It’s a nice story and not without its positives, and I’m assured that Massimo Gramellini’s book of the same name – upon which the film is based – is a most thought-provoking, acutely observational work, but there’s just something of a nagging sense that its film equivalent is sadly more than a tad undercooked.

THE LOST CITY OF Z

“A very British approach you might say, in keeping with the film’s historical time period and setting…”

Wayward Wolf Film Review.

 

Any thoughts that we may have stumbled upon a particularly extravagant episode of BBC’s Springwatch are quickly vanquished when our Chris Packham-alike hero gallops purposefully on horseback into the edge of a woodland and blasts a majestic stag through the heart – dead.

An admittedly unlikley scenario given Packham’s status as a naturalist and all-round friend of the feral and the furry. The visual similarity is uncanny though – or is it just me?

Back in movie land, James Gray’s sweeping biopic – based upon the story of intrepid explorer, Colonel Percival Fawcett (a most rewarding performance from Charlie Hunnam) – focuses on one man’s almost blinkered determination to become a highly decorated and revered member of the British military. Whilst he has always carried his role out with great distinction, Fawcett’s professional placements to date, time and again, have failed to place him in any actual combat scenarios, much to his chargrin.

This trend seems set to continue when he is asked to head up a largely topographical map-making mission into the largely unchartered, rubber-rich jungles of South America. At first reluctant, the assurance that medals and great honour will be bestowed upon him is more than enough to pique the Colonel’s interest and it’s not long therefore before he and his expedition party are aboard a raft, swatting mosquitos, as they float down an Amazonian tributary.

The Lost City of Z is a terrific yarn. Encompassing a time immediately before, during and after the Great War, it is a story of one man’s intrepid exploration into the unknown that fast became an all-consuming, life-long obsession to unearth a lost city, culture and treasures that he becomes convinced is all buried deep within the Amazon jungle.

It is, however, a film that is equally concerned with laying bare the at times glaring differences between the male and female psyche, particularly appreciable at a time in history in which gender roles were far more disparate and rigidly defined.

Fawcett’s wife, Nina (an impressive turn from Sienna Miller), is his rock of dependability, very literally left carrying the baby in her husband’s unavoidably extended absences from the family home. Her hugely tested patience and understanding is not always mirrored by that of their children who are not so willing to accept growing up, effectively fatherless.

This leads to great tensions within the family unit, but it can never be reason enough to restrain our plucky pioneer from his raison d’être.

The Lost City of Z is a very well-realised film. A very balanced piece that has every opportunity to do so, yet resists the temptation to be overly gratuitous, sentimental or euphoric. A very British approach you might say, in keeping with the film’s historical time period and setting. As with all successfully intriguing adventures, it carries its audience along on an engaging journey of discovery which is as much about what is allowed to occur in our own imaginations as it is about what ultimately plays out on the big screen.

Every bit an old-fashioned, ‘boys’ own adventure,’ it exposes the prehistoric stance adopted by the colonial-ruling classes – those that would refer to any peoples or tribes that it fails or refuses to understand as savages, and whose primary course of action is to shoot first and ask questions later. That or enslavement. It’s a mindset that Fawcett appears to have been eager to distance himself from. A man that chooses not to conquer, but instead to learn about that which he doesn’t know or understand, despite the occasional spray of arrows that may rain down upon him and his men – just one of a whole multitude of adverse scenarios that will test Fawcett and those courageous enough to travel with him.

James Gray’s sympathetic writing and expert handling, together with beautiful cinematography (filmed in Columbia by all accounts), and first class performances across the board, has created a highly enjoyable, multi-layered adventure tale of some weight and note, doing justice in the process to the memory of one of Britain’s foremost explorers and cartographers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KONG – SKULL ISLAND

“John C. Reilly… Half Biggles, half Monty Python’s guardian of the juniper berry bushes…”

Wayward Wolf Film Review.

 

What exactly are the key components of a big money-making, blockbuster film?

Stick to a well-worn, tried and tested formula? Tick. Make it larger than life with every emphasis on special effects over a cleverly-crafted narrative? Tick. Explosions, explosions, and shed-loads of them?! Tick. The list goes on and it reads like an accountant’s check-list – to borrow a Mark Kermode-ism, if I may.

Talking of big money blockbusters… Pounding his barrel chest in the furriest of fury, everyone’s favourite, easily-irked ape returns to the big screen once again, administering a plethora of simian beat-downs to those unfortunate or unwise enough to incur his wrath.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts has hold of the directorial reins for this latest slice of over-sized monkey mayhem, positioning Kong as the king of all he surveys on some hugely hazardous undiscovered island tucked away in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the southern hemisphere.

To all intents and purposes, Kong: Skull Island is ludicrous from start to finish, yet admittedly great fun for those that have no problem depositing their grey matter at the door, in advance.

