All posts by waywardwolfblogger

LEAVE NO TRACE

Four Star Rating

“Leave No Trace is a highly impressive, refreshingly understated coming-of-age tale” – Wayward Wolf.

A father and daughter enjoy a grass roots subsistence existence, living off the land in some Oregon woodland. This land, however, is part of a huge public park, and the setting up of a home in such a location is expressly forbidden by law.

Regardless, they mean no bother or harm, and refuse to impose their chosen lifestyle upon anyone else. Not only is their camp thoroughly well camouflaged, but the father is at pains to ensure that by way of frequent ‘drills’, the pair are able to scamper off at a moment’s notice, into the undergrowth, out of sight of the prying eyes of park rangers and the like.

Such an existence has worked well for many years, but a chance sighting of the girl one day – by a passing member of the public – swiftly leads to the pair being evicted from their woodland dwellings, and forced to live back in society once again.

For the young girl and her father who know little else but the outdoor life, such a transition is always going to prove to be problematic.

Debra Granik’s film skilfully builds an intricate picture of the unusual bond between PTSD suffering ex-military man, Will (Ben Foster – he of Hell or High Water fame), and his mature-beyond-her-years teenage daughter, Tom (a superbly impressive performance from Thomasin McKenzie), shining the light on their increasingly strained relationship, as Will’s inability to cope with the ‘real world’ begins to seriously conflict with his daughter’s ever growing need to discover herself and integrate more into ‘normal’ society.

Leave No Trace is a highly impressive, refreshingly understated coming-of-age tale, told with neither fuss nor melodramatics, and in whose characters one can truly believe and emotionally invest. A story of courage in adversity, of emotional family bonds, and of learning to let go of the ones we love.

Simple, moving and thoroughly well realised.

 

 

 

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SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Three and a half Star Rating

Solo: A Star Wars Story is, all faults-aside, arguably the best Star Wars-related film since The Return of the Jedi.” – Wayward Wolf.

Even given Hollywood’s current tiresome obsession with playing the identity politics and female empowerment cards, (something that continues unabated in Solo: A Star Wars Story), this latest instalment of Disney’s increasingly bloated Star Wars franchise, has to go down as something of a hit.

Ron Howard takes the Director’s chair on this occasion, regaling to us the backstory of just how it was that Han Solo came to be such a loveable rogue, and iconic film character of the 1980’s.

First and foremost, a bold statement:

Solo: A Star Wars Story is, all faults-aside, arguably the best Star Wars-related film since The Return of the Jedi.

But before you strike me down with your light sabre and throw me into the Great Pit of Carkoon, I insist that you hear me out.

The loose ends were all tied up in 1983 with Return of the Jedi‘s feel-good conclusion, waving goodbye in the process to the concept of Star Wars as we knew it, and for what we presumed would be the final time. One of the great cinematic trilogies – unquestionably – was at an end.

Though taking something of a lengthy sabbatical, the whole notion of Star Wars, it turns out, was very much not at an end, and has since spawned any number of additional chapters. But I’d say it’s fairly inarguable that the franchise has continued to find itself in something of a rut, weighed down by the huge expectation of its own making that has been almost entirely impossible to fulfil.

Interminable musings regarding ‘the dark side’, ‘the force’ and the nigh on impossible quest to reach Jedi status, has become enormously tiresome and produced a whole raft of inferior sequels that lack both originality and any sort of impact; each almost duty bound to adopt both painfully predictable story lines and tried and trusted character sets, something that has, to a large extent, mired the Star Wars franchise in a sort of cosmic quicksand of its own making.

With the release of every new (yet painfully old) film, the franchise’s faithful, bordering on obsessed fan base is provided with its bi-yearly fix of Star Wars-related morphine to keep them ticking over until the next time, or until such point as they can finally admit to themselves that Star Wars ‘just ain’t what it used to be.’

No matter the director, the screenwriter or indeed any significant advancements in technology, nothing ever really seems to change. There’s been a real sense of Groundhog day when it comes to all things Star Wars.

Until now, that is…

Don’t get me wrong, Solo: A Star Wars Story does not exactly redefine the whole concept of Science Fiction. Far from it. And it too owes much to what has preceded it.

But there definitely is something that feels a little fresher, less predictable and laborious about Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story. This is a film that puts aside the Star-Wars-by-numbers narrative guide, setting this film free – to some extent at least – from the shackles of Star Wars expectation.

Han Solo, Lando Calrissian and the big Wookie himself, Chewbacca, aside, Solo: A Star Wars Story resists the temptation to shoehorn in pointless cameo appearances of the established Star Wars characters of yore, though we are treated to the usual smattering of bizarre weird and wonderful life forms congregated, as ever, in seedy drinking and gambling dens.

Bar the understandable intrigue as to how Han Solo initially hooked up with his furry friend, Chewbacca, Solo: A Star Wars Story, thankfully has the feel of a film that’s not actually dependent upon the over-riding Star Wars narrative.

This is an effective, simple tale of smugglers, scheming rogues and villains, enhanced through some fun performances from the likes of Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Paul Bettany and in particular Alden Ehrenreich, whose lead performance is loaded with a convincing blend of both cheek and charm, something that Harrison Ford himself would no doubt be proud of.

Solo: A Star Wars Story may be but a small piece of the ever expanding intergalactic Star Wars jigsaw, but unlike so many pieces before it, this one more than ably stands alone.

A thoroughly entertaining high energy romp, and something for which Ron Howard should be roundly applauded.

 

 

 

 

SICARIO 2: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

Three and a half Star Rating

“Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is that rarest of beasts, a sequel that stands ably on its own two feet” – Wayward Wolf.

A series of suicide bombings in various U.S cities is growing evidence that the Mexican drug cartels have expanded their operations beyond just Class A. Their focus is now fixed upon trafficking Islamic terrorists across the U.S / Mexican border. In a risky attempt to stem this flow, the U.S government launches a sequence of covert false flag activities on Mexican soil designed to both distract and induce cartel infighting. This particular game plan will culminate with the kidnapping of the daughter of the head of one of the cartels.

The margin for error, however, is perilously thin, and sure enough it’s not long before all best laid plans turn sour. With the task complete, the U.S Government, fearing the unthinkable possibility of culpability, quickly decides that it is left with no other choice than to backtrack and ‘clean up’ all traces of its involvement.

Be they Government operatives, civilians or cartel members, regardless of their allegiances, this will not be good news for any number of the pawns involved in this particular messy game.

Call me naive, but I was actually quite surprised to see that Sicario had spawned a sequel. As excellent as it undoubtedly was, it just didn’t seem like that kind of film.

Of course, the world of big budget mainstream movie-making won’t hesitate to hang its hat off anything if sufficient moolah is waved seductively in front of its fat green-eyed face. That’s a given, Business is business after all.

Certainly any fears that an inferior second instalment would serve only to tarnish the memory of Denis Villeneuve’s gripping original, are thankfully quickly allayed.

Based once again upon a Taylor Sheridan screenplay, Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is that rarest of beasts, a sequel that stands ably on its own two feet, confidently doing more than enough in just over two hours to be considered a worthy successor to a much respected original.

And you can pretty much count all such films on one hand.

The performances are nicely understated across the board. Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin revive their roles as Alejandro and Matt Graver, respectively. Isabella Moner puts in a nice turn as the sassy young abductee, Isabel Reyes, whilst Matthew Modine, in a rare big-screen appearance, portrays the U.S Secretary of Defence.

Perhaps it’s just me but try as I might to identify the man by way of something a little more current, I perpetually resign myself to that fact I will forever envisage Modine, perched on the end of a bed, Birdy-style.

Stefano Sollima’s matter-of-fact direction is visually striking, graphically brutal, and mercifully devoid of unnecessary clichés and sensationalism.

And a tip of the hat too, to the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose low growling glissando sonic motif – used to such stunning effect in Sicario and seemingly ubiquitous within any number of dark Hollywood thrillers since – lives on through the sequel’s composer of choice, Hildur Guðnadóttir, once again underpinning the action with its pervading tone of menace.

As for any credence behind the notion that ‘two is enough’ – this is well and truly put to bed by way of the film’s conclusion, which, whilst being a bit of a bolted-on clunky after thought, undoubtedly leaves the door open to the prospect of a part three of this gritty franchise in which no one ever seem to come up smelling of roses.

Sequel-phobic though I may well generally be, a third instalment – whilst clearly tempting fate – in this instance I’d be so bold to suggest, is actually probably no bad thing.

 

MY FRIEND DAHMER

Three and a half Star Rating

Meyers‘ engaging film is therefore bold in its ambition, choosing to focus the lens of inquiry not upon Dahmer’s eventual macabre practices, but on his formative high school years. Before the killing had even begun.” – Wayward Wolf.

If the events chronicled in My Friend Dahmer, are in any way an accurate representation of the late teen years of Jeffrey Dahmer, then it would surely have come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone that knew him, of the awful scenes that were soon to follow.

Of course, the life and times of Jeffrey Dahmer are the stuff of infamy now and Marc Meyersengaging film is therefore bold in its ambition, choosing to focus the lens of inquiry not upon Dahmer’s eventual macabre practices, but on his formative high school years. Before the killing had even begun.

The obvious question that this therefore raises is whether such an approach in any way offers sufficient enough material with which to keep engaged a cinema-going audience – beyond the morbidly curious, wannabe mass murderers and trainee clinical psychologists, that is.

And the answer, on balance, is a resounding…yes.

Meyers’ film is a sort of dark coming-of-age drama, with an implied gruesome twist.

Painted as an awkward and dysfunctional youth with something of a lumbering gait, the teenage Jeffrey Dahmer (portrayed convincingly here by Ross Lynch), is every bit the social misfit. Wishing to ‘belong’, but having little idea of how to do so, he is offered something of a lifeline in this regard when a handful of his classmates become first amused, then quickly obsessed by some of Dahmer’s impromptu clowning about.

Dahmer is only too happy to perform one particular ‘spazz’ routine – as it comes to be known – on command, much to the mirth of his new found set of ‘friends’, who proceed to egg him on enthusiastically to greater and greater lengths.

But with a private life spent either dissolving and dissecting roadkill or drinking heavily – even at school – it is clear that such social interaction with his peers is but a thin mask on the face of the truth. Jeffrey Dahmer is an incredibly troubled soul, and any new-found ‘popularity’ gained proves to be short lived. It is not long, therefore, before he resumes his role of general recluse and social leper.

Behind every twisted serial killer there is usually some form of dysfunctional background, and Dahmer’s – whilst perhaps less pronounced than other multiple murdering maniacs that we may choose to mention – is one which certainly will have played some sort of role in shaping the nature of the man that he was to become.

