The last month has been mostly about Oscar nominated films… surprise, surprise! So without further ado here’s February selection of speedy reviews:
The Danish Girl: the life of Danish painter Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, pioneer transgender, and his wife Gerda, also a talented painter. I know that this is considered an Eddie Redmayne’s film, whose performance is both convincing and effective, but the one that truly shines is Alicia Vikander as Gerda. She embodied the role of loyal, supporting wife and her struggle to make sense of her life and her husband’s. I must say that she’s the one who really sold me the story and ended up making it convincing and gut-wrenching. Tom Hooper skillfully handles this dramatic tale and beautifully recreates both Copenhagen and Paris in the 1920s. Affecting —7/10
Carol: Todd Haynes gives us an artfully shot, intense period drama with two great actresses (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) at the top of their game. Therese, shop girl and aspiring photographer, meets and falls in love with the titular Carol, an older woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. Set in the fifties, this love story has all the complications that come with the social mores of the time and strongly reminds of Far From Heaven, however it’s a little more hopeful but less powerful. Cate Blanchett should always dress as a New Yorker in the 1950s, she’s spectacular. Kudos also go to Kyle Chandler for his solid performance as the abandoned husband and Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend. Interesting —7/10
Anomalisa: the quirky genius of Charlie Kaufman takes the viewer along for a ride in a weird world. Using stop-motion animation he tells a story of alienation and loneliness (which are recurrent themes in his films): a customer service guru, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), feels detached from everything but, on a business trip, meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his anomaly, and things suddenly change for the better…at least that’s what it seems. While the plot is rather straightforward, the storytelling is multi-layered as is Kaufman’s wont and the different media is meant to add an additional twist. Unfortunately, the latter completely backfires (at least for me) because I found the facial features of the puppets utterly distracting and not in a good way. Unexpected —6/10
Hail, Caesar!: Eddie Mannix’s (Josh Brolin) life as fixer for a major Hollywood studio is very complicated and demanding. He has to deal with a difficult director (Ralph Fiennes), a pregnant starlet (Scarlet Johansson), nosy gossip journalists (Tilda Swinton), the kidnapping of a movie star (George Clooney) and his inner demons. The Coens brings back the lights and shadows of Hollywood’s golden era with their usual humour and manage to coax great performances out of Clooney, Brolin, Ehrenreich and the rest of the cast. There’s a cornucopia of references to different film genres and their cliches as well as to the lives of celebrities, mostly what should be kept from the public. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about religion with a rabbi and representatives of the different christian confessions. Lighthearted —7.5/10
This film has been accused of retreading a very familiar story line and of being chock-full of sport movie cliches but, in the capable hands of two rising stars, Ryan Coogler as director and Michael B. Jordan as leading man, it manages to breath fresh air into a very stale franchise. I confess I didn’t watch past Rocky IV, maybe few bits and pieces of Rocky V. Anyway I was pleasantly surprised and moderately nostalgic watching this “sequel”.
Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Jordan) is the illegitimate son of boxing legend Apollo Creed (really? Adonis son of Apollo? For real? Not even a tongue in cheek quip about it? Ok, then, moving on). He has never known his father and has had a troubled childhood after losing his mother. However his luck changes when Mary Anne (Rashad), Apollo’s widow, tracks him down and takes him in (what would you expect from Mrs. Huxtable?). Fast-forward a decade or so and we see Donnie with a nice job, after growing up in a beautiful home and receiving a good education. Unfortunately, he feels unsatisfied and meant for something different, the shadow of his famous father looming larger and larger, spurring him towards professional boxing.
The second and third act roll out as expected. The underdog (Donnie, not Rocky) fights against all odds figuratively and literally to prove that he’s not just a name but also he has what it takes to be a champion. After being told that he shouldn’t be a professional boxer by his stepmother and by Tony Jr. (Wood Harris), who is a trainer and a family friend, Donnie moves to Philadelphia to seek the help of another legend: Rocky Balboa. It will take some convincing but Rocky eventually accepts to be Donnie’s Mickey and the tale comes back full circle. We do get the training montage with a run through the streets of Philly, it’s a bit corny but strikes the right note with a combination of energy and nostalgia without outdoing it. The fighting scenes are more Raging Bull style than the original Rocky, there are less slow motion sequences and the viewer feels right in the middle of the ring. Even the romance between Donnie and Bianca (Thompson) is not too trite and it helps explore more Donnie as a character. Unfortunately that not the case for Bianca as per Hollywood standards, a well rounded portrayal of a woman is still too tricky!