Political agendas, lesser-known conspiracy theories, and very obvious Hollywood licence have all been taken and fused together with the same sort of care and attention that one might expect from the YTS kid on day one, creating a mad mish-mash identity crisis of a film which struggles to come across as anything like a coherent whole.

No matter, if it’s hugely impressive special effects that you crave, together with explosions, monster fights and a fair share of giant entities that will make your skin crawl, you’ve come to the right place.

Set in the immediate post-Vietnam war era, scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman), and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), have for many years been labelled ‘whack-jobs’ for their obdurate stance pertaining to an insistence that there are as yet undiscovered giant beings walking this earth, on as yet unchartered lands. Somehow the pair manage to convince the powers that be to provide them with a post-communist-bashing military chaperone for their investigative party, to aid them in their attempts to justify their apparently outlandish claims.

Team assembled and prepped to go, they set off on the craziest of kamikaze escapades. But regardless of the scale of the danger that’s set to confront Randa and Brooks’ expedition, as ever, it is man who will prove to be his own worst enemy.

This is no Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park or Apocalypse Now, though it clearly draws a hint of inspiration from each. What it is however, is a fun romp that positively hurls everything into the mixer, absolutely insists that we suspend our disbelief for a couple of hours, and hopes above all hope that some of this fairly poorly thought out carnage actually sticks – which in fairness, it does… to an extent.

Whether he’s swatting helicopters from the sky or wrestling the lizard creatures that inhabit the dark recesses of hollow, inner earth – there’s that conspiracy theory – Kong, the last of his line, is a totally preposterous yet impressively realised creature here, inexplicably roaming and policing the rugged terrain of his ancestral kingdom.

Samuel L. Jackson is well cast as the career military man only too glad to accept Randa’s assignment, kicking his heels as he is, now that the Vietnam war is over. John Goodman as ever gets a bit part role which only succeeds in underselling his considerable acting ability. Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston are both decent enough as the fresh-faced war photographer / journalist and expedition leader, respectively. And then there’s John C.Reilly’s vaguely amusing character, Hank Marlow. Half Biggles, half Monty Python’s guardian of the juniper berry bushes, he’s been stranded on Skull Island since World War II, and let’s face it, he’s had enough.

It’s all cobbled-together, disjointed nonsense, but strangely likeable nonsense nonetheless, and if like me you’re bullheaded enough to see those closing credits out to the bitter end, there’s an inevitable little extra ‘something’ ham-fistedly bolted on, which, like the rest of the film, will be of no surprise whatsoever.

Franchise-worthy? Tick.

Hmm.

THE FOUNDER

“I have no interest in crass commercialisation, it’s just not McDonald’s…”

Wayward Wolf Film Review.

 

“I have no interest in crass commercialisation, it’s just not McDonald’s…”

Yes, you may well need to blink and re-read that.

A quote from joint founder member, Dick McDonald, who, together with his brother, Mac, formulated a revolutionary way to prepare what we now refer to as ‘fast food’.

Their finely-tuned, almost choreographed approach to the preparation and service of good quality hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes was to ultimately become the benchmark for all fast food preparation from that moment forward.

What most people don’t realise about the McDonald brothers is that they were absolute sticklers for standards taking great pride in preserving the high quality of their product, content with the knowledge that the customer was indeed always king. This had resulted therefore in a general reluctance to franchise out their hugely successful concept owing to justifiable concerns that to maintain such high standards in locations outside of their immediate control, would be problematic.

But with a proven formula and a highly profitable business on the go, they were understandably struggling to keep up with demand.

Little did they realise then that an order placed for a significant number of ‘revolutionary’ milkshake mixers – designed to greatly reduce preparation time by making multiple shakes, simultaneously – would prove to be both the making and breaking of them.

Not only then does a significant amount of time-saving machinery come winging its way into the McDonald brothers’ lives, but with it, comes Ray Croc.

Croc, a journeyman career food and restaurant sales rep with big dollar signs in his eyes, is immediately enchanted by the MacDonald brothers’ enterprise and no matter the level of slightly apprehensive indifference that they show towards his initial advances, he is not a man that will be easily dissuaded.

Ray Croc is determined to have himself a slice of this sleeping potential giant of a success story and immediately proposes massive expansion plans to the brothers by means of franchising the concept nationwide across America.

Persuasive to the end, Croc finally wins the trust of the McDonald brothers and a three-way contract based upon strict adherence to procedures and stringent quality controls is drawn up.

With the brothers’ concept and Croc’s drive and market savvy, what could go wrong?

The world of super-successful business is a murky, cut-throat affair at the best of times, and the strained relationship that ensues between the trio was in many ways inevitable. Dick and Mack’s morally sound approach, content to remain local in order to preserve the standards that they aspire to, was always going to prove ultimately unworkable in the face of Croc’s far more ruthless business-growth ideology.

Ray Croc is a man who’s managed to make a living through hard graft and innumerable knock backs along the way. When the opportunity of a life time finally materialises, and with a big point to prove to both himself and those that have doubted him, this fifty-something dispirited travelling sales veteran, whose wife has almost forgotten what he looks like, was never going to turn his back on the chance to make it big.

