THE MERCY

Three and a half Star Rating

​”It’s a poignant tale made additionally so given the recent untimely death of Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic composer whose score predictably beautifully embellishes James Marsh’s heart-felt piece…” – Wayward Wolf.

When I were but a wee slip of a lad I was whisked here and there all over the City of London by my quite frankly incredible Grandma. She seemed absolutely hell-bent on introducing me, my sister and two of my cousins to just about every last historical landmark on the map. Always one to stress the importance of history upon us.

One such landmark was The Gipsy Moth IV yacht. It stood land-locked for just over thirty years in Greenwich, London, alongside the Cutty Sark tea clipper – a lasting testament to Sir Francis Chichester who, aboard this fine vessel, had become the first ever yachtsman to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe, stopping just once en route out of absolute necessity.

A year or so after his heroics, Sir Francis was to throw down the gauntlet to the next generation of yachtsmen. The challenge was simple. Was there anyone that could single-handedly circumnavigate the globe, but do so without stopping at all?

 

James Marsh’s film, The Mercy, paints a picture of Donald Crowhurst, the much loved husband of Clare, and the father of three children on whom he dotes. Quite why this man was so drawn to Chichester’s challenge is perhaps never truly revealed, but being a keen weekend sailor himself, and with a strong background in engineering, Crowhurst is confident enough that he’s up to the task. Afterall, as he himself suggests – albeit from the security of dry land: “if you know how to sail, then circumnavigating the globe just requires one to keep on sailing for an extended period of time…” – or words to that effect.

There is of course some logic to such an opinion, yet, whether this is just a show of bravado or not, in the context of his proposed voyage, it is undeniably something of a naive statement. Nonetheless, Crowhurst seems determined, and sets about not only building his own trimaran, but kitting it out with a number of gadgets and devices of his own invention.

Bringing financial sponsorship and press interest on board brings a greater degree of professionalism and realism to the project, but the unforeseen set backs are numerous and not only delay Crowhurst’s departure – and thus his chances of winning – but result in ever greater financial burdens. With his family’s house and possessions now in jeopardy should he fail, this amateur sailor’s predicament is becoming increasingly precarious.

With nagging doubts now racing through his mind, a boat that’s barely fit for purpose, and having painted himself into a corner through his considerable financial obligations, Donald Crowhurst nevertheless makes the bold decision to proceed regardless.

The Mercy, whilst at one point threatening to become some sort of heroic sea-faring yarn of derring do – bringing to mind Robert Redford’s dramatic 2013 solo vehicle, All Is Lost, in the process –  in fact takes an unexpected turn (unexpected that is for those that are unaware of the story).

A couple of months into his journey, Crowhurst becomes increasingly aware that, all considered, any attempts to continue would be akin to suicide. Drastic times so often call for drastic measures and against his better judgement and moral values he makes the unthinkable decision to fake his ‘progress’, relaying a sequence of impressive reports at strategic intervals back to HQ, all the while seeing out the days in relatively calm waters. A far cry from some of the perilous waters of the Southern Hemisphere.

James Marsh’s film does a fine job of contrasting the guilt, chaos and both physical and mental sufferance of Crowhurst’s doomed voyage with the rose-tinted perceptions – and therefore heightened expectations  – of his family, the community in which they live, and the local (and later national) press who positively lap up each and every false statement of achievement that Donald ashamedly wires across – digging himself further and further into an ever expanding hole in the process.

Firth’s portrayal of this desperate man is sincere and at times commanding. With the weight of the world upon his shoulders, and realising that he’s simply way too far out of his depth now to consider turning back, his ultimate descent into disgrace and madness borders on heartbreaking.

Rachel Weisz’s portrayal of his loyal suffering wife is sweet and tender yet quietly powerful, and David Thewlis and Ken Stott both weigh in with reliably solid, believable performances as a local press hack and Crowhurst’s chief financial sponsor, respectively.