Anne Heche is quirky in her portrayal of Dahmer’s depressed, anxiety-riddled, pill-popping mother, Joyce, whilst Dallas Roberts portrays Dahmer’s father, Lionel, as a man often absent from the family home, who quietly despairs of both his eldest son, and his increasingly untenable marriage to Joyce, medicating himself with alcohol, accordingly.

Collectively the couple seem to have paid very little attention to Jeffrey, instead focusing the bulk of their love and devotion upon Dahmer’s younger brother, Dave (Liam Koeth), even to the extent of fighting fiercely for post-divorce custody of this younger sibling, yet effectively abandoning a by then eighteen-year-old Jeffrey altogether to live alone in the family home.

If he was feeling unloved prior to that, this therefore would surely have been the tipping point. As it pretty much proved to be.

All credit then to Marc Meyers on what proves to be a fascinating piece.

My Friend Dahmer – based upon John Backderf’s book of the same name – is an important and effectively realised insight into the mind and motives of a disturbed soon-to-be serial killer.

Maybe if Jeffrey had just had that ‘best friend’ that he is heard at one point tragically bemoaning the absence of in his life, it could all have ended up so differently for this real life Hannibal Lecter?

Yeah… Probably not.

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Two Star Rating

“…the living embodiment of the idea that if you throw enough shit at a screen, some of it MAY just stick…” – Wayward Wolf.

Way back in 1993, Steven Spielberg directed – in his own inimitable way – a film which quickly entrenched itself in our hearts.

Taking advantage of great leaps in technology and making good use of his own brilliant sense of story and character, he tickled our collective fancy for all things scarily prehistoric by unleashing Jurassic Park upon the world.

It was not only tremendous, but also groundbreaking, much in the way that Star Wars, for example, had been when it positively blew people’s minds back in the late 1970’s.

Unsurprisingly, just like Star Wars, Jurassic Park has not only spawned sequels, but many years on, has experienced a complete re-boot of its franchise.

The alarm bells were ringing during 2015’s ultra-formulaic re-visit, Jurassic World, a film which I must confess to actually having quite enjoyed, and in fairness, despite its massively predictable plot and mountains of excessive corporate product placement, it’s a film which more or less pulled off that hardest of tricks: pleasing both newbies and die-hard fans alike.

And so to 2018 and J.A. Bayona’s follow-up: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the living embodiment of the idea that if you throw enough shit at a screen, some of it may just stick.

Indeed, vast numbers of rampaging dinosaurs are positively hurled in our direction, be they fleeing from an encroaching lava stream, escaping from an evil human captor, or relentlessly hunting down their human prey.

In amidst these waves of Triassic trouble, a convoluted yet contrived narrative is woven, haphazardly, in which a well-meaning bid to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from the threat of an erupting volcano in the now abandoned Jurassic World, turns out to have been nothing more than a ruse, with the captured animals then shipped off to be sold by nasty evil types to rich people with more money than sense.

Cue various attempts to thwart the wrong-doers, whilst simultaneously trying to avoid being eaten by assorted carnivores, whilst mulling over the morality of both cloning and the captivity of living things.

It’s loud, it’s screechy, it’s overbearing and seemingly never ending. Or at least that’s how it feels.

There are some not very subliminal messages about environmentalism churned out by the Hollywood democratic propaganda machine, and even the mandatory thinly-veiled dig at the ‘stupidity’ of the president and his denial of the existence of dinosaurs in the first place.

Change the record hey guys?

Perhaps most tellingly of all though is the fact that one brief poignant scene on the volcanic island-aside, I barely felt a moment’s empathy for anyone or anything for the film’s duration. Try as it might not to be, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a pretty soulless affair. And compare that once again if you will to Spielberg’s seminal original.

Chalk and cheese, and a damning indictment for sure.

On a positive note, the CGi is predictably excellent, and there are admittedly thrills and spills in patches, but given the subject matter, how could there not be? The cast too is both stellar and in good form, but given what they have to work with, there’s only so far the likes of Toby Jones, Jeff Goldblum, Rafe Spall et al can take Bayona’s messy, painfully predictable effects-fest.

From the Director of such excellent work as: The Orphanage, The Impossible and A Monster Calls, it’s all a bit perplexing. I really did expect better. Much better.

Tyrannosaurus Rex?

Tricera-plops, more like.

 

 

 

 

ENTEBBE

Two Star Rating

“…the word ‘unconvincing’ is probably the choice adjective to describe pretty much all of the constituent parts of Padilha‘s piece.” – WaywardWolf.

Considering its potentially inflammatory  subject matter, director José Padilha adopts a surprisingly balanced political approach to this 1970’s era thriller, Entebbe.

Based to some degree upon actual events, Entebbe depicts the story of the hijacking of Air France flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris, by a handful of politically motivated freedom fighters.

Forcing the flight to land at a small airfield in Entebbe, Uganda, the hostages are then moved into the decrepit airport terminal where they are separated into two rooms. Jews and non-Jews. The proposed end game from here – should Israel then fail to release a number of captive terrorists, according to the hijackers’ demands – probably needs no further explanation.

Such tales of hijacking we have of course seen umpteen times before. Sadly, Entebbe, the film – aside from informing those of us that weren’t as yet clued up with regards to this particular hijack scenario – offers very little by way of originality, though it could be argued that Padilha does at least attempt to tap into the psychological quandaries faced by two of the German hijackers, Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) and Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl), who are both seen to be wrestling with the morality of their actions, fearful of being portrayed as some sort of neo-Nazis.

But it’s all rather unconvincing.

Indeed, the word ‘unconvincing’ is probably the choice adjective to describe pretty much all of the constituent parts of Padilha‘s piece. A film which, sadly, barely hits the mark on any sort of level. Dare I even make reference to Entebbe being something of a fatally grounded movie? One that fails to ever really take off. Hijacked by a poor script and under-cooked characters, as it is.

You get the picture.

Cheap gags, one and all.

Harsh but fair.

Even the film’s ‘climactic’ conclusion centring around counter-terrorism operation Thunderbolt, is clumsy and breathtakingly limp in its reenactment of events, barely raising the pulse level.

Entebbe is effectively floored by a fatal combination of unconvincing characters, a rather walked and talked through narrative, an almost complete absence of either menace or suspense, and hundreds of bewildered looking half-arsed extras being regularly shuffled around from pillar to post to little or no dramatic effect.

Even acknowledging the impact of an initially apparently inconsequential interpretive dance routine which is then used to reasonable effect in enhancing the film’s latter stages, such effective devices are few and far between, and offered nowhere near enough to leave this particular viewer feeling anything other than significantly underwhelmed.

On the plus side, hats off to the Israeli Commandos on somehow successfully turning an initial few ham-fisted brush strokes into an immaculate spray-painted body job,  converting a brown Mercedes car into a black one in the process.

Hmmm. Miraculous, yet… unconvincing.

There’s that word again.

 

 

THE LEISURE SEEKER

Three Star Rating

“…Leisure Seeker is in fact rather good fun, highlighting as it does the myriad ‘laugh or you’ll surely cry’ trials and tribulations brought about by the unrelenting onset of old age.” – Wayward Wolf.

Some bafflingly irrelevant, not-so-subliminal anti-Trump / pro-the wonders of diversity propaganda-aside, The Leisure Seeker is a rather entertaining – if slightly contrived – road movie – with a big heart.

Donald Sutherland portrays John Spencer, a retired English teacher with severe dementia, who, along with his beloved wife, Ella (Helen Mirren), decides to dust-off the old Winnebago Recreational Vehicle, which Ella affectionately refers to as The Leisure Seeker. Together, the couple head off on an impromptu road trip from their home in Massachusetts, right the way down to Ernest Hemingway’s house on Florida’s Key West, much to the despair of their concerned children, Will and Jane.

The trip is littered with incidents ranging from the lightly amusing to the highly improbable as the pair encounter all manner of shenanigans en route to the sunny south. All the while their grown up children fret over their whereabouts and well being, as one surely would considering the elderly couple’s respective precarious states of health.

If you can remain undistracted by the rather formulaic and at times forced narrative, Leisure Seeker is in fact rather good fun, highlighting as it does the myriad ‘laugh or you’ll surely cry’ trials and tribulations brought about by the unrelenting onset of old age. Powerless to halt this relentless march of time they may well be, but for John and Ella nothing ever seems quite so bad when contemplated over a shared bottle of Canadian Club whilst sat on the edge of a beautiful lake, miles from anywhere, at the end of a long day of driving.

Laughs-aside, The Leisure Seeker also offers an all too often painful insight into the debilitating havoc that the onset of dementia can inflict upon those affected by it, both directly and indirectly.

It is clear that John’s deteriorating memory is proving to be increasingly burdensome for Ella, not to mention cruel, both through the fluctuating nature of its manifestation, and with its propensity to lay bare some harsh and unwelcome truths of yesteryear.

All too fleetingly now John is still the effortlessly charming man that Ella married, only to revert in the blink of an eye to the confused incontinent stranger that she has more recently come to know, and for whom she must now care – morning, noon and night.

Undoubtedly it is the highly believable and impressive on-screen chemistry of the film’s leading pair that focuses the mind fully on the The Leisure Seeker‘s numerous plus points, and sufficiently away from its handful of prominent failings.

Though Paolo Virzì‘s film is ultimately a little wistful, it nevertheless casts an optimistic light, choosing to regard John and Ella’s story not as one of unremitting struggle, but of two lives well lived, and in spite of everything, done so without any lasting regrets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE ISLANDS AND THE WHALES

Three and a half Star Rating

“Day’s film primarily concerns itself… with a number of increasingly weary Faroese fishermen and sea bird hunters on whose shoulders the gathering issues and pressures of modern life are weighing heavier than ever” – Wayward Wolf.

It’s fair to say that the Faroe Islands (Føroyar to the locals), will probably always remain close to the hearts of the majority of folk that are ever lucky enough to visit them.

I’ve been enormously lucky to have paid a visit on two separate occasions, and whilst each of these trips produced enough thrills, spills, entertainment and incomparable beauty to fill ten separate holidays, I’ve always been aware that a visitor’s impression of Føroyar – as privileged as it may well be – is probably still a million miles from the reality of living, and more importantly making a living within these stunning islands.

Mike Day’s thought-provoking documentary The Islands and the Whales takes a very topical look at the Faroe Islands and its people.

As far back as anyone can remember, the Faroese people have relied upon the sea and the delicate food chain that it nurtures, for their survival. But studies which have been ongoing now since 1986 reveal increasing concentrations of mercury within this chain, with particularly high concentrations discovered in sea birds and more prominently in the pilot whales whose yearly migratory route, unfortunately for them, passes close by.