No-one, not even he, could surely have envisaged just how big that would be, and the kinds of underhand low-ball tactics that he’d end up employing through clouded, corrupted judgement, in order to realise his dreams; very much at the expense of others.

Director John Lee Hancock’s The Founder is wonderfully entertaining, beautifully-paced  and in spite of the aggravating nature of the growing mischievousness of the film’s lead, Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Croc is absolutely superb, developing the character from his inspiring, motivational inception into the down-right conniving, hard-nosed crook that he became.

Nick Offerman is excellent as the sceptical, judicious, Dick McDonald, whereas John Carroll Lynch is great in his portrayal of Dick’s warm-hearted, but slightly gullible brother.

Last but not least, Laura Dern is splendid as Croc’s long-suffering wife, Ethel. She tries hard to present a stoic front in response to her rather lonely predicament, but her impuissant efforts are insufficient to truly bring about any sort of meaningful change in her married life; forever a slave to her husband’s rather selfish tunnel-visioned career motives.

No matter your thoughts on the ‘evil’ McDonald’s empire – and let’s not isolate them as sole protagonists in the ‘questionable ethics of fast-food corporations’ department… Hello Burger King, KFC et al – The Founder is great entertainment, and an eminently watchable, high-tempo piece of cinema that you’d be McMad to miss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

JACKIE: “…the perfect vehicle through which to extol the virtues of the excellent Natalie Portman.”

Pablo Larraín’s Jackie is a curious affair. It’s hard to know exactly how to categorise it. Whilst feeling like something of a niche piece, it’s been very ably assembled on what is clearly a considerable budget.

What is clear, however, is that it is very much the perfect vehicle through which to extol the virtues of the excellent Natalie Portman. Jackie places under the microscope one Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a woman who awoke one morning America’s first lady, but ended the day a grieving widow, owing to the sudden and savage assassination of her husband. Almost overnight her star would wane, and Jackie Kennedy would be rather unceremoniously shunted aside, fast becoming yesterday’s news, yet ironically her name remains to this day synonymous with one of the most infamous events of modern times.

Of course, to suggest that Jackie Kennedy could ever have become yesterday’s news in light of her worldly profile and the sheer magnitude of the shattering and controversial events of November the 22nd, 1963, is merely to exaggerate a point.

Still, the suddenness of the upheaval brought about in her life was genuinely alarming.

These life-changing, unsettling events become the subject of an interview that she reluctantly and guardedly gives a few weeks after the event, having now moved out of the White House and into a more remote, low-key (relatively speaking) dwelling.

The discourse that follows very much shapes the narrative of Larrain’s film, blending tales from The White House and her role in John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s presidency, with tales from her more immediate past in which she busily oversaw her husband’s memorial and funeral arrangements, whilst simultaneously sustaining her family’s day-to-day needs.

It must have been a demanding time, although admittedly one that it is rather difficult to fully empathise with given Jackie’s somewhat atypical removed status from general society.

Portman’s portrayal of the rather elegant and demure former first lady is a precision piece of character acting, with seemingly just as much dedication given to accurately capturing the woman’s every last subtle idiosyncrasy as there is to depicting her struggle under exceptional circumstances.

And it makes for a fascinating spectacle; especially – I should imagine – for those that may harbour a particular infatuation with the people and events of that particular microcosm of time.

Mrs Kennedy is portrayed as an extremely dignified, yet fairly contrary figure, exhibiting a need to sustain some level of control at all times, which would of course have been more than understandable given her circumstances. Such a stance makes for a compellingly attritional interview. An understated performance of great presence from Billy Crudup – playing as he does a master of his journalistic trade, gently and respectfully probing for the pertinent answers – serves as the perfect foil for Jackie’s cagey, and at times almost riddlesome line in answering.

Visually and stylistically, Jackie is at once impressively grandiose, whilst simultaneously achingly cool in that thick-rimmed spectacled, designer Danish, mid-nineteenth Century manner. Successfully blending archive historical footage with actual cast members, whilst electing to shoot the piece in a format that’s suitably sympathetic with the times in which it is set, gives Jackie a certain authenticity, and the whole thing hangs together beautifully through Mica Levi’s remarkable score. Punctuated and stately in a late Baroque / early Classical sense, yet oddly contemporary through its use of chromaticism, and some surprising glissando, almost portamento scoring techniques, it lends the piece an elegantly ceremonial yet eerie quality.

Jackie is not a film that will necessarily set the pulses racing, and certainly don’t be expecting this to be some kind of latter-day whodunnit. I also wouldn’t imagine that it will be a film to garner a huge amount of interest outside of its core niche target audience. But given that that particular niche just so happens to be a fairly sizeable one, Pablo Larraín’s decision to create a biopic concerning the plight of such an iconic figure of twentieth century America, ultimately can’t fail to be justified.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MOONLIGHT:”…a smouldering, brooding character study into which much can and should be read.”