It’s a poignant tale made additionally so given the recent untimely death of Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic composer whose score predictably beautifully embellishes James Marsh’s heart-felt piece, and whose score for the duo’s previous outing, The Theory of Everything, had in fact picked up a Golden Globe award. Just recognition of a brilliant composer whose passing is a massive loss both to cinema and the world of music in general.

The Mercy, as much as anything, conveys something of a moral message centring around the need to be true to oneself and the ones that we love, lest we suffer the psychological implications of straying too far from such a path.

Contrary to the conclusion that Crowhurst is ultimately believed to have arrived at, nothing is ever quite so bad or quite so irredeemable, that it can’t be forgiven or overcome.

At least that would be the conclusion most likely arrived at by the sane and the rational.

The hallucinatory mind of a man racked by guilt and having been alone at sea for way too long, on the other hand, is another matter altogether.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LOVELESS (Nelyubov)

Four Star Rating

“…Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). A helpless pawn stuck in the middle, condemned to try and make some sense of the never ending spiteful bickering of the two people he most depends upon.” – Wayward Wolf.

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless starts as it means to go on. A sequence of stark lingering shots of a snow-covered unforgiving Russian winter.

These images are actually quite beautiful in isolation and arguably offer only a hint of the pervading mood of downbeat misery that is soon to follow.

Don’t be put-off however by such an apparently down-cast summary.

Zvyagintsev’s film is in fact a brilliantly observed study of the most negative aspects of a failed relationship, made all the more harrowing through the involvement of a child, the couple’s young son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). A helpless pawn stuck in the middle, condemned to try and make some sense of the never ending spiteful bickering of the two people he most depends upon.

Alyosha’s parents – two fine performances full of conviction by Maryana Spivak (Zhenya), and Aleksey Rozin (Boris) – have both found new partners and long to bring the curtain down on their sorry, loveless marriage, and ‘start again’ – as it were. They have become two eminently unlikeable characters. Zhenya, an angry (primarily at herself), highly irritable individual obsessed with the comforting distraction of her mobile phone, and Boris, who whilst frequently drawn into exchanges of vitriol with his wife, is a somewhat withdrawn man, distancing himself as much as possible from any contact with either Zhenya or Alyosha. 

It’s a relentlessly toxic environment, made worse still by the parents’ apparent lack of concern as to the affects of their self-absorbed sniping, upon their young son.

Unusually for such a predicament as this, neither parent makes any attempt to curry favour with the child; quite the opposite in fact. The fight, it would seem, is for who’s not going to take custody. Alyosha is seen as an inconvenience, a mistake that never should have happened, and his parents have absolutely no qualms about voicing such hurtful opinions in full earshot of the distressed youngster.

It’s no wonder therefore that the day soon arrives when the young lad grabs his school bag and makes a bolt for the door, never to return. And such is the self-centred attitude of his parents, neither of them even notices this for almost two days.

But is this actually genuine neglect of an impressionable youngster, or more likely the inevitable comeuppance from their high-stakes psychological games?

Two films sprung to mind whilst watching Loveless: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2015 Ukrainian film, The Tribe – a film similar in its mood and sense of helplessness that focuses on a run-down boarding school for the deaf in which harsh life lessons are dished out with depressing regularity. But perhaps of more direct relevance is Joachim Lafosse’s 2016 mournfully awkward relationship drama, After Love (L’Économie du couple), a film which whilst being almost exclusively – and excruciatingly for that matter – downbeat, does at least offer, for the most fleeting of moments, a rare olive branch of hope and potential redemption.

Zvyagintsev’s film on the other hand makes no such concessions. In fact, the Director seems determined to walk his audience, almost in real-time, through every last awkward moment of not only the couple’s frequent fights, but of their increasingly desperate and forlorn attempts to track down their absent son, whether that be through a vague lead offered up by Alyosha’s friend, or a visit to Zhenya’s appalling mother. “Stalin-in-a-skirt” indeed.

The outlook is grim, and there’s a lingering sense of just ‘knowing’ as rescue parties comb their way through surrounding woodland and derelict buildings, to no avail. All the while, the warring couple barely utter a word to one another. Certainly there’s no sense of galvanised togetherness, if only in the interests of the greater good.