With the gravity of this revelation being keenly impressed upon the locals by health professionals, and with the inconvenient truth and implications of what this therefore means slowly dawning upon them all, the proud traditions of hunting and harvesting that are so deeply engrained within the Faorese, are now under serious threat.

This of course will be music to the ears of a whole multitude of pressure groups and environmental campaigners – most notably the activists of Sea Shepherd – whose whole-hearted loathing of the Faroese tradition of whale herding and hunting (grindadráp), is well known.

Day’s documentary not only illustrates the activists’ attempts to sabotage these hunts, but  also the levels of hypocrisy and ill-thought-out logic that they then seem to display when proposing that the Faroese people import their food instead; apparently blind to the environmental impact of such actions.

Interestingly, though I’d argue inaccurately, as the grindadráp has gained increasing notoriety, it has been rather unfairly maligned as being the Faroese equivalent of the ritual Japanese combined slaughter and capture of dolphins for the benefit of Sea World and the like, as exposed in Louie Psihoyos’s harrowing 2009 documentary, The Cove.  Such comparisons are dismissed by the Faroese who are keen to insist that the killing of pilot whales is a far quicker and more humane process than the ham-fisted butchering experienced by schools of dolphins off the coast of Japan.

There will of course always be exceptions to the rule, but having witnessed them both to some extent, even for a fairly devout vegetarian / occasional Pescetarian such as myself, I struggle to equate the two events beyond their mutual harvesting of Cetaceans.

Day’s film primarily concerns itself, however, with a number of increasingly weary Faroese fishermen and sea bird hunters on whose shoulders the gathering issues and pressures of modern life are weighing heavier than ever.

Indeed, Føroyar is feeling the pinch of encroaching Globalisation and many of the ills that it so often brings, more keenly than most these days. Some even go so far as to suggest that their country and way of life is coming under attack and they display an understandable bitterness about it, especially considering that the increasing prevalance of mercury in the food chain is down to large-scale industrial pollution and very much an issue not of their own making.

But this is a quietly spoken, fairly placid people, and it’s therefore often difficult to gauge the true levels of disenchantment that they feel with regard to such prickly subject matter.

The Islands and the Whales documentary is a very matter-of-fact piece which takes a fairly sympathetic, yet essentially politically-neutral stance on the plight of these fishermen and their families.

The characters are filmed going about their day-to-day activities, engaged in conversations pertaining to the increasing hardships that they now face in their lives. It’s particularly interesting to note that it’s not only the older generation that choose to bury their heads in the sand with regards to the very real health risks of consuming mercury-infected bird and whale meat, but this sense of denial seems to pervade the psyche of the younger generations too. It’s a proud and stubborn stance, but it not only places their own health at risk, but that of their young families too.

Inhabited by a people that are quietly, yet firmly nationalistic, and unafraid to show pride in their heritage – take note please, United Kingdom – there are few places on earth quite so arrestingly beautiful, and awe inspiring as Føroyar.

Traditionally such a self-sufficient nation, the impinging and intrusive effects of Globalisation increasingly prove to be very much to the detriment of the Faroese people. It threatens their very way of life and has the potential to irreparably change the nature of these wonderful islands, forever.

And take it from me, Ladies and Gentlemen, that would be unthinkable.

 

 

 

 

 

BEAST

Three Star Rating

Jessie Buckley is a tremendous piece of casting. All curly bobbed red hair, unworthiness and self-loathing, her sense of not belonging is palpable.” – Wayward Wolf.

There’s something a little peculiar about the Channel Island of Jersey. Unless you’ve visited there, its hard to properly convey its unique combination of oddity and charm, a curious blend that serves perfectly as the backdrop to Michael Pearce’s atmospheric thriller, Beast.

Moll lives with her parents in their large house within a small community on the island. Her questionable past and apparent lack of real direction in life is in stark contrast to her squeaky clean sister, Polly (Shannon Tarbet), who lives a picture-perfect lifestyle with her pilot husband, much to the delight of the girls’ rather judgemental mother. Whereas Polly has moved away from the shackles of the family home, Moll remains, under the protective – bordering on oppressive – watch of her mother who expects at the very least for Moll to toe the family line and help out with caring for her dementia-afflicted father.

Not entirely unreasonable requests you’d agree, though Moll’s erratic nature proves to be frequently at odds with her Mother’s simple demands.

A bizarre, fractious encounter on a night out, however, leads to the beginnings of a passionate fling between Moll and a mysterious local lad, Pascal. But Pascal harbours a criminal past, and with an as yet unidentified killer at large on the island, the eyes of the law are now firmly trained upon this somewhat shady Channel Islander; and through her association with him, Moll soon finds herself also under unwanted scrutiny.

Moll and Pascal are two kindred spirits, with dark pasts and inner demons. Together they share a passionate union based upon unconditional support and trust, which only serves to increasingly ostracise them from the island’s polite society.

Brutal re-imaginings of Moll’s own particular unsavoury past are illustrated by way of graphic dream-like sequences in which she becomes not the perpetrator, but the victim. A sort of guilt-ridden interpretation of her own enduring shame, perhaps?

Beast is a sort of tense and alluring coming-of-age affair. Whilst by strict definition it would probably be considered a murder mystery, it rarely ever feels like any sort of conventional whodunit, but more like a psychological probing and evaluation of confused minds.

Jessie Buckley is a tremendous piece of casting. All curly bobbed red hair, unworthiness and self-loathing, her sense of not belonging is palpable. Johnny Flynn’s rather visceral portrayal of the wiry scruff, Pascal, is simultaneously mysterious, devious and charming, whilst Geraldine James puts in a perfectly judged performance as Moll’s cold and controlling mother, Hilary.

In slight criticism, I’m left in two minds as to whether the increasingly visceral nature of Buckley’s performance as the piece develops – particularly in relation to her mind’s own descent into a very dark place – is artistically inspired or in fact rather overly self-indulgent. And the whole ‘re-invigorated, independent powerful woman in film’ routine, which seems to accompany just about every film narrative at present, is perhaps losing its impact now through over-saturation.

Two small points to consider, but no matter, Michael Pearce’s Beast is undeniably a most impressive debut feature, whetting the appetite, we hope, for more to come.

CUSTODY (Jusqu’à la garde)

Three and a half Star Rating

“…an explosive finale which, whether pre-meditated or not, probably owes much to the late great Stanley Kubrick himself.” – Wayward Wolf.

Custody is, for want of a better term, bleak. Unrelentingly so for that matter.

Right from the off we are dropped into an arduous legal meeting between the two parents, their lawyers and an overseeing judge, in which each side outlines their personal wishes with regard to the guardianship of their youngest son, Julien. It’s a tedious, drawn-out affair which more than anything feels like a pre-determined i-dotting/ T-crossing exercise for all concerned.

Such extended, scarcely edited scenes are a dominant feature of Xavier Legrand‘s direction. He also elects to dispense with the need for any kind of incidental music score, bar one or two key scenes; a tactic which by and large is very effective.

Legrand’s approach hints at this film being something of a slow burner, which it very much is. Indeed, though there is an underlying sense of unease that lingers throughout, it really is only once we reach the final act that all of the tension that’s built up finally boils over giving way to an explosive finale which, whether pre-meditated or not, probably owes much to the late great Stanley Kubrick himself.

Whilst one could perhaps spot similarities between Legrand’s film and, most notably, Robert Benton’s 1979 classic Kramer vs Kramer – but also with Andrei Zvyagintsev’s unbearably bleak Loveless, and Joachim Lafosse’s After Love Custody approaches this harrowing subject matter from a slightly different angle.

It’s clear from the start that this is not just a troubled marriage but one that is irredeemably broken to the point of virtual loathing. Though, as so often can be the case, such a sentiment is not necessarily equally shared on both sides.

It is very clear however that both Miriam (Léa Drucker) and her two children, Julien (Thomas Gioria), and Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), are all sick of the site of their husband and father, Antoine (Denis Ménochet). Each wishes dearly for him to play no further part in their lives citing as yet unsubstantiated accusations of Antoine’s physical violence against them as their primary motivating factor behind this decision. 

Despite clearly being persona non grata, Antoine has not however given up the fantasy of reuniting the family unit once again. But with no-one else buying into his vision and with his delusions being repeatedly crushed at every turn, this proud man is slowly but surely pushed to the very brink.

Custody is a film that never offers so much as the smallest island of respite from the pervading black cloud that hovers over the film’s protagonists. Even Josephine’s birthday celebration, despite the flowing alcohol and apparently jovial guests, has a suspenseful feel to it. It’s as though Miriam and her family unit is somehow on borrowed time, anticipating with dread the unwelcome yet almost inevitable spectre of Antoine to make a sudden appearance.

Legrand’s casting is strong with performances that are powerful yet nicely understated throughout. And there is a truly exceptional performance from young Thomas Giora, who displays huge emotional depth in his portrayal of Julien; one that defies his tender years.

Custody takes us to a dark, anxiety-inducing and at times troubling place. To some degree at least, it’s a film that can be deemed to be pretty hard work. Bear with it though, and the rewards for patience and an inquisitive mind are both ample and thoroughly worthwhile.

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY

Four Star Rating

“…it’s Katherine Parkinson’s comical yet wonderfully vulnerable and bitter-sweet portrayal of the gin-distilling lonely heart, Isola Pribby, that is possibly the film’s most surprising delight.” – Wayward Wolf.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society (and you can forget about it if you think I’m reeling that off repeatedly over the next few paragraphs! Let’s call it T-GLAPPPS from hereon in), is a film whose historic setting is the aftermath of the German occupation of the channel island of Guernsey – an island, like neighbouring Jersey, that suffered badly at the hands of the German army during the Second World War.

Incidentally, as a slight aside – the Military Museum – housed in an old German bunker on the island of Jersey – is a really excellent must-see not only for World Ward II aficionados, but for those that would benefit from gaining a more in-depth background to these troubled years of war time occupation.

But I digress…

The bizarrely named Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society was formed as something of an off-the-cuff cover story out of necessity during a routine German stop-and-search of a group of local friends who had been caught out at night after curfew. They’d been making their way home following a gathering at a friend’s house in which they’d all feasted hungrily upon roasted pork, a food source that was now strictly forbidden under the German rule.

Having come up with and duly registered their peculiarly-named society in order to fool their captors, they now had no choice but to continue with the charade, and thus, once a week, initially under the short-lived supervision of a bored German, the group would assemble to read and discuss literature with one another.

A few years on, and with Guernsey once again liberated, a letter sent by one of the society’s members, Dawsey (Michiel Huisman), to a London-based journalist and author, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), leads to a rather intimate pen-friendship developing between the two. Juliet’s interest in this remarkable society is suitably piqued and soon enough she finds herself aboard a boat en route to Guernsey, temporarily abandoning her fiancee in the process, but determined to finally write an article of true substance and worth.