Barring dodgy back-handers or any sort of political manoeuvring, Oscar-winning films tend to need to have something truly exceptional about them in order to carry away the biggest? cinematic prize of them all.

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight definitely has something about it, but whether it’s a sufficient something for it to be lauded as the finest film of this latest Oscar year is another thing altogether. I suspect this may well be a bone of contention for some.

A coming-of-age story, Moonlight traces the formative years of Chiron – also known as Little and Black – (Ashton Sanders, and latterly, Trevante Rhodes), a young African-American kid from Miami who, as if growing up is not hard enough, must do so with an increasing self-awareness that he is gay. Such a scenario would be less of a burden to him were he being brought up within some kind of supportive family structure, but with no father on the scene, and an unpredictable, unstable drug addict for a mother, Chiron’s passage from childhood into adulthood is turbulent to say the least.

An outsider, looking in on others’ apparently happier lives, Chiron longs to be accepted and struggles to fit in; very much the omega male of the pack.

Even when he does find people that may offer him the apparent security and stability that he craves, more often than not, such friendships and acquaintances are tainted, with considerable strings attached. The paternal concern of surrogate fatherly figure of sorts, Juan (the excellent Mahershala Ali) – who, along with his partner Teresea (Janelle Monáe), offer the young Chiron respite and sanctuary from a turbulent home life, only for Juan later to be disgraced, revealed as Chiron’s mother’s drug dealer – being a particular case in point.

Chiron has grown up to be a boy of few words. Reluctant to voice an opinion. Maybe having been discouraged by those that really should know better? Or perhaps unconvinced that he even has a voice within an ever confusing world? Yet it’s obvious that behind his wall of silence there is a boy that’s desperate to break free and find his place in the world.

Bullied and ostracised from his peer group, Chiron’s life is an unhappy one, but a brief glimpse of happiness and inspiration is to be found through a chance encounter and dalliance one evening on an empty beach. Here, in a moment of sexual awakening, class mate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome, and latterly a scene-stealing performance from André Holland), finally enables Chiron to embrace the boy that he really is, and needs to be – even if for just the most fleeting of moments.

Whole new horizons of hope briefly heave into view, under the moonlight, but for a working class African-American kid from a background where vulnerability and sensitivity will always be usurped by machismo, being true to oneself seems a rather unattainable dream. There seems a depressingly pre-determined life pathway along which Chiron must tread, something that only he can change.

There’s an omnipresent sense of melancholia and unfulfilment that pervades most of Moonlight’s  characters, in one way or another. Whatever dreams or ideals each of them may have clutched to at some point in their lives, seem largely to have been abandoned; swept away by the harsh realities of life.

With understated yet powerful performances right across the board, and with substantial space and time afforded each character to breathe and slowly develop, Moonlight is every bit a smouldering, brooding character study, into which much can and should be read. A mood piece exposing the inconsistencies and fragility of its characters, laying bare our fear to embrace change or to be in some way different, and above all, demonstrating the protective barriers that we can’t help but erect in our attempts to shield ourselves from life’s hardships and complexity.

Whilst there have arguably been superior films this Oscar year just past, Moonlight resonates on a deep and true level, and is undoubtedly a fine piece. Both soulful and thought-provoking, I suspect it will continue to reveal and reward us the more it is re-visited.

 

 

FENCES: “A film of complex characters portrayed masterfully.”

Fences is the film adaptation of August Wilson’s successful play of the same name.

It is of course always touch and go as to whether stage productions translate convincingly to the big screen, and it’s Denzel Washington – both directing and performing here, having himself acted in the play’s successful 2010 revival on Broadway – who attempts to bring Wilson’s vision to the big screen.

Set in a working class neighbourhood of Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Washington), a refuse collector, lives in a modest house with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo).

Troy is a dominant personality. Unafraid to voice his opinions, he likes the sound of his own voice, and reigns over ‘his’ household through a combination of high moral values, and stubborn inflexibility. It is however arguably Rose’s motherly, more diplomatic approach to family, and life in general, that is really the glue that holds this household together.

Theirs is a life of relatively simple routine; the sort born out of both financial restraints, and the rather traditional gender roles that each adopts within the household.

Such an apparently workable and measured existence, however, masks a multitude of issues which escalate steadily as the film progresses, and it’s Troy’s need to project his own ideals, fears and bitter prejudices onto others, that is generally the main cause of this increasing unrest.

Troy and his closest friend and work colleague, Jim, (Stephen Henderson), will often wax lyrical about anything and everything over a bottle of gin at the end of a working day. Poor Rose, the very model of restrained poise and patience, must endure these occasionally charming, yet frequently self-righteous monologues – an often raucous blend of humour and baseball analogies.