The acting is what really works to the advantage of this film. Jordan is very convincing and he has a good chemistry with Stallone. The latter gives a nuances and touching portrayal of the old champ, a little worse for wear but with still some sparks in him. Coogler succeeds in offering a new perspective on a worn out story and making it enjoyable and involving.
After a brilliant first season inspired by the Cohen brothers’ masterpiece, series creator Noah Hawley manages to outdo himself. Following the new fad in television of anthology series, this time around the story is set in 1979 between Luverne, Minnesota, Fargo, North Dakota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota with a brand new cast and another “true crime” tale.
A young Lou Solverson (Wilson), State Patrol officer and Vietnam veteran, investigates a multiple homicide case involving a judge and the disappearance of Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin), the youngest son of a local crime lord based in Fargo; helping him piece things together is his father-in-law, Hank Larsson (Danson), Sheriff of Luverne. The investigation will lead them to a colorful collection of characters that includes Ed (Plemons) and Peggy Blumquist (Dunst), a Luverne’s butcher and his wife, who are not exactly law-abiding citizens, and the Gerhardt family, kingpins of North and South Dakota. Led with iron fist by Otto (Michael Hogan) until his stroke and then by his wife Floyd (Jean Smart), they are ruthless and fearsome, in particular Dodd (Donovan), the eldest son, who has big dreams of building an empire and champs at the bit. However his big dream is thwarted by an encroaching criminal organisation from Kansas City with expanding ambitions of its own. When negotiations for a peaceful merger fail, Mike Milligan (Woodbine), is left to deal with the Gerhardt. He is skilled enforcer with plenty of street smarts, and aided by the Kitchen brothers (Todd and Brad Mann), slowly works toward his goal of wiping out the competition.
The stage is set for an interesting tale of intertwined stories with very engaging and well-rounded characters and it doesn’t disappoint. The vicious confrontation between the two criminal organisations is the perfect foil for the struggle of Lou and Hank, both decent reasonable men, to make sense of the blood trail they are following. Wilson and Danson have great chemistry and embody their characters wonderfully, giving them depth and humanity that make them very relatable. Durst and Plemons are equally great as Peggy and Ed, normal folk who are swept into a life-changing situation and become a little detached from reality. Special kudos go also to Nick Offerman as Karl Weathers, the town lawyer of Luverne, and Zahn McClarnon as Hanzee Dent, right-hand man of Dodd and enforcer of the Gerhardt clan. The script is strong and the few lulls in the pace are well repaid afterward. Moreover there are some very inspired cinematic choices that add charm to the already beautiful visuals. Engrossing —8/10
Heartfelt and compelling story about a fight for fundamental rights (one of many in human history) seen through the eyes of Maud (Mulligan), who goes from downtrodden worker bee in a industrial laundry and submissive wife to staunch supporter and activist of the Women’s Social and Political Union at the beginning of the twentieth century. Mulligan’s character evolves slowly, spurred by another worker, Violet (Duff), recently arrived at the laundry, and then charmed by collected, singleminded Edith (Bonham Carter), a local medical doctor. Maud is capable and smart, hard worker and loving mother but she has been told all her life that she will never amount to anything (both with words and violence) and that made her submissive and scared. However, once Maud glimpses another way of approaching life, seeing women like her stand up for themselves and fight, she starts to find her inner strength and becomes an activist. Everything begins with a public hearing of a MP’s committee for women’s enfranchisement: Maud gives a matter-of-fact but convincing testimony of her life as worker. From that moment on, the audience dives, along with Maud, in the activities of the women’s movement that, incited by their charismatic leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep), are taken up a notch. What follows is a series of historical documented actions: firebombing of letterboxes, blowing up empty country estates, hunger strikes during imprisonment and Emily Davison’s martyrdom at the Epsom Derby. As we follow the struggle of these women to see recognised their right to vote, we get to know also the minds of the men. Unfortunately they aren’t portrayed in a positive light. Sonny (Whishaw) is Maud’s rather spineless husband, who kicks her out of their house because of peer-pressure from colleagues and acquaintances; inspector Steed (Gleeson) is the armed response of the Government, trained to deal with anarchists, bolsheviks and Irish insurgents, who treats these women as a dangerous threat to society. The supervisor at the laundry is downright vicious and the various Government’s officials are patronising, dismissive or out for blood and all very vague entities. The only redeeming male figure is Edith’s husband, who supports and protects her as much as possible. Unfortunately he’s a very marginal character in the story, which is a pity because it would have added an interesting point of view. Sarah Gavron’s film is engaging and show us historical events that are very seldom shown at the cinema. Carey Mulligan’s performance conveys both strength and vulnerability very effectively and she’s helped by a solid supporting cast. Illuminating —7.5/10