Nothing.

Loveless is an open-ended, consistently powerful film with an underlying message suggesting that if we don’t address and learn from our own deficiencies, our troubles have a nasty habit of ultimately coming full circle.

It’s bleak, it’s brutal and it’s hard to watch, but it’s equally hard to ignore.

DOWNSIZING

Three Star Rating

“…[Ngoc Lan Tran]…though adding some chuckles for a while, is a character that quickly grated and had me wondering at exactly what point I’d personally have snapped and hurled her off the nearest tall building.” – Wayward Wolf.

The trailer for Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is by its very design a concise, punchy, witty sales pitch, yet it barely hints at the overly-long, bloated offering that the film somehow manages to ultimately become.

That’s actually probably a little harsh, and it’s only fair to therefore acknowledge that this Matt Damon-driven piece is actually a very watchable – and for the most part enjoyable – quirky piece of cinema that on balance sufficiently entertains.

Somewhere in Norway, scientists have finally perfected the process of physically shrinking human beings in order to reduce the impact of their wastefulness of the earth’s resources, not to mention reducing their carbon footprints and generally making the world a better place for everyone to live in.

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), just so happen to be living lives that are in need of radical change. Struggling to make ends meet, Paul in particular is becoming more and more convinced by the growing trend of downsizing that he sees occurring around about him. Being something of a conscientious environmentalist himself, he is keen to do his bit for the planet, but more importantly he’s aware that by downsizing, he and his wife could dramatically transform their life of struggles almost overnight. Successfully convincing Audrey that this is the way to go, the couple agree to undergo the irreversible procedure which will reduce them both to barely the size of an iPhone.

Needless to say, this is a massive decision in their lives, and having made an advanced purchase of a huge shiny mansion in ‘Leisure Land’ – a sort of miniature utopian ‘Floridian’ retirement world – Paul steps forward to be the first to experience that shrinking feeling. Audrey, on the other hand, gets a bad case of the last minute wobbles and unceremoniously backs out, leaving Paul, not only now a mere fraction of his wife’s size, but more importantly all alone to navigate this brave new world.

It’s an unexpected and bitter blow, but this is only the start of a number of incidents that are set to radically transform his life.

Alexander Payne’s film has much going for it, but crucially it suffers from a number of critical flaws.

At two hours and fifteen minutes in duration, it’s certainly arguable that Downsizing could greatly have benefited from losing thirty minutes or so from its elongated running time. This is particularly apparent considering the film’s tendency in its latter stages to meander off, almost rudderlessly at times, into a rather tagged-on and unnecessary Tolkein-esque world of hemp clothes-wearing, ‘Totnesian’ type bongo-playing hippies and Eco Warriors. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s certainly some leap from the film’s initial premise and rather symptomatic of the film’s inability to maintain a simple, strong and coherent narrative.

It’s also true to suggest that the concept of downsizing, whether fictional or not, unavoidably raises a whole multitude of questions concerning its feasibility and the logistics of the procedure, yet the film seemed to raise far more questions than it was ever able to answer in this respect, again detracting somewhat from the narrative.

Nonetheless, leaving apparent logistical inconsistencies aside, the film regales a perfectly watchable tale of one man’s journey from anxiety-riddled husband to relatively carefree singleton thanks to the influence of Paul’s noisy new neighbour, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), a socialite and man of leisure, for whom life is one big elaborate party.

And then there’s the introduction of one-legged Vietnamese love interest and all-round shouting machine, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who, though adding some chuckles for a while, is a character that quickly grated and had me wondering at exactly what point I’d personally have snapped and hurled her off the nearest tall building. That said, Ngoc’s initial pushy persuasiveness is found to be masking a big-heart and an admirable selfless attitude, putting just about everyone else’s interests ahead of her own.

Perhaps the biggest bugbear of all though is the film’s omnipresent environmental message. It’s all very commendable and all of that, but Alexander Payne seems determined to bludgeon us into submission with it at every conceivable opportunity; something which quickly becomes tiresome. Anyone would think that the film industry had some flavour-of-the-month agenda to peddle to the masses, or something?