Troy’s life is one of grudges and mistrust. A star baseball player in America’s ‘Negro’ leagues back in the day, he feels that his opportunities to progress into the major leagues were hampered by his skin colour alone. Whilst issues of racial prejudice have by no means been vanquished from 1950s American society – far from it – they are by no means the entirely debilitating issue that once they were.

But Troy will hear none of it.

“You best not be worrying about whether someone likes you, you just worry about whether they do right by you…” – or words to that effect. This is Troy’s mantra and life-instruction to youngest son, Cory, whose promising American football career his father insists is to play second fiddle to the security afforded by the part-time job Cory holds down after school.

Troy’s mistrust of the intentions of Cory’s football coach are a serious impediment to the dreams and aspirations of his son; the very same dreams and aspirations that Troy himself had clutched to as a younger man.

No matter the argument though, Troy’s mind is not for turning.

Perhaps the hardest thing for Troy to accept, however – in light of his unshakable principles – is the fact that his only brother, Gabriel (the excellent Mykelti Williamson), suffers from serious mental health issues, the result of a terrible injury sustained serving his country. Without Gabriel’s subsequent insurance payout, Troy would never have been able to pay for the roof above his own family’s head.

This deeply troubles the extremely principled Troy; a man racked with guilt. A man of foolish pride.

Troy’s catalogue of personal trials and tribulations the Maxson household has collectively learnt to deal with. But everything will soon pale into relative insignificance owing to the shattering news that Troy must somehow find the strength to divulge to his family…

If you were unaware beforehand, it’s pretty obvious that Fences is a piece adapted from the stage. Granted there are subtle directorial attempts to introduce a slightly less static, more cinematic interest to proceedings through the occasional use of tracking or arc camera shots, but essentially, Fences is comprised of a series of lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes.

The interaction and chemistry between Washington, Davis and Henderson in particular, is first class, with exceptional performance from Viola Davis, but in particular, from the director himself.

Denzel Washington’s big screen career has been long and successful, but there have always been nagging doubts as to the quality of the roles that he’s found himself cast in. With the notable exception of films like American Gangster or more recently, Flight, Washington, arguably, has rarely found himself in truly weighty or demanding roles. This is something of an anomaly considering the man’s inarguably strong acting talents.

From his early appearances in the wonderful St Elsewhere, it was apparent that this was a man with both magnetic allure and substantial gravitas, clearly destined for big things. And so it has proved when you take into account that Washington is a continued major box-office draw. A commercially successful actor, very much dining at Hollywood’s top table. But the role of Troy, in Fences, seems to have been an awfully long time coming. It’s a big role that makes great demands of a great actor, and in this case, brilliantly showcases the man’s abilities.

There are many reasons to heap praise upon Fences, but more than anything this is a film of performances. A film of complex characters portrayed masterfully – and none more so than Troy himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

T2 TRAINSPOTTING: “Begbie…the very last man on earth you’d ever want to share a pint with.”

What do the following three films all have in common?

A Nightmare on Elm StreetGrease and The Blair Witch Project

 

Suffice it to say that they were all highly original, hugely iconic films that spawned utterly abysmal sequels. Indeed, the number of great movies that have had their good reputation tarnished by massively inferior follow-ups is, to coin a phrase, absolutely off-the-chart.

By all accounts Danny Boyle wrestled with this very dilemma when daring to re-kindle the flames of his hugely influential 1996 outing, Trainspotting. Allegedly he and the original cast members having agreed to revisit their original roles, were all feeling the full weight of pressure and expectation upon their now, far more experienced shoulders.

The very good news though is that Danny Boyle’s 2017 sequel, T2 Trainspotting, has not only not tarnished the original’s reputation, but surpassed any expectations that we could reasonably have had for it.

It’s twenty years on, and Mark Renton’s unceremonious flit – £16,000 to the good – has been largely forgotten and confined to history by his former comrades, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie. Everyone’s moved on in their lives, and they laugh heartily about it all now.

Of course, pretty much all of the above is nonsense.

Renton (Ewan McGregor), sheepishly returns to Edinburgh in a bid to reacquaint himself and square things off with his old sparring buddies of yesteryear. Plenty of time has passed, but not much seems to have really changed. Spud (Ewen Bremner) – the only member of the gang, bar Renton, that had seen any of the loot, and had subsequently used his quarter share the only way he knew how, cementing his stature as a hardcore heroin addict – is still fighting his addiction demons. Simon, a.k.a Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) – with a sassy young Eastern European girlfriend in tow, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) – is still a ‘wrongun’ and one of life’s hustlers, albeit on a slightly more adventurous, not to mention controversial stage these days.

And Begbie (Robert Carlyle)? Well, Begbie is still Begbie; holed-up where he belongs and can do the least amount of damage to society, behind bars.

It’s fair to say that Renton’s return ruffles a feather or two as he attempts to reintegrate himself back into the lives of those that he had so unceremoniously left behind all those years back. It’s a return that has evoked an under current of ill-feeling, stirring up thoughts of retribution. With tensions running high, and the spectre of Begbie’s reappearance impossible to rule out even with him apparently safely locked away at Her Majesty’s pleasure, you could, and indeed should expect fireworks from T2, and lots of them.