But as Juliet will soon discover, this society, though amusingly-titled and formed through an act of rebellious deception, in fact hides tragic and painful secrets for its members.

Whilst using the German occupation as an historical setting and a frequent reference point, Director Mike Newell’s film is in fact much less a gritty depiction of the horrors of war, and far more a conventional love story. The age old tale of the girl who apparently had it all, yet deep down realised that what she had did not provide her with sufficient emotional fulfilment.

With this point understood and acknowledged, Newell’s film can be considered as something of a charming triumph. Certainly it’s a career best performance from Lily James, whose nuanced depiction of the enthusiastic and head-strong Juliet, is full of warmth and sparkle.

There are predictably solid performances from the likes of Tom Courtenay and Penelope Milton, but it’s Katherine Parkinson’s comical yet wonderfully vulnerable and bitter-sweet portrayal of the gin-distilling lonely heart, Isola Pribby, that is possibly the film’s most surprising delight.

Indeed, the casting is well judged throughout with an array of well-formed characters in whom one can truly emotionally invest. This is perhaps not surprising considering that T-GLAPPPS benefits from the directorial involvement of the man behind everybody’s? perennial favourite, Four Weddings and a Funeral – a film whose feel and sense of formula is fairly evident here.

It’s true that there are one or two inconsistencies here and there and elements of the narrative at times feel a little ‘token’ in nature and might have benefited from some further exploration. But these are more suggestions than faults. What is undeniable here is that this is British film making done well and crucially, done with considerable commercial appeal, and not at the expense of its artistic integrity.

T-GLAPPPS is a film that’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in. A film that knows exactly what it’s doing as it sucks you in with its considerable well engineered charm. But above all, T-GLAPPPS is a film that’s almost impossible not to like.

FUNNY COW

Four Star Rating

Truth be told, this is probably not one for the easily offended or keen advocates of a more modern Sofie Hagen-esque safe-space type of comedy.” – Wayward Wolf.

“It’s always been too much for me… life… and not enough. All at the same time…”

Funny Cow is the tale of fictional female comic, Funny Cow (FC). It’s a piece whose narrative is loosely anchored around occasional footage of FC delivering some sort of ‘For TV’ career retrospective monologue in which she reflects upon her life and times to date. Going by this particular TV performance’s high production values, it would seem that this is at a point in her life when she’s clearly ‘made it’. Whatever that may really mean.

There’s a pervading air of melancholy about it all, something that is very much prevalent in this Adrian Shergold film which traces FC’s life from its poverty-stricken beginnings, through the frustrations of an abusive marriage, to her eventual breakthrough success (and beyond) as a female comedian.

The child of an alcoholic mother and abusive father, comedy had always been the perfect outlet for FC, but it’s only ultimately through a combination of perseverance and a bitter-sweet twist of fate that she finally gets a chance to prove her worth.

Though the backstory of Shergold’s film is to some extent one of developing the courage to shoot for the stars, Funny Cow is just as concerned with the concept of female empowerment, and examining life’s myriad struggles and the ties that so often bind us, whether we would choose them to or not.

“Confucius say: He who drop watch down toilet have shitty time…”

The 1970’s northern working class setting and brash sense of old fashioned humour lends Funny Cow something of a gritty backdrop, and whether it be racial stereotypes or ‘in-bad-taste’ one-liners, considering that we live today in such a timid and easily-offended nanny state, it’s actually rather surprising –  and refreshing – that so much of a nationally-released film’s shall we say, ‘questionable’ language and terminology has not been airbrushed from history. Undoubtedly this lends the piece a real sense of authenticity which could so easily have been stripped away, much to the film’s detriment.

That said, though the more controversial content is at most fleeting, truth be told, this is probably not one for the easily offended or keen advocates of a more modern Sofie Hagen-esque safe-space type of comedy. But that probably goes without saying.

Paddy Considine’s awkwardly circumspect portrayal of Angus, the arts-loving, book shop owner and FC’s woefully mismatched other half for a period of time, is reassuringly solid and understated. Lindsey Coulson’s performance as FC’s mother in later life, though not an extended role, is nonetheless arresting for its depth, range and conviction, whilst Alun Armstrong’s turn as the tragic, long-in-the-tooth jobbing morose comic, Lenny, is a highly impressive if excruciatingly mournful performance.

And then of course there’s Maxine Peake whose performance as FC wonderfully encapsulates the actions and emotions of a woman who is first to acknowledge that she has never really fitted in, and whose struggles and persistence – not to mention a thicker than average skin – have eventually paid off professionally-speaking.

Although there is evidently a part of her that remains unfulfilled and more than a little world-weary, the over-riding impression here is that FC is one life’s great survivors, who, having been through so much in her life is consequently an emboldened woman, steadfastly refusing to ever even entertain the notion of being considered a victim.

Aided by Richard Hawley’s sympathetic soundtrack, Adrian Shergold expertly straddles the line between good and bad taste, between tragedy and triumph, and between tears and substantial laughter, to produce not only a film that is genuinely funny, but one which is thoughtful and emotionally engaging too.

ISLE OF DOGS

Three and a half Star Rating

“…Anderson unsurprisingly adopts Hollywood’s de rigueur left-wing narrative, examining many of the issues that have become so highly relevant to the times in which we live…”  – Wayward Wolf.

Given that I live locally to it, viewing Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs on London’s own Isle of Dogs, E14, seemed like something of a ‘must do’. Unsurprisingly London’s purpose-built financial district overspill has notably fewer stray mutts running about, and its city-scape, whilst to some extent being overwhelmingly vulgar in its 1980’s faux-grandiose misadvised styling, is admittedly a lot more pleasing on the eye than the island wasteland setting of Anderson’s new stop-motion animated feature film.

An aesthetically-pleasing backdrop Anderson’s film may well lack in places, but there is something of an inherent beauty about this pain-stakingly detailed animation. Indeed, visually there is a huge amount to admire here.

Built upon a back story that tells of much historic conflict between cat and dog lovers, the city of Nagasaki is, according to its pro-cat leader, Mayor Ayasabi, now completely over-run with diseased dogs to such an extent that there is no other solution than to annex them all to a neighbouring waste island.

With this in mind the Mayor embarks upon a major mutt-move, and with it, what he hopes will be the complete eradication of the lingering threat of mutated human strains of both Dog Flu and Snout Fever.

As something of a symbolic gesture, Ayasabi decrees that the first dog to be re-located will be Spots, a handsome confident canine who just so happens to be the appointed guard dog of the Mayor’s own adopted son, Atari.

This, needless to say, does not go down too well with Atari who proceeds to somehow bravely fly a small one-seater plane across from the mainland to the waste island in a bid to rescue his beloved mutt.

Here he encounters one of the ragtag packs of hounds with whom he develops a strong and trusting bond, and together they set about attempting to locate Atari’s faithful best friend.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the pro-dog movement is painfully close to formulating an effective serum to combat these perilous doggy diseases, with a view to re-introducing the annexed dogs back into society. Yet it seems that the Mayor and his allies, with sinister motivations, will stop at nothing to shut them down.

But the Mayor hadn’t banked upon a small and very vocal minority of young Social Justice Warriors relentlessly pursuing him, determined to expose his crooked ways by lifting the blindfolds from the eyes of the hoodwinked masses and snapping them out of their docile subservience.

No matter which way you dress it up, Isle of Dogs, is a heavily political piece providing many layers of additional depth to this, literally, shaggy dog story.

And given that this is mainstream cinema, Anderson unsurprisingly adopts Hollywood’s de rigueur left-wing narrative, examining many of the issues that have become so highly relevant to the times in which we live.

Racial integration, environmental concerns, the prevalence of corruption within regimes, the blinkered dumbed-down nature of society, the growing political power and influence of the youth – particularly through technology, the championing of both the disadvantaged and minority groups, and through the film’s tightly-bound assortment of canine and human compadres, there is also a considerable tip of the hat towards the power of the collective, as they stand strong together against waves of unjust tyranny.

It’s all here.

There can perhaps be loose comparisons made – in tone at least – with Martin Rosen’s wonderful, oft-overlooked animated adaptation of the Richard Adams novel, Plague DogsVisually and stylistically-speaking, however, there are more obvious parallels to be made with Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman‘s more recent offering, Anomalisa

Anderson’s film, enhanced substantially by Alexandre Desplat’s strategically sympathetic score, positively oozes charm. And it’s thanks in no small part to an extremely fine set of vocal castings, with the likes of Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum – to name but a few – all breathing substantial life and vigour into this impressive animation. I really do lose count of the number of animated feature films that, for me at least, seem to fall so flat in this department.

A little morally and politically preachy Isle of Dogs may well be at times, but in fairness to the director, he never really labours the point, nor does he disappear in a cloud of self-generated ideological pretension.

Instead Anderson allows the film’s biggest assets – its considerable heart, comical interludes and jaw-dropping delicate beauty – to really shine through and be the star of the show.

An animated gem.

JOURNEYMAN

Three and a half Star Rating

“Without doubt, Journeyman’s most impressive ingredient is Considine’s awe-inspiring portrayal of a man whose life has been absolutely obliterated virtually over night.” – Wayward Wolf.

It’s probably fair to say that boxing in film has been done. At least, to the extent that we’ve all seen Rocky and Raging Bull, and umpteen all-too-often pale imitations since. One can only therefore conclude that if such a genre is ever to be tackled, it needs to be done so from an altogether original and innovative angle.

Paddy Considine’s long awaited directorial follow-up to the powerful Tyrannosaur, is arguably such a film. Journeyman is the tale of world champion boxer, Matty Burton (Considine), for whom one last fight – the culmination of a hugely successful career – proves to be anything but.

Though it proves to be a successful defence of his belt, it’s a hollow victory that comes at a considerable price. Just a few short hours later, Burton collapses at his home with a crippling headache, a symptom of something far more serious, and by the time that his wife has returned from the kitchen with a cup of tea, Burton is sprawled out over the coffee table.

Life as he knew it will never be the same again.

Though we are indulged with a brief fight montage and passing reference to a hospital stay, Journeyman is surprisingly quick in cutting to the chase. The real flesh on the bones of this story, is its aftermath. The real fight if you like. Matty Burton, now considerably brain damaged, must attempt to somehow readjust to life once again.

Of course, this is not solely Burton’s struggle. This is an equally devastating and truly testing time for those who know him, in particular his doting wife, Emma (Jodie Whittaker), who remains life-affirmingly resolute in her support for her now disabled husband.