Greg (Mann) has successfully navigated the treacherous waters of high school until his senior year by being a chameleon. He cleverly adapted to the social mores of each clique thus remaining virtually invisible and unscathed. His best and only friend since childhood, Earl (Cyler), is laid-back and unfazed by the high school life; they share a passion for movies, in particular classics, instilled by Greg’s father (Offerman), an eccentric professor of sociology. Their favorite pastime is to remake them or “swede” them (you should watch Be Kind Rewind, to understand this) with, of course, poor man’s methods and interesting results. Greg’s quiet life is forever changed when his mother (Britton) guilt-trips him into befriending Rachel (Cooke), a girl who attends his school and has been recently diagnosed with leukemia. What follows is a very authentic and captivating tale of friendship (no soppy, tear-jerker love story a la The Fault In Our Stars), that is, in turns, charming, funny, awkward and raw. Greg is forced out of his protective shell by hanging out with Rachel at school, learning to be part of its micro-society and experiencing the (most of the time) traumatic consequences of being noticed. Rachel, on the other hand, becomes part of Greg and Earl’s private world and enjoys watching their masterpieces while she has to endure cancer treatments. This film is a well-written, perfectly-casted coming-of-age story with a nice dose of sarcasm and humour that balances its darker and more gut-ranching moments. I haven’t seen a film about teenagers so insightful and charming in a while. The three young leads give very convincing performance and carry the film on their shoulders from start to finish. Among the adult cast special kudos should go to Nick Offerman as Greg’s oddball father, a joy to watch! Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s second time in the director’s chair is a success and well-worth your time. Beguiling —8/10
“All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and it applies very well to this family drama set in beautiful Florida Keys. The Rayburns are well-respected and pillars of the community of Islamorada. The patriach Robert (Shepard) and his wife Sally (Spacek) own and manage a renowned inn. Their grown-up children are quite arrived and leading a nice life: John (Chandler) is a detective for the sheriff department with a lovely wife and two teenager kids, Kevin (Butz) owns a marine services facility and he’s married and Meg (Cardellini) is a gifted lawyer with a charming boyfriend Marco (Murciano), who is also John’s partner. The exception is the eldest: Danny (Mendelsohn), who seems to always find himself in trouble and he’s the only one who’s left their hometown. Danny’s return for the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the inn is both expected and dreaded by the rest of the family, since there’s clearly something in the past that hangs over all of them. After a little back and forth, Danny decides to stay in town, although his father and his siblings are ambivalent about it (to say the least!). The story is intertwined with flash-forwards that give you hints of what’s to come but not to the detriment of the plot. I liked the juxtaposition of the bright sunny weather for the current tale and the dark rainy one for the future tidbits. This is a slow burning tale, that takes its time flashing out the characters and moving along the plot, and it is more a “whydunit” than a whodunit, since it is clear from the beginning that something has gone terribly awry and who is responsible for it. It should be seen as a very long film so stay away if you are impatient and want episodes that make sense as stand-alone. If you, on the other hand, like getting to know the how and what and why for each main character then this is your cup of tea. The cast is incredibly good (Chandler, Spacek and Shepard in particular) but Mendelsohn is spectacular! Worth watching just for him. Riveting —7.5/10
Handsome but penniless Tom Ripley (Delon) has been tasked by wealthy Mr. Greenleaf to bring back home to San Francisco his wayward son Philippe (Ronet), who is gallivanting around Italy. Philippe is living large with his girlfriend Marge (Laforet) in Naples and the audience finds Tom tagging along and being Philippe’s buddy and occasional virtual punching bag. Philippe is good looking, viveur and self-confident, his money gives him the freedom that Tom doesn’t have. It’s obvious since the beginning that Tom is both attracted to and envious of Philippe, we can see him clearly thinking: ” I can be like him, I just need money!”. On the other hand, Philippe is intrigued by Tom’s many talents but repulsed by his lowly social standing and the creepy vibes he gives off. Tom’s meekness and subservient attitude seems to excite Philippe’s mean streak to the point that even Marge takes Tom’s defense. The tension gradually builds up while the strain on the relationship between these three characters grows, all in great contrast with the beautiful scenery of Southern Italy. This adds a somewhat sinister twist to reassuring surroundings and the scenes on the sailing boat become almost claustrophobic. As Tom’s hope of obtaining the reward Philippe’s father has promised fades, his fantasies of riches and easy life coalesce into a much darker plan to gain what he wants. The second half of the film revolves around Tom’s schemes and maneuvers to keep his dream alive, not letting anything gets in his way. Clement adapts skillfully this story of envy, deceit and delusion of grandeur based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. His expert use of the blazing white and blue of Italian summer and the lovely settings in Naples and Rome brings an additional layer to the unfolding drama. The cast delivers solid performances, Alain Delon is a perfect embodiment of Tom with the right mix of charm and slyness. The only point that raised involuntary laughters was Marie Laforet’s crying scene, similar to every display of sorrow by any Disney princess. This is a very minor flaw that doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the film. In comparison to the more recent adaptation, this is a far superior movie with a better and more convincing casting. Dazzling —7.5/10
This is my entry to the The Beach Party Blogathon hosted by Silver Screening and Speakeasy. Ruth and Kristina will keep the party going all week, go and check their blogs!