T2 Trainspotting is a slick piece for sure, and successfully manages to retain all of the punch and swagger of the original, creating some new, highly memorable set-pieces of its own in the process. In addition, the danger of over-playing the chief characteristics of each of its cast members has thankfully been averted; a relief given the propensity for sequels to succumb to the need to create over-blown pastiches of ‘favourite’ characters. That said,  Begbie’s larger-than-life persona does sail a little too close to the wind for comfort at times.

Renton may now be deemed a rather divisive character, yet he still somehow manages to be a galvanising presence. Sick Boy remains largely self-centered, whilst Spud cuts a slightly tragic, highly vulnerable figure; the sort that tends to always encourage ground swells of overwhelming good will and support from concerned acquaintances.

Begbie on the other hand remains psychotic and unhinged, all these years on. A most deranged of lunatics and the very last man on earth you’d ever want to share a pint with.

Danny Boyle’s gamble with potentially destroying the rose-tinted legacy of this most cultish of classics has clearly paid off. A long awaited follow-up which should hopefully keep an army of fans satisfied for the next twenty years or so. Beyond that, who knows.

Whether T2 Trainspotting is quite as relevant to, or will have anywhere near the same impact upon a new generation, however – the way that Trainspotting did back in the day – I’m ill-equipped to say, being as I am a part of that previous generation.

Granted, it’s a film sprinkled with in-jokes and subtle references to its predecessor that may be a little lost on those that are not ‘in the know’, but there have certainly been concerted efforts made to bring Trainspotting’s original outlook and ideology into the present day and to a new market. Most notably is a superbly modified take on Renton and Sick Boy’s original ‘Choose Life’ monologue, although its recipient on this occasion, Veronika, seems more bewildered than beguiled by Renton’s passionate reprisal of this most caustic and sarcastic of diatribes.

Gritty, ‘sweary’, and littered with genuinely funny moments throughout, T2 Trainspotting is an excellent blend of high-entertainment, nostalgia, and pertinent modern day social comment. Perhaps not quite up to the standards of the 1996 original, but don’t get too hung up about comparisons. T2 Trainspotting stands more than ably on its own two feet.

HIDDEN FIGURES: “…an ode to hard work, commitment, restraint and tolerance in the face of racial prejudice.”

1960s NASA wasn’t all thick-rimmed spectacled number-crunchers in lab coats carrying clip boards, you know.

Hidden Figures offers a more accurate depiction of an organisation in a time in which the United States and Russia were feverishly attempting to out-do one another in their quest to explore outer space, and ultimately to place a man on the moon.

Living as we do today in a world so utterly dependant upon the power of the computer, it seems hard to believe that there was ever a time not so very long ago in which we relied far more upon raw brain power, and a time when institutions such as NASA would employ vast teams of mathematicians in order to perform the considerable brain gymnastics required to calculate rocket trajectories and the like.

Whilst it should be acknowledged that racism still rears its ugly head in today’s society, it’s also hard to believe that there was actually a time, in relatively recent memory, when ‘coloured’ folk were considered to be such second class citizens in their own country.

Theodore Melfi’s film portrays a society that has implemented, almost without recourse to  moral values, a system of segregation which thinks nothing of allocating ‘coloured’ seats on buses, insists upon the use of separate toilet facilities, and rations books within public libraries for the ‘negro’ population, denying them the resources with which they might improve their lot in life.

Despite their skin colour, Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), owing to their considerable mathematical talents, have all found employment within NASA. These African American ladies and their colleagues are confined to claustrophobic quarters in a separate building, far away from their white peers. There, they spend each day doing the academic leg-work for NASA’s white employees who, needless to say, are the ones to enjoy the benefits of their toil.

Despite a considerable shortage of opportunities to progress, the sassy trio all seem hell-bent upon bucking the trend and making headway in the fiercely white-dominated world in which they live. By hook or by crook, they’re not going to miss an opportunity, and if need be, they’ll make their own.

Melfi’s film is slick, well-paced and very watchable, if perhaps lacking in a little depth here and there. It tells an important story though, and one, due to its PG-rating, that will be accessible to a younger generation too, and considering the important life lessons to be learnt here, that can only be a good thing. That said, the PG-rating here is a bit of a mixed blessing. Issues of racial divides, slavery and so on have all been well covered at the cinema in recent years. Importantly, historical accounts of racial tensions that have been committed to celluloid in the past have tended to be fairly weighty, graphic and explicit affairs. Hidden Figures in comparison seems a tad lightweight and superficial. Whilst one wouldn’t expect additional malevolent content to be added purely for gratuitous effect, it does seem as though a greater focus could have been made on the maddening psychological impact that each of the ladies must have experienced at the hands of an obdurate peer-base and society in general.