But with Burton suddenly becoming violent, in fear for both her own and their baby daughter’s safety, Emma makes the incredibly difficult decision to abandon Matty and move out.

Matty Burton may well have won the fight inside the ring, but now he’s fighting for his life… Or some other such hackneyed observation, presumably delivered in suitably gravelly tones. Just where is the Carlsberg trailer man when you need him?

In all seriousness though, hackneyed it may well be, but the fact that Considine unashamedly follows this most familiar of narrative paths yet the film remains eminently watchable and above all inspiring, is quite an achievement. Great credit therefore to the Director.

Without doubt, Journeyman‘s most impressive ingredient is Considine’s awe-inspiring portrayal of a man whose life has been absolutely obliterated virtually over night. Complete with vacant stare, his movements are very much those that would be associated with a Parkinson’s patient. Shuffling about awkwardly in his huge contemporary mansion, barely able to manage the simplest of tasks, he pauses occasionally to tap away absent mindedly at a punch bag, though he has little idea why, as muscle memory takes over.

It makes for a sorry spectacle and one which is brought to a head in the most heart-wrenchingly tragic scene in which Emma (a fine performance by Jodie Whittaker), finally gets back in touch by phone, and Matty tries desperately to recall everything that he and his speech therapist had rehearsed for this very scenario.

“Errrm, what else?” he mutters to himself, over and over again, desparately trying to recall the one thing he most wishes to tell his wife. Yet repeatedly, much to his increasing frustration, it evades him.

Emma, is the love of his life.

Though initially paralysed by their indecision and feelings of helplessness, there is a nice sense of symmetry in the fact that Matty’s corner team are ultimately once again the guys who will rally around their friend in his time of need and set him back on the way to some level of meaningful recovery by way of a patient but intensive training programme.

Journeyman is certainly a gritty film which pulls no punches in examining painful hardships, deep depression and suicidal tendencies. It’s therefore in some ways surprising that Considine’s film is quite as optimistic and uplifting as it ultimately proves to be. In its wider context, this is undoubtedly a good thing, but in the context of Journeyman‘s narrative, I’m still fairly undecided.

Additionally, although it’s addressed to an extent late on, it would have been interesting and perhaps might have provided a different angle and a little more depth to the story, to have known a bit more about the psychological impact felt by Burton’s final fight opponent.

On balance though, bearing in mind just how difficult it can prove to be to create anything truly meaningful or original within the sporting film genre, Journeyman is as impressive an attempt to do so as I can remember for quite some time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

READY PLAYER ONE

Three and a half Star Rating

“…Ready Player One is a full-on, in-your-face, memory trip, white knuckle ride of a movie…” – Wayward Wolf.

It seems that there’s a growing sentiment amongst many people bemoaning the fact that the internet is no longer a place for pioneers, dreamers, and those who wished to share and exchange frank and uncensored thoughts and observations with like-minded (or not) others.

With increased corporate control, excessive government nannying and general intrudance from the far too easily offended, it has now become, in only a relatively short space of time, the biggest and most policed surveillance society the world has ever known. Albeit an essentially illusory, intangible one.

Such dark overtones are given at least a cursory nod or two throughout Steven Spielberg‘s latest, larger-than-life thrill-ride, Ready Player One.

Part real, part virtual and drawing upon cultural influences far too numerous to mention taken from here, there and abso-bloody-lutely everywhere, Ready Player One is a full-on, in-your-face, memory trip, white knuckle ride of a movie, with scarcely a moment taken to draw breath.

The opening race scene is in fact such a madcap maelstrom of activity that it could quite easily induce a mass sensory overload meltdown in the overly excitable.

Fortunately – for my own spinning brain – Spielberg gradually settles things down a little and the characters are permitted a tad more space to breathe and grow, and a coherent narrative slowly develops.

An Ohio existence in the year 2045 is a grim one, so much so that kids are all too eager to escape from it, plugging themselves instead into a Virtual Reality world called The Oasis. Its now deceased creator has challenged all players to complete this virtual world’s umpteen challenges, and in doing so, inherit his bequeathed fortune and ultimate control of The Oasis.

Cue untold carnage as players galore go head-to-head in the myriad challenges, and that’s before the big corporations have even begun poking their meddling unwanted noses into proceedings; the catalyst for a latter-day David and Goliath scenario to develop.

It all makes for an at times breath-taking spectacle, although such is my general disinterest in video games and fantasy worlds, I suspect that in any other director’s hands, I may well have abandoned Ready Player One in its relatively early stages.

Of course, it’s all subjective, but as ever, huge credit is probably due to the master of story telling himself, Steven Spielberg, whose direction once again seems to strike the perfect balance.

Ultimately the ‘take-home’ message seems to be that in these days of iPhone-wielding phone zombies and the very real issue of video game addiction, we all need to make extra effort to strike a healthy balance between the embracing of technology and the continuation of real human interaction and relationships.

That’s all well and good in theory, but I suspect that given the hugely immersive and overwhelmingly impressive virtual reality world conjured up in the likes of Ready Player One, reality is going to have to pull out some serious stops in the very near future, just to compete.

UNSANE

Three and a half Star Rating

“Shooting a major motion picture using an iPhone may not be an entirely original concept… but rarely has it been done so effectively as this…” – Wayward Wolf.

It’s certainly unnerving to consider that a mental health clinic could be quite so morally bankrupt as to forcibly admit a patient on the strength of their rather ill-informed consent, and a legal loophole, only to insist that they must then remain effectively incarcerated there until their insurance company agrees to cough up.

At which point the patient is, needless to say, free to leave.

Such shady goings-on form the rather unethical crux of one particular clinic’s operating practices, and serve as the ominous backdrop for Steven Soderbergh’s latest uber tense stalker-thriller, Unsane.

Based upon the writing of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, it tells the tale of young professional, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a girl who has been plagued by an obsessive stalker, David Strine, for many long, harrowing years.

Consequently her life has become highly transient; one never ending logistical headache as she finds herself forever upping sticks and re-inventing her identity.

In yet another new job in yet another new town – a mildly lecherous boss-aside – Sawyer’s life for once seems to be mercifully settled and uneventful. But be it real or simply a figment of her tortured imagination, she once again glimpses what she believes to be the tell-tale beard and glasses ‘combination’ of her relentlessly obsessive stalker, and with nerves a-jangling, she reluctantly decides that enough is enough, and sets about seeking the help of mental health specialists.

Whilst being a good idea in theory, a combination of her chosen clinic’s unscrupulous working practices and the fact that unbelievably, yet perhaps not surprisingly, David Strine – employed here under yet another pseudonym – is going to be administering the patients’ daily suppressants.

And thus yet another round of painful torment begins.

Shooting a major motion picture using an iPhone may not be an entirely original concept – Sean Baker’s 2015 film, Tangerine, immediately springs to mind – but rarely has it been done so effectively as this, both from a technical and a psychological point of view.

The very fact that we witness the action unfold through what could very easily be imagined to be the lens of an iPhone-wielding stalker, adds an underlying sense of menace to Soderbergh’s film, not to mention a rawness to the footage that occasionally lends the piece a sort of 1970’s B-movie feel.

And that is meant in a genuinely complimentary way.

From the 4:3 screen aspect ratio to the occasional pronounced barrelling at either side of the screen, Unsane‘s look represents something of a departure from what one would expect from a standard motion picture, which will inevitably have relied upon far more cutting-edge technology to realise its final vision.

Whilst Unsane, on balance, is a very effective piece of film-making, it is however necessary for the viewer to make some pretty sizeable leaps of the imagination, almost as sizeable, I should add, as the films rather unlikely premise and numerous plot holes.

That said, there’s lots to like about Soderbergh’s psychological thriller. There’s a tremendous over-riding sense of helplessness and injustice that is well sustained throughout, and Sawyer’s own sense of psychological deterioration and despair is genuinely tangible.

Claire Foy is on top form as the feisty beleaguered ‘stalkee’. Joshua Leonard is well cast as Sawyer’s softly spoken yet ominously creepy stalker, whilst Juno Temple – almost unrecognisable in this instance – puts in a delightfully deranged turn as one of Foy’s hyper-antagonistic room mates.

One can perhaps, to a point, draw some parallels with the sinister autocratic overtones of Milos Forman’s enduring 1975 masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, though these are largely peripheral in the grand scheme of Soderbergh’s film’s narrative.

Though I’m not entirely convinced that the piece plays out quite as effectively as it might have done, and that the film’s mildly cathartic Misery-esque conclusion is perhaps a little clumsy, these are but minor quibbles.

Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is a proper ‘what if’ thriller. Highly effective and utterly affecting.

THE SQUARE

Three and a half Star Rating

“…The Square subtly lampoons and pricks the pomposity of the world of contemporary arts.” – Wayward Wolf.

Having lived in Sweden for a certain period of time I fully recognise the quietly unassuming nature of its humble, confrontation-shy people, for whom crowing about personal achievement is considered somewhat uncouth and unnecessary.

And having attended a college of the arts over-run with wannabe Marxists, I feel that I’m also relatively well placed to recognise insufferable bullshit too.

I have attended modules in which we have been encouraged to consider ways of talking about talking about the arts. And I have shuffled in bemused confusion around blue cotton sheets – strewn randomly in cow-filled Devonshire fields – each of which having been covered with bric-a-brac and obscure objects. And I have mused over said objects and their placement on said sheet, as I have been asked to do.

And I have thus questioned my sanity and what the flying fekk I am actually doing there in the first place, and how indeed it all came to this?

Not a million miles removed from this, Ruben Östlund’s satirical send-up of the art world, The Square, is a deviously comical film that makes a lot of societal assumptions, yet one that asks a lot of questions of its viewers too.

Christian (Claes Bang), is the chief curator of the X-Royal Contemporary Art Museum, preparing for the launch of its latest exhibit, The Square; an illuminated ‘safe space’ designed to represent an area in which our human rights, freedom of thought, speech and action are all absolutely sacrosanct.

Having had his mobile phone stolen one day in the streets of Stockholm, Christian traces the phone to a high rise building in something of a suspect neighbourhood. Here, he and a colleague gingerly distribute a number of stern worded leaflets to each and every apartment demanding the return of his mobile device, believing this ‘catch-all’ method to be the most effective one if he is to have any hope of its safe return.

Christian feels emboldened by his actions, but unfortunately for him, this will prove to be just one of a catalogue of poor decisions he will make, ultimately triggering a personal multi-layered existential crisis from which there is little hope of escape, especially given the innate Swedish guilt complex with which he – and the softly spoken Swedes in general – seem to be terminally afflicted.