Hollywood? Surely not!

Downsizing, though clearly a flawed film of diminishing returns, just about manages to deliver – to a point at least. And if one can suspend one’s critical faculties for a couple of hours or so, it’s a film that still makes for an enjoyable enough viewing experience.

PHANTOM THREAD

Four and a half Star Rating

“Much will rightly be made of Daniel Day Lewis’s stupendous performance, which only serves to emphasise just what a massive loss he will be to the big screen.” – Wayward Wolf.

If this is indeed to be Daniel Day Lewis’s final foray into the world of cinema, then Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a fittingly fine piece in which to take his final bow.

Right from the off we are made aware that Reynolds Woodcock, a highly successful renowned maker of elegant, timeless dresses, is a rather fastidious man. A confirmed bachelor by his own admission he is instead married to his work, something that he lives and breathes in every waking moment of every day.

A brief but much needed escape to the coast introduces Reynolds to Alma (a nicely understated performance from Vicky Krieps), a young waitress in a local tea room. Reynolds, clearly smitten and keen to waste neither time nor opportunity, seizes the chance to not only invite Alma to dinner, but to have her model one of his dress designs. And Reynolds’ softly-spoken effusions are ultimately more than enough to convince the impressionable young lady to come and live with him in his elegant London abode.

And so begins Alma’s initiation into the some what self-centred, tunnel-visioned world of Reynolds Woodcock. But far from being yet another lackey destined only to dance to the beat of her master’s drum, Alma will come to be his muse, his lover and most interestingly of all, his greatest challenge.

Whilst on paper Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a slightly unsettling period piece infused with darkly comedic overtones, the overpowering impression is of a film that is both masterfully crafted and sublimely beautiful in every respect.

Much will rightly be made of Daniel Day Lewis’s stupendous performance, which only serves to emphasise just what a massive loss he will be to the big screen. Lewis’ nuanced portrayal of this critically demanding and fussbudgety – yes, that’s fussbudgety – character is intense to say the least, as are the relationships and interactions that he ‘builds’ with those around him.

Reynolds’ relationship with his omnipresent sour-faced assistant, Cyril (a superb performance by the wonderful Lesley Manville), is particularly revealing and built solidly around routine and dependability. For a man so independent of thought and action, Reynolds is surprisingly indecisive without Cyril’s much valued input and calm assurance on all matters, even having a tendency to slip into temporary states of insecurity and self-doubt in her absence.

Cyril on the other hand tolerates her employer and his rather trying idiosyncrasies, but no more than that, and Reynolds knows not to cross her. Years of service to this at times unreasonable dressmaker make her best placed to understand his numerous whims and demands; and she is all too sure to pass on the pearls of wisdom that she’s unearthed along the way with sage words of advice to an initially confused Alma, with whom she shares something of a strained relationship.

“There’s altogether too much movement for breakfast time,” opines a disgruntled Reynolds – or words to that affect – in reaction to Alma’s involuntary slurps, chomps and general noise making at the breakfast table, leading her partner to suffer yet another episode of chronic noise over-sensitivity, bordering on Hyperacusis.

But such an obvious achilles heel will be something that Alma comes to use to her advantage in response to Reynolds’ sometimes callous and hurtful remarks, and will lead the couple into a dysfunctional phase of their relationship based around an unhealthy cocktail of power, envy, control and sado-masochism.

 

It’s a constantly fascinating encounter.

Adorning Paul Thomas Anderson’s stunning work is Johnny Greenwood’s luscious and no less impressive score, the main theme from which being a recurring, highly memorable melodic contrary motion piece which creates a spell-binding mood of romanticism, refinement, and splendour. The perfect accompaniment.

Sadly, it’s also the type of score that is all too rare in modern film making.

Phantom Thread has been positively inundated with Oscar nominations in as many as six different categories. I’m certainly not going to argue with that sentiment.

Don’t be surprised to see this hugely impressive film amongst the eventual winners. It’s that good.