If nothing else, Hidden Figures – owing to the relentless drive and will to succeed exemplified by its three leading ladies – is an ode to hard work, commitment, restraint and tolerance in the face of racial prejudice. Most importantly of all though, it shows the real value of always being prepared to grab hold of life’s opportunities when they come along, no matter how scarce those opportunities may appear to be.

Hidden Figures is a film that proudly suggests – cliché or not – that it matters not what our race or creed may be when we are all working together towards a common goal.

It’s hardly a ground-breaking sentiment, and may seem obvious to us twenty-first century citizens of planet earth, but given the attitudes of America’s deep south in the 1960s, it’s a sentiment that would most definitely have been considered “one massive step for mankind…” – if you’ll excuse the ropey astronomical parlance!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Toni Erdmann

Critically acclaimed comedies tend to attract some of the more peculiar and polarising critical reviews, in my experience.

Toni Erdmann is apparently “brilliantly funny…” according to the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times talks of moving from “…one heartfelt, hilarious scene to the next…”, whereas Screen International suggests that it is “…at times, downright hilarious…”

To be honest, none of this I agree with.

Naturally, one man’s meat is another man’s poison – as the old saying goes – with the comedy genre being perhaps the most subjective of them all. It’s also only fair to say that I’ve hand-picked the above examples purely to illustrate a point, and that the majority of reviews I’ve witnessed are not in fact anywhere near as emphatic about any sort of ‘hilarity’ at work within Toni Erdmann. But almost without exception, they are all gushing in their praise of it.

And rightly so, for Toni Erdmann is a quite simply wonderful piece of film-making. Be in no doubt about that.

Maren Ade’s film fuses a mostly subtle strand of comedy with an underlying melancholia in this absorbing tale of a disfunctional father/daughter relationship.

Ines (Sandra Hüller), is a high achiever, an employee of a ruthless consultancy firm employed to number crunch and make those big tactical decisions that ‘streamline’ big corporations, yet inevitably negatively impact upon the jobs and lives of their employees. Despite the apparent hindrance of her being a woman in a male-dominated industry, she strives hard to make an impact and to be noticed, and is considered cold and ruthless by her peers. Her current placement sees her marooned, along with her team, out in a world of business meetings, and corporate hotels, in Bucharest.

Her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a practical joker and warm-hearted soul, is cut from rather different cloth. A music teacher by profession and relatively free-spirit by nature, he is essentially content with his life, yet feels as though he has grown apart from his daughter over the years, and rarely gets the opportunity to spend any sort of meaningful time with her. With the passing of his beloved old pet dog, Willi, so too passes any real reason for him to feel anchored to his home environment anymore, and on a whim, he decides one day to take some time out and make an impromptu visit to the Romanian capital, to surprise his daughter.

To suggest that Winfried’s appearance is not entirely welcome, is to understate the point, dramatically. Initially horrified by her father impinging upon her professional life, Ines gradually mellows a little, but still considers his appearance to be far too much of a distraction from the serious business of career climbing. Ines would far rather he re-arranged his visit for a more mutually convenient time in the future, but Winfried knows his daughter, and therefore knows that this will never happen. He has other plans…

Comedy teeth in hand, and rubbish wig on head, he sets about having a little harmless fun at his daughter’s expense , deliberately missing his flight home, and instead sticking around and adopting an alter-ego, Toni Erdmann; a tactic which, considering his daughter’s serious demeanour and innate inability to see the funny side of pretty much anything, is ill-advised, to say the least.

Tiring of her father’s shenanigans, Ines comes to the gradual realisation that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ may just be the only approach effective enough to disuade Winfried from his unabating antics. With this in mind, she sets about trying to upstage him, employing until now unheard of (for her) extremes, with genuinely amusing and slightly outrageous results.

Once the preconception that Toni Erdmann is in some way a ‘veritable laugh-riot’ has been suitably vanquished from one’s mind, it can then be fully appreciated on another, far more meaningful level altogether.

Sandra Hüller is superbly Germanic in her seriousness, portraying a woman who has not only completely lost sight of the joy in life, but has forgotten how to re-ignite that spark once again. Barely a flicker of emotion is in evidence upon her face throughout the film’s lengthy 2 hours and 40 minutes duration – occasional fits of disapproving frustration and the odd tear-welling, aside. Her tunnel-visioned crusade to make a name for herself within her industry is all very commendable and understandable, yet seems entirely at the expense of embracing anything or anyone else in her life. Very much alive, but certainly not living.

Peter Simonischek’s portrayal of her father is cleverly underplayed considering the ‘class clown’ moniker with which he is labelled by those that know him, as he subtly yet insistently attempts to infiltrate the corporate bubble in which Ines is so firmly entrenched.

The interplay between the disparate pair is at times hard to watch but always convincing, and makes for a curious yet slightly tragic study of broken family relationships, with Ines unwilling – or perhaps unable? – to clutch the olive branch of reconciliation that her father frequently presents her with, through his own particular brand of comedic buffoonery.