Östlund’s film focuses on some of the current moral and ethical issues and dilemmas affecting the peoples of Europe, particularly in relation to European attitudes towards the integration and subsequent treatment of minorities, as well as examining the impact of sensationalism within the so often truly vacuous industry of marketing, and its widespread affect upon the psyche and herd mentality of populations.

All the while, The Square subtly and brilliantly lampoons and pricks the pomposity of the world of contemporary arts.

Be it Christian attempting to dismiss as unimportant a well-intentioned cleaner having accidentally hoovered up part of a new exhibit of piles of gravel strategically positioned around a room, or the reaction to a man imitating a chimpanzee causing untold carnage in the process as he jumps from table to table at a black tie ‘performance’ event, The Square is at times wickedly funny, pushing numerous boundaries and frequently bordering on the wholly inappropriate.

There are an awful lot of positives to focus upon. Indeed there’s an awful lot – full stop – to take from Östlund’s film. Arguably – in the name of clarity – perhaps a bit too much, in fact. But as entertaining and thought-provoking as The Square undoubtedly is, to the hyper critical, there’s also a bit of a sense of a lack of cohesion about the film’s numerous constituent acts and themes.

Regardless, it’s a fine piece, make no mistake about that, and a more than worthy follow up to Östlund’s indisputably wonderful, Force Majeure.

The Square provokes, challenges and entertains, much in the way good art – pretentious or otherwise – always really should.

GHOST STORIES

Three and a half Star Rating

“…it’s only once the third tale reaches it’s climactic ‘conclusion’ that events really start to take a peculiar twist, and Ghost Stories slips into an even more intriguing dimension altogether…” – Wayward Wolf.

Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, Ghost Stories focuses on a certain Professor Goodman (portrayed by Andy Nyman himself), a man who has found some level of career fame in exposing and debunking the work of fraudulent so-called psychics. 

The arrival of a mysterious package one day from a famous TV psychic investigator from Goodman’s own childhood era, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne) – a man thought to be long dead and whose own disappearance years before had been shrouded in mystery – soon changes the course of Goodman’s future work, dramatically.

It transpires that there are three ghostly mysteries that Cameron himself had wrestled with throughout his life, yet they remain unresolved to this day. It is Cameron’s wish, in his old age, that Goodman should now investigate them and bring some much needed resolution to proceedings.

Armed with each of the case files, Goodman sets about tracking down the three key proponents, upon whose testimony these apparent other-worldly happenings are based.

Though somewhat shaken by his findings, Goodman’s own innate scepticism leads him to believe that each of these cases can easily be explained away through the simple application of science and logic.

But sometimes it’s the psychological uncertainties of our own minds that can provide the biggest clues when we seek to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable.

Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories works effectively for much of its duration as an apparently straight forward, slightly hammed-up spook-fest, though there is little by way of conclusions that can be garnered on face value from any of the three tales.

But alarm bells should begin to ring for the viewer when one considers that the first two tales are told from the perspective of a couple of characters who, despite ultimately finding themselves cornered by forces of evil and in apparently terminally hopeless predicaments, both still somehow manage to live to tell the tale. And it’s only once the third tale reaches it’s climactic ‘conclusion’ that events really start to take a peculiar twist, and Ghost Stories slips into an even more intriguing dimension altogether; one whose narrative slips and slides between apparently random events of varied illogic, yet one which ultimately helps to tie the film’s pieces neatly and cleverly together.

There are a few passing parallels with landmark horror films of yesteryear. Elements of Poltergeist and The Blair Witch Project are apparent in places, but curiously it’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek, ‘hammer house’ atmosphere that is most prevalent here. And although admittedly bearing little resemblance, content-wise, Roy Ward Baker’s 1981 ghoulish and very British, twist-in-the-tale offering, The Monster Club, with its own lightly comical regaling of three haunting tales – is for me, somehow the film that I am most reminded of.

Certainly, within their own film, Dyson and Nyman are unafraid to administer generous doses of gallows humour in just the right places, and the casting of two chiefly comic actors in Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse – both of whom are excellent here – in two of the film’s key roles, certainly helps with regard to this, whilst Nyman’s own rather more straight portrayal of a man with an emotionally-scarred past, is equally impressive.

Whether it’s to be considered a mysterious cognitive thriller or simply a ghostly shocker, either way, Ghost Stories is highly effective, lingering on in the memory the way all good cerebrally-challenging psychological horrors should.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I, TONYA

Four Star Rating

“…Tonya’s rise from ice skating-obsessed four-year-old to serious Olympic competitor and ultimately disgraced public persona, is examined here in all of its dysfunctional glory.” – Wayward Wolf.

The fact that I’d barely even heard of Tonya Harding prior to seeing this release is probably symptomatic of your typical British attitude towards all things winter sports-related.

“Why would I have possibly heard of her?” I enquired of a far more clued-up Central European friend of mine.

“It’s not as though Great Britain has ever really experienced success in any aspect of winter sports, let alone figure skating, is it?” I added.

Of course, no sooner had the words left my mouth did the names John Curry, Robin Cousins, and Torvill and Dean come flooding into my mind, like long forgotten memories of some glorious golden age of British winter sport domination at a time in which the sun seemingly never set upon The British Empire.

Add to this, not only were all four athletes victorious British figure skating Olympians, but they in fact all strutted their elegant stuff more or less within the same decade – give or take a few years here and there – that saw Tonya Harding come to the fore.

It’s a fair cop, and clearly, in the words of the late Andrew Sachs: “I know nooooothing.”

But what of Craig Gillespie’s film?

It’s probably fair to assume that a tough upbringing is always liable to nurture a tough individual, as was the case with Tonya Harding, whose remarkable story is regaled here by way of this splendidly entertaining biopic of the infamous U.S skater.

Told from a number of conflicting perspectives, Tonya’s rise from ice skating-obsessed four-year-old to serious Olympic competitor and ultimately disgraced public persona, is examined here in all of its dysfunctional glory.

The story of Tonya Harding is a very American tale in many ways.

The girl from the redneck family, living on the wrong side of the tracks, who, through a combination of hard work and a no-nonsense attitude, somehow managed to overcome all of the considerable odds set out before her to make it to the very top of her profession, albeit for just the briefest of glorious moments.

A resultant child of a problematic relationship, Tonya’s formative years appear to have been shaped through two highly contrasting parental approaches. Compassion and love from her father, and the rather poisonous and at times hateful approach of – so far as I can tell – Roseanne Barr and Dot Cotton’s evil love child… her rather ‘unique’ mother, LaVona (Allison Janney).

It’s LaVona’s relentlessly cantankerous attitude that finally compels Tonya’s father to jump in his car one day and never return, leaving LaVona to raise and support her talented daughter through her many years of intense figure skating training. For a waitress in a diner this is naturally the cause of much financial strain, a point that LaVona is never shy to impress upon Tonya, be that through verbal guilt trips, or in more extreme cases, through the use of physical violence – a sadly recurring theme in Tonya’s life.

No matter her dedication and commitment, Tonya’s rather athletic approach to her sport is constantly at odds with the more elegant and demure image that U.S ice skating seeks to portray. It seems that no matter what marvels she achieves out there on the ice – Harding is the first figure skater ever to successfully pull-off the daunting triple axel, for example – it’s never going to be enough for the closed shop of an agenda-driven U.S skating governing body.

Never fear though. Tonya’s husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), and his bungling best friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), with one massively misjudged act of misplaced support and loyalty, are about to clear the way for Tonya to reach the very top of her profession.

And completely destroy her career in the process.

I, Tonya is an absolute romp from start to finish. A marvellously skewed interpretation of the American dream – gone spectacularly wrong.

Directed with both energy and precision and with a major focus upon entertainment, it  brings to mind those momentum-filled Scorcese classics: Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street.

And it’s this insistence upon momentum that serves the director so well here. Even the frequent occurrences of physical violence perpetrated against Tonya – whilst clearly grave subject matter – are not dwelt upon for any significant length of time or allowed to sap the film’s amassed energy. Instead Gillespie’s film flows with tremendous purpose, and the bigger picture is rightly allowed to take precedence.

Further enhancing I, Tonya’s over all sense of vitality is a rollicking good soundtrack made up of choice tracks from the era. From early Chicago, Fleetwood Mac and Supertramp, to the brilliant use of Laura Branigan’s rendition of the Umberto Tozzi-penned classic, Gloria, it’s all tremendous fun.

Margot Robbie is on top-form as the aspiring U.S figure skater. Sebastian Stan is well cast as Jeff, the hugely-flawed love of Tonya’s life – a man that unfortunately (for Tonya’s own sake), she was never quite able to bid ‘adieu’ to. And Paul Walter Hauser is brilliantly comical as Jeff’s delusional best friend, Shawn.

But it’s probably fair to say that Allison Janney’s portrayal of Tonya’s chain-smoking mother, Lavona – acerbic put-downs and all – is the performance that steals the show here. A thoroughly deserving recipient of the 2018 Best Supporting Actress Oscar. I don’t think there can have been too many arguments about that.

I, Tonya offers a cautionary lesson in how even success built upon gargantuan levels of pain-staking effort can so easily implode in the face of poor decision making and the untrustworthiness of others.

Hugely entertaining stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WONDER WHEEL

Three Star Rating

“In the world of cinema not everything always has to be about change and innovation. The world will after all never be short of its fair share of boundary-pushing pioneers. Besides, it’s not as though Woody’s not played his part over the years.” – Wayward Wolf.

Whilst the same three stars may adorn both this review and that of our ‘old friends’ at Time Out, it is however hard not to take issue with the opening gambit of their somewhat dismissive take on Woody Allen’s latest film, Wonder Wheel.

“Feel like watching a new Woody Allen film?” they enquire, knowingly…

“Nobody does these days.” They continue…

“Currently languishing in movie jail, the controversial director soldiers on.”

In light of this and other such ‘glowing’ testimony, I think the term ‘soldiering on’ is probably highly appropriate here. It seems that poor old Woody can barely even buy a favourable review these days.

In some ways they do have a point though. But is it entirely fair?

Once again we are introduced to familiar concepts and scenarios within which an assortment of semi-neurotic characters experience the same kind of angst and existential headaches that we’ve become well accustomed to over the years.

But so what if that’s the case?

Since when did anyone watch the latter day films of Woody Allen expecting groundbreaking content or some sort of revolutionary approach to film-making?

I’d suggest that watching Allen’s films these days – and I mean this in a complimentary sense – is like putting on a favourite pair of comfortable shoes. Some will of course have long discarded these for more fashionable alternatives, but for many they’re simply indispensable. You know how they fit, exactly the type of journey they’ll provide you with, and that they’ll get you to where you both need and want to go.

And if that seems overly-safe or kind of uninspiring, then so be it. In the world of cinema, not everything always has to be about change and innovation. The world will after all never be short of its fair share of boundary-pushing pioneers. Besides, it’s not as though Woody’s not played his part over the years.