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Four and a half Star Rating

“Sometimes it’s through having a total disregard for political correctness, and indeed not overly concerning oneself with the possibility of causing offence, that the most memorable cinema is created” – Wayward Wolf.

Sometimes it’s through having a total disregard for political correctness, and indeed not overly concerning oneself with the possibility of causing offence, that the most memorable cinema is created.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (Three Billboards from hereon in), is the work of writer and director Martin McDonagh, and is very much a case in point.

Never one to shy away from the controversial, McDonagh’s past work includes the likes of In Bruges and Seven Psycopaths. These two films alone should provide more than a hint of what to expect from this, McDonagh’s latest dark, warts-and-all tale.

Frances McDormand portrays Mildred, a woman consumed with bitterness, living with a prevailing sense of injustice, and understandably so. Her daughter had some time previously been raped, brutally murdered and her body burned, somewhere on the outskirts of town. In Mildred’s eyes the police have made little or no attempt since the incident to bring the perpetrator to justice – whoever that may be.

Driven by her ongoing frustrations, Mildred takes it upon herself to rent three disused billboards on a small stretch of road just outside of town. Emblazoned upon them is a series of hard-hitting provocative messages designed to induce some form of reaction from much respected local Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man that Mildred, rightly or wrongly, perceives to have neglected his duties.

But this is small town America, and Mildred is fully aware that this is going to open one big can of worms. Not only do her actions agitate the local police force, but unwittingly she has targeted her frustrations at a dying man. It’s water off a duck’s back for thick skinned terminal Cancer patient, Willoughby, but the same cannot be said of his colleagues and the majority of the townsfolk who have been suitably irked by Mildred’s actions. There is a collective opinion that she has been overly callous towards a man that just so happens to be held in rather high esteem ’round them there parts’, and is considered to be the very glue that holds the Ebbing community together.

And so begins something of a war of attrition between Mildred, Willoughby and pretty much the entire town in which she lives.

Being made aware of Willoughby’s state of health you’d think would then be sufficient grounds for Mildred to reconsider her actions and back down gracefully, but it only serves to strengthen her resolve. If nothing else, she is one hell of a stubborn lady.

McDonaugh’s film excels on so many levels, most notably though through the richness and depth of its wonderful characterisation.

McDormand is full of no-nonsense bluster and attitude portraying the film’s splendidly cynical anti-hero, unafraid to give ‘both barrels’ to officers of the law and Catholic priests alike.

Sam Rockwell, whilst cast somewhat to type, is superb in his nuanced portrayal of Dixon, a work-shy, anger-filled bigoted small-town Police Officer, exhibiting all of the psychological traits one would surely associate with a forty-something still living at home with his red-neck mother. Yet despite all of this, Dixon’s life will come to be forever altered when he walks, quite literally, through the fire, on the way to his own Damascene conversion.

And then there’s Woody Harrelson. His portrayal of Willoughby is both weighty and full of charm. This is a man who not only rises to McDormand’s challenge, but more importantly, seems to enjoy the ensuing game that it brings.

The interplay between these and indeed all of the cast members is detailed and convincing, thanks to both the plethora of talent on show and the sheer quality of McDonagh’s writing. His multi-layered screenplay is gritty, witty, profoundly emotional, suitably inappropriate and thoroughly believable, with razor sharp dialogue to boot.

And it goes without saying that be it through deeply awkward scenarios or foul-mouthed rants, the blackest of humour abounds throughout in the director’s trademark style.

Three Billboards is a beautifully judged piece that takes time to consider emotional pain, the idea of retribution, anger, selflessness, sadness and to some extent at least, redemption. It’s also a film concerned very much with the here and now, resisting the temptation to gratuitously portray and dwell upon the heinous crimes of the past. Instead it brilliantly weaves the present day lives, needs, fears and aspirations of an entire community together into one engaging, complex whole.

Martin McDonagh has created a film here in which every act is as important as the last and indeed the next. Nothing here is peripheral. Everything is integral.

Wonderfully provocative, this is an instant classic.