It’s charming, it’s beautifully paced, engrossing and actually quite emotionally-draining. Despite its lengthy duration, it also never threatens to outstay its welcome. Quite the opposite, in fact, and a sign of the engagement levels that Maren Ade’s direction has been able to successfully achieve.

Hats off to that.

Far more than just a comedy, Toni Erdmann operates on an altogether deeper and very personal level, and is very much one of the highlights of the year, thus far.

 

FILM REVIEW: Denial

There are a number of ‘accepted truths’ that the human race seems to settle upon. Some are considered so incontrovertible and utterly sacrosanct, that to even consider questioning them is to risk the wrath of the majority.

Such ‘truths’ are very often linked heavily to people’s emotions and there’s therefore a considerable amount of personal-attachment or vested interest that one must tip-toe around and take into account before daring to offer anything resembling a difference of opinion.

Unless your name is David Irving, that is.

Director Mick Jackson’s film, Denial, recounts the Irving vs Lipstadt libel case which came about as a result of Deborah Lipstadt’s alleged defamation of Irving and his own historical conclusions regarding the Jewish Holocaust of World War II.

David Irving caused quite the stir with his insistence that no Jews were actually gassed at Auschwitz during World War II, and that any claims that they had been, were merely guess work – essentially unfounded.

Waving a wad of one thousand pounds above his head as a reward, Irving stands at the rear of the auditorium in which Lipstadt is giving a seminar, and challenges both Deborah and anyone there that subscribes to her version of history, to produce just one single document to prove him wrong. Deborah’s flat refusal to debate with anyone that she terms to be a ‘denier’ he takes as proof that she can’t.

The unfolding scenario is quick to capture the imaginations of the media and naturally therefore the general public, ultimately leading the pair towards their big show-down at London’s Royal Courts of Justice.

On paper, this is the kind of subject matter that’s absolutely made for the big screen. An apparently outrageous suggestion, an allegedly defamatory reaction, with one huge mother of a legal battle to follow. Roll V.T…

Mick Jackson’s film however somehow manages to miss most of its cues and opportunities, and succeeds only in converting the film’s contentious, somewhat prickly talking points into a remarkably tepid affair, and it’s not difficult to see why.

It is true that Rachel Weisz is perfectly decent as the emotional and rather sanctimonious, Lipstadt, whilst Tom Wilkinson’s depiction of Richard Rampton QC, is reassuringly weighty. The real problem lies with Timothy Spall. There’s nothing wrong with his performance per se, there’s just not enough of it. Whereas Lipstadt’s character is examined in some depth throughout the piece, Irving’s character is almost brushed off as an irrelevance in this contrived fight between good and evil. Half-drawn as some sort of a cartoon villain, complete with hangers-on from assorted right-wing groups of dubious purpose, his character is then, to all intents and purposes, abandoned –  starved of oxygen, much in the same way that his highly contentious opinions were deliberately given no platform whatsoever within the court room – a tactic employed by Lipstadt’s legal team that would ultimately prove to be decisive.

No matter what your opinion of Irving’s ‘work’ may be, and no matter the possibly spurious nature of his motives, the fact remains; if a film presents nothing but a deeply one-sided argument – such as is the case here – it really is no argument at all; more a fait accompli, and that, in the context of film-making is, quite frankly, disappointing.

There are however areas in which it’s only fair to suggest that Denial film does deliver. It’s not all insubstantial. In particular, the vastly differing approaches exemplified within the defence. The emotionally-driven approach of Lipstadt and a number of Holocaust survivors who assemble daily at the court – and whose voices Lipstadt firmly believes should be heard as evidence – is in stark contrast to the more reserved, measured and logic-driven decisions of her legal team, and at times makes an insightful and intriguing spectacle. It doesn’t, however, alter the fact that there’s a definite sense of underwhelming superficiality about Denial. It’s a film which, on balance, lacks inspiration, glosses over content far too readily, fails to probe sufficiently into the life and motives of Mr Irving, and consequently simply falls flat. It fails to really ask too much of its viewers other than to insist that they all come along for the ride, on a fast-tracked, pre-determined journey to a well-known, agreed upon destination.

Perhaps the film’s rather one-eyed approach is best summed up by the words of Deborah Lipstadt, herself: “Now, some people are saying that the result of this trial will threaten free speech. I don’t accept that. I’m not attacking free speech. On the contrary, I’ve been defending it against someone who wanted to abuse it…”

In other words: you may say what you like, but you can’t say some things if I, and many others don’t agree with them – a.k.a, denying truly free speech.

All things considered, Denial is a neat and tidy little film, conveniently tied-up with a pretty little bow, but it’s badly lacking in a number of areas. Worse still, it’s a severely imbalanced piece, and perhaps worst of all, an enormous waste of Timothy Spall’s considerable talents.

FILM: REVIEWS & COMMENT