Wonder Wheel is a fictional tale with occasional narration from its author and one of its key characters, the aspiring writer and summer lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), whose story centres around a family of larger-than-life characters living in the shadow of the famous aforementioned big wheel in New York’s holiday resort of Coney Island. Here resides carousel ride operator and recovering alcoholic, Humpty (Jim Belushi), his second wife and local waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet), and her young son from another marriage, Richie (Jack Gore). The archetypal, hard-to-love, ginger step child.

It’s a fairly cramped set up thus causing a certain amount of friction within the family unit; a state of play not helped by the family’s ongoing financial difficulties and Richie’s compulsive pyromaniacal tendencies.

Nevertheless, things are just about holding together for Humpty’s clan.

But when the lives you live are built upon the unstable foundations of sand – almost literally in this instance – it’s never really going to take much to bring things tumbling down. And the cracks in the foundations soon begin to appear when the daughter that Humpty disowned some years back – Carolina (Juno Temple) – unexpectedly arrives back on the scene having run away from her no-good hoodlum husband.

Romance soon blossoms between Carolina and Mickey. This scenario in isolation is not necessarily problematic, but the fact Mickey is already involved in an illicit affair with Carolina’s step mother, Ginny, is.

This awkward tangled web of love and lies slowly drives Ginny out of her mind, and to add insult to injury, Carolina – having ‘sung like a canary’ to the authorities regarding her husband’s nefarious activities – now leaves everyone in a predicament, susceptible to the looming threat of a visit from the mob, and all that that would entail.

Chaos reigns.

But despite this pervading sense of unease, Allen’s Wonder Wheel takes a predominantly romanticised view of a Coney Island summer, embellished frequently by the oh so flattering orangey-golden hue of the summer dusk light, and the multi-coloured glow of the Wonder Wheel’s neon lights.

There’s a good collective chemistry between the cast members, and it’s great to see Jim Belushi back on the big screen again, producing a sort of John Goodman-esque depiction of his character, Humpty. Justin Timberlake and Juno Temple both convince in their respective roles, whereas Kate Winslet on the other hand, as good as she is in her portrayal of the emotionally tormented Ginny, tends to suffer a little from the fact that in certain scenes it’s almost impossible not to imagine a wild-haired Woody Allen himself playing this particular role of exponentially increasing neuroticism.

Ignore the naysayers, folks. Though I may be something of a lone voice here, all things considered, the much maligned Wonder Wheel – whilst admittedly not seeing Allen at the peak of his powers – is nonetheless pretty decent fare. To suggest otherwise I’d say is either a little harsh or perhaps indicates some kind of ulterior motive at play.

Can’t think what.

Hmmm.

Wonder Wheel. A cautionary lesson of what goes around comes around in a tale of forbidden love, vanity, jealousy, revenge and regret, all unfolding within one metaphorical 360 degree karma-infused turn of Coney Island’s most iconic leisure attraction.

 

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

Four Star Rating

“Who knew that the work of a hitman could be such an ethereal experience?” – Wayward Wolf.

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (YWNRH from hereon in), is a remarkable film based upon the Jonathan Ames book of the same name, chronicling the exploits of hired hitman, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix).

Through many a sequence of flashbacks we build up a picture of the tormented mind of this rather monosyllabic and withdrawn character. Be it through an upbringing of family abuse and violence or from the harrowing times that he spent in the military, Joe is clearly a man haunted by his past.

Back on Civvy Street, he takes care of his dementia-afflicted mother with the earnings from his work as ‘hired muscle’. On the instruction of those that require his services – frequently high profile or influential people – he is tasked with tracking down and rescuing missing girls from the unfortunate circumstances into which they have either been forced, or somehow now find themselves.

But the hiring of Joe’s ‘talents’ is very much a last resort.

Though apparently well paid for his services, he seems hell-bent on some sort of personal crusade to clean up the wrong-doings of society. Hammer in hand, his methods are crude and frequently brutal, but never less than effective.

YWNRH is a film that is at once both violent and beautiful, yet these two apparently disparate states somehow sit together well here, interwoven into one innovative and dream-like whole.

Who knew that the work of a hitman could be such an ethereal experience?

Stylistically speaking at least, YWNRH is a little reminiscent of Joseph Bull and Luke Seomore’s under-rated 2014 offering, Blood Cells, but it’s the over-riding parallels with Taxi Driver that are inescapable here. That said, never does Ramsay’s film ever feel derivative or in any way indebted to Martin Scorcese’s seminal 1970’s classic. A familiar narrative this may well be, but in Ramsay’s hands it feels fresh and original.

Whether it’s through capturing scenes of violence via the restricted view of an in-house CCTV security system, or deliberate directorial decisions to ignore an actual act of brutality in favour of immediately cutting to its blood-drenched aftermath instead, YWNRH feels like innovative, impactful film-making. And it’s Ramsay’s ability to switch so effectively between scenes of thought-provoking subtlety and pronounced graphic violence – and at times combining them both together – that makes the piece so genuinely affecting.

Joaquin Phoenix is perfectly cast as Ramsay’s scar-riddled brooding anti-hero. A man whose propensity for explosive violence would seem to be as much a cathartic process in reaction to the madness that plagues his mind, as it is a gut reaction to the appalling immoral injustices that he encounters regularly through his work.

If there has to be a slight criticism, it’s Phoenix’s at times almost unintelligible delivery given his character’s tendency to mumble his way through most scenes. Needless to say, taking a bullet to his cheek/mouth during one particular ‘work-related’ scuffle does little to alleviate this particular enunciation issue. It does however make one wonder whether anything crucial, narratively-speaking, gets missed during Joe’s occasional verbal exchanges. But this is but a minor gripe, and it’s very much the visual and the visceral that are King here.

Finally, a brief word for the man of the moment – sonically-speaking at least – Jonny Greenwood, who yet again nails his brief with a menacing and at times challenging soundtrack that on one level brings to mind some of the best of Cliff Martinez’s pounding analogue synth-driven work that so brilliantly accompanies the films of Danish Director, Nicolas Winding Refn.

Above everything, YWNRH is highly memorable cinema with Phoenix’s performance in particular searing itself indelibly into our minds, unlikely to be forgotten in any sort of hurry.

Fine, fine work from the Director of We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Ratcatcher. But that was only to be expected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RED SPARROW

Three Star Rating

“…being no particular expert in linguistics and dialects myself, the Russian-infused spoken English within Frances Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, does at least get a tentative pass from me.” – Wayward Wolf.

Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow affords Hollywood’s golden girl, Jennifer Lawrence, another good opportunity to demonstrate her considerable talents in films of a more serious nature. Those with keen memories will realise that this is a revival of the Lawrence / Lawrence partnership which was ultimately so successful through their work together in the Hunger Games franchise.

Whilst Jennifer Lawrence understandably remains a massive box office draw, and thus a staple of many a huge grossing popcorn flick, the last couple of years or so has seen a marked maturity not only in her choice of role, but in the performances that these roles have consequently produced.

In my own very humble opinion, of course.

Coming on the back of both David O. Russell’s 2015 outing, Joy, and Darren Aronofsky’s breathtaking thriller, Mother, Red Sparrow sees Lawrence portraying a famous ballerina turned Russian Intelligence operative.

On sustaining a career-ending injury, Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), is given no choice by her rather shady uncle but to enrol into ‘Sparrow School’, very much against her own volition. Here she will learn how to use her body and femininity to devastating effect in the pursuit of acquiring classified secrets and information for her country.

But Red Sparrow – based upon the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews – is by no means a straight forward piece, offering a very involved twisting narrative, and frequently wrong-footing us as it goes.

It’s a tense tale of espionage, surveillance, counter-surveillance and double agents, and for a high budget mainstream release, it has to be said, it’s surprisingly gruesome fare.

Amidst all of the cut-throat cloak and dagger skullduggery, Lawrence positively excels as the seductive femme fatale, tasked with targeting C.I.A agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), with whom she soon finds herself romantically involved, further muddying the film’s already narratively murky waters.

Kowtowing somewhat to the mainstream, most Russian-spoken dialogue is offered in English with a whole variety of takes on what constitutes this at times most brooding of accents. This has, by all accounts, been a bone of contention for many, but being no particular expert in linguistics and dialects myself, the Russian-infused spoken English within Frances Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, does at least get a tentative pass from me.

Certainly there were no moments of teeth-clenching, toe-curling cringe-worthiness that I was ever really aware of.

And I’m sure Mr Lawrence will sleep easy with that news.

Considering the genre, it’s safe to say that this is not a film of the calibre of some of the classic spy thrillers of yesteryear. Red Sparrow perhaps has most in common with the James Bond classic, From Russia with Love, only far more gritty in its realisation. But without doubt, it makes for an at times revivifying experience, not least because of the refreshingly female-centric angle that it takes on this oft-visited genre.

Possibly not a film that will live exceptionally long in the memory, but with a twist in its tail, Red Sparrow definitely achieves what it sets out to do, and gets a lot more right than wrong in the process.

An at times dark, but always entertaining thriller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A FANTASTIC WOMAN

 

Four Star Rating

“Daniela Vega Hernández produces a subtle performance conveying both hurt and inner strength – perfectly encapsulating her feelings of painful isolation.” – Wayward Wolf.

There has been a considerable raising in the profile of – and support for – transgender folk in recent times. A new wave of social justice / identity-driven politics has seen to that, resulting, in some parts of the world, in considerable debate and turmoil surrounding the implementation and mandatory use of new personal pronouns and the redefining of gender in general.

It has become a complex and somewhat tetchy issue for many.

In timely fashion comes Sebastián Lelio‘s critically acclaimed tale of unjust prejudice and enduring love, A Fantastic Woman – a film which deservedly took the Best Foreign Picture Oscar at the recent Academy Awards.

Transgender waitress and cocktail lounge singer, Marina (Daniela Vega Hernández), is living a fulfilled life with her lover, the significantly older, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), with whom she shares an apartment and a German Shepherd dog named Diabla.

Considering the propensity for Marina’s gender status to attract unwanted animosity, on balance life seems relatively good and secure for her.

Orlando’s sudden death, however, positively wrenches the carpet from beneath Marina’s feet, leaving her not only to mourn the loss of the man that genuinely seemed to love, understand and respect her, but to now tackle the future head on, shorn of the protective safety net and veil of ‘respectable normality’ that her relationship with Orlando afforded her – to some extent at least.

As far as Orlando’s close family and friends are concerned, now that he has gone, Marina is to be denounced. A persona non grata.

For Marina, this is to be a bleak and hurtful journey.

Indeed, Marina’s experience throughout Lelio’s film is frequently punctuated by examples of the prejudicial attitudes of people who are either disgusted by or too embarrassed at the very thought of having any sort of association with a transgender person, seeking to sweep the whole sorry affair under the carpet and airbrush it from memory in the process.

Such associations are, after all, not how they would choose to remember their ex-husband, brother, father or friend.

With only the support of her considerate work boss and a singing coach (Sergio Hernández), who truly believes in her – and a man in whom she clearly has great trust and respect – it’s difficult at times to watch such a lost soul gamely swimming against an overwhelming tidal wave of negativity. Increasingly, the hateful weight of this crushes Marina’s resolve, driving her ever deeper into a particularly dark place in her life.

Marina’s infrequent ‘visualised’ recollections of Orlando scattered throughout the film are at once both mournful and hopeful; reviving in her mind something that was beautiful, genuine and true and that serves as a reminder for her that happiness is possible, even for the most railed against of lives.

Daniela Vega Hernández produces a subtle performance conveying both hurt and inner strength – perfectly encapsulating her feelings of painful isolation. It’s a performance that positively insists upon (and gets) our collective empathy without ever resorting to melodramatics to do so.

Additionally, A Fantastic Woman boasts a soundtrack that is undoubtedly a major component of the film’s success.

Matthew Herbet’s understated score together with a choice selection of suitably emotive pieces perfectly support Lelio’s at times hard-hitting film. Perhaps most notably is the wonderfully evocative Pink Floyd-esque strains of The Alan Parsons Project’s Time, which exquisitely enhances one particularly tender scene of intimacy in the film’s early stages.

A Fantastic Woman is an ultimately hopeful film, beautifully realised and naked in its honesty. It lays bare the social and societal implications of what it means to be ‘different’ within a fearful and intolerant world, and more importantly the personal drive and determination that it then takes to overcome such oppression.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LADY BIRD

 

Three Star Rating

“…based purely on the quality of its [Oscar] opposition, I suspect that multiple nominations will be as good as it gets for this quirky coming-of-age tale.” – Wayward Wolf.

Greta Gerwig’s first foray into directing, Lady Bird, has apparently attracted significant interest amongst the Oscar nominations committee.

Not for me.

That’s not to detract at all from what is undoubtedly a strong directorial debut, but based purely on the quality of its opposition, I suspect that multiple nominations will be as good as it gets for this quirky coming-of-age tale.

Then again, what do I know?

Perhaps predictably, the film’s leading lady, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), is both strong-willed and a little bit ‘different’. Considering Gerwig’s own acting career to date, this should come as no surprise to anyone that’s familiar with her work.

Gerwig’s film is something of a tick list of teenage angst in all of its myriad forms, from losing your virginity, dating the guy that turns out to be gay, dating the guy that’s far too self-absorbed to notice you, ditching that penniless geeky best friend of yours for a richer more beautiful and popular model, to ‘flunking’ your school grades thus jeopardising your future career prospects – it’s all here folks.

But whilst on first inspection it may seem like the story board to a ropey piece of throw-away teen trash, Gerwig’s film manages to transcend the apparently disposable to produce an at times profoundly moving film which delves emotionally far deeper than it would at first appear. And it’s Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalfe), and more latterly with her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), that truly adds meat to the bones of this piece.

Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother in particular is erratic and highly strained. Two strong-willed characters they most certainly are, constantly at loggerheads with one another.

In response to her daughter’s somewhat unrealistic lofty ambitions to attend a high-brow New York College, Marion quips that she’d be better off just leaving school, signing up for city college, going to jail and then signing up for city college again.

Marion is the mother that only wants the best for her daughter, determined that she should learn from her own mistakes in life, yet her well-meaning motives come across as distinctly lacking in compassion and seem to dismiss Lady Bird’s own feelings and ambitions out of hand.

Her father on the other hand is an open and caring parent in whom Lady Bird can confide and receive the affection that her mother is either unwilling or unable to give.

Saoirse Ronan puts in a tender performance as the confused teen lead. Timothée Chalamet continues his recent good work with his portrayal of book-bound wannabe libertarian, Kyle, but it’s the welcome return of the wonderful Laurie Metcalfe that possibly impresses most.

Lady Bird is a tale of umpteen trials and tribulations. Girl versus the world on a teenage voyage of discovery. But as much as anything, it’s a film examining just what it takes to achieve our goals in spite of at times overwhelming odds and negativity.

It’s engaging and amusing in places, and all perfectly likeable.

It’s just no Oscar winner, but there’s no shame in that.

 

 

 

DARKEST HOUR

 

Four Star Rating

“No less impressive is Bruno Delbonnel’s absolutely beautiful cinematography, which positively shimmers through its artistic use of silhouettes and subtle lighting techniques.” – Wayward Wolf.

Darkest Hour examines the rise to power and early Prime Ministry of Winston Churchill. Churchill (Gary Oldman), is portrayed as being far from an establishment line-toeing ‘yes man’ – unlike existing Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) – who, if the exaggerated handkerchief waving and heightened levels of vitriol emanating from the House of Commons are anything to go by, has clearly lost the confidence of both his own party and the entirety of the political opposition.

Chamberlain will resign and his party will then move quickly to choose a successor, in the interests of both the existing government, but more pressingly, to ensure that a strong level of leadership exists during war time.

Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) – the party’s unanimous choice to succeed Chamberlain – surprisingly declines the offer. Step forward then one Winston Churchill. A less popular choice within his own party, once couldn’t imagine. Perceived to be something of a renegade and a loose cannon, the government is loathe to appoint him, but appoint him they ultimately do, only to soon regret the folly of their decision.

Whereas Jonathan Teplitzky’s 2017 effort, Churchill – featuring a similarly commanding central performance from Brian Cox – paid greater attention to Churchill’s faltering psychological state and the relationship that he shared with his wife and all-round pillar of strength, Clemmie, Joe Wright is more concerned here with Churchill the politician, as he sets about his work like some kind of force of nature, ruffling feathers as he goes with his dogged determination that Britain should not compromise and surrender to a tyrant that threatens the long-term freedom of the peoples of Europe.

Joe Wright’s film is hugely impressive in many ways. Most striking of all – and every bit the headline-grabber – is Gary Oldman’s absolute tour-de-force performance as this mostly unshakeably single-minded of first ministers. It should be noted though that Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill’s less decisive quieter moments of self-doubt are as equally worthy of praise as his portrayal of the call-to-arms, rebel-rousing speeches for which Churchill is so well known and revered.

No less impressive is Bruno Delbonnel’s absolutely beautiful cinematography, which positively shimmers through its artistic use of silhouettes and subtle lighting techniques. Perhaps most notable of all though is the imaginative and innovative staging and choice of shots. It’s as clear as day here that this is truly the stuff of Oscar nominations.

If there’s to be one criticism it’s perhaps the inclusion of a scene in the film’s latter stages which I’m fairly confident is the stuff of fiction, in which Winston Churchill goes on something of a fact-finding / soul-searching mission.

Changing the habit of a lifetime, he rides the London Underground to Westminster rather than being ferried about by a personal driver. Whilst doing so he engages in a number of conversations with understandably shocked and bewildered passengers in an attempt to gauge the thoughts and feelings of the general public with regards to the increasingly desperate scenario confronting them all – the very real possibility that the allies will suffer defeat during the early exchanges of World War II.

No matter how heart-felt and useful a scene this may well be with which to portray Churchill as being ‘truly a man of the people’, I’d argue that it is also rather out of place within the context of the film as a whole. It all seems like something of an ill-fitting after thought, and threatens to undo some of the excellent work that has preceded it, though I appreciate that this will of course be entirely subjective.

Nevertheless, don’t let this minor quibble distract from what is otherwise an absolutely stupendous piece of film-making, beautifully and lovingly put together with direction that successfully blends the artistic with the popular.

Despite its dependance upon heavy dialogue and weighty subject matter, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour nonetheless remains easily accessible and absolutely simmers with emotion.

One of the finest biopics for many a long year.

 

 

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Three Star Rating

“A grisly fable come watery fairy tale. A sort of E.T for adults if you like, just not as good…” – Wayward Wolf.

A strange aquatic entity has been captured in South America’s Amazon region and has been transported back to a top secret research laboratory in the U.S.

In this establishment works Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning girl assigned, along with her good friend Zelda (the predictably typecast Octavia Spencer), to maintain the cleanliness of the particular room in which the mystery Amazonian creature is housed, and it’s not long before a strong connection bordering on amorous devotion develops between Elisa and this watery web-foot.

But this is not exactly a petting zoo. The mysterious species has been brought there for scientific reasons. In a bid to gain some advantage over the Soviet space programme, the U.S government wishes to study this creature’s remarkable breathing mechanism.

Overseeing the logistics of this operation is cattle-prod wielding psychopath, Colonel Richard Strickland (another reliably villainous performance from the excellent Michael Shannon), a man severely lacking in empathy, a trait that he all too readily demonstrates through his constant ill-treatment of the aquatic subject.

But having lost two fingers – and subsequently having had them sewn back on again – in an altercation with the creature, Strickland then attempts to convince the powers-that-be to perform a vivisection on it.

And with the very real possibility that this amorous amphibian could be snatched from Elisa’s arms, it’s clear that an immediate plan of action is required.

But the clock is ticking…

The Shape of Water when boiled down is a surprisingly straight forward affair considering who’s sitting in the director’s chair. A grisly fable come watery fairy tale. A sort of E.T for adults if you like, just not as good, with a possible tip of the hat towards Beauty and the Beast, for good measure.

The narrative may be suspiciously simple, but the film serves as a visually pleasing vehicle through which to explore various themes of love, acceptance and tolerance, amongst others, and there are some fine performances, from Sally Hawkins in particular, lending the piece a high degree of credibility.

Though largely restricted to sign language, looks and gestures, it is Hawkins’ on-screen relationships with the most prominent people in her life, namely Zelda, Strickland, and most notably of all, her artistic gay next door neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), which really bring this tale alive.

Giles, much like Elisa, seems to suffer from a crippling lack of self confidence, but their shared empathy and hopelessly romantic dreams help them both muddle through life’s struggles together.

Guillermo Del Toro’s film has a dark yet playful feel to it; a necessary approach considering the fairly preposterous premise of a physically romantic liaison between a mute girl and, what is essentially the creature from the black lagoon, which, visually-speaking at least, seems to have been Del Toro’s clear influence here.

It’s an interesting piece and not without its positives, but ultimately one that I couldn’t successfully engage with on any sort of meaningful level, and it wasn’t for the want of trying.

The Shape of Water fails to really make any significant waves – a pleasing enough ripple in a garden pond, more like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.