The lastest film by Paul T. Anderson is somehow a crossover between The Big Lebowski and Chinatown. This slightly surreal and meandering story starts like a classic noir: an ex-flame comes back into Doc Sportello’s (Phoenix) life asking for help. Our hero is a private detective with glorious sideburns and a penchant for smoking pot. His ex, Shasta (Waterston), once a flower child with the same proclivities, has since moved on to greener pasture: her current lover is a real estate magnate. After her cryptic visit, Shasta disappears and Doc begins a strange journey following weird clues, stumbling on the kidnapping of said magnate, searching for a phantom ship and dealing with all sorts of crazies. He’s helped by faithful friend and lawyer Sauncho (Del Toro), deputy district attorney and occasional lover Penny (Whiterspoon) and he ends up making common cause with Dirty-Harry like detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Brolin). Set in 1970, this strange and rather convoluted tale, based on the eponymous book by Thomas Pynchon, might be slow-burning and very unlike Anderson’s previous film (The Master) but it’s captivating to follow. Doc is an oddball character and, most of the time, he’s stoned but, improbable as it may seem, he’s also pretty good at his job. In addition there’s Bigfoot, he starts out as a “benevolent nemesis” or “evil guardian angel” to Doc, but he reaches an understanding with him after their investigations cross path. In a way, Bigfoot has similar traits to Doc: loner, determined and capable (with a visceral hate for hippies but that’s just a colorful side of his persona). This film with its eerie atmosphere and intricate plot turns out to be more a character study on acid and it really works due to the superb performances of Phoenix and Brolin. Anderson has managed again the difficult task of keeping the viewer engaged with a star-studded, 2.5 hour-long movie based on a pretty wacky premise: chapeau! The cast in general is rather spectacular: curious, unexpected cameos and intriguing portrayals, it is clear that there’s a sure hand at the helm. The soundtrack and the photography complement the story and contribute greatly to the bizarre feeling that pervades the film throughout. Anderson’s style might not be everyone’s cup of tea and this film is even stranger than his usual fare so consider yourself warned. Mesmerizing –9/10
The Academy really likes film based on a true story and, this year in particular, the theme of fame and pushing beyond one’s limits. This movie has both, so it’s not a surprise that it was nominated, however it feels distant and detached notwithstanding the quality of the performance of the three leads. Steve Carell (with a fake nose, hideous teeth and dark eyes) is John DuPont: billionaire with a passion for wrestling and severe mommy issues. Channing Tatum is Mark Schultz: Olympic wrestling champion with low self-confidence, always in the shadow of his older brother. Last but not least, Mark Ruffalo is David Schultz: charismatic, well-adjusted and legendary wrestler. All three are impressive and they admirably carry the story and the film on their shoulders but they somewhat fail to engage the viewer. The story of how DuPont created and sponsored the Foxcatcher wrestling team to prepare for the 1988 Olympic games feels like the tantrum of a petty child: bullied in school because he wasn’t good at any sport? Probably. Needing to prove to his overbearing mother that he can be a wrestler? Certainly. The film has an ominous, slow pace that goes well with the unravelling of DuPont’s psyche and, after the first half, the viewer has the feeling that something will go terribly awry. However it is not enough to achieve (cinematic) greatness, isn’t that ironic! Chilly —6.5/10
Martin Ritt takes us back to 1876 and the harsh life of Irish immigrants in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. He focuses on the social drama of the early struggles between workers and company owners and, in particular, on the rather violent methods adopted by both sides. Written and co-produced by Walter Bernstein, this film is based on a novel by Arthur H. Lewis. We follow the actions of Jack Kehoe (Connery) and James McParland (Harris): the former a hardened worker and leader of the titular secret society, the latter an undercover detective of the Pinkerton agency, employed by the local police to infiltrate and unmask the Mollies. In a stunning opening scene of almost fifteen minutes, without any dialogue, we are made acquainted with the grueling work of the miners and the trenchant approach of the Mollies to battling exploitation. I must add that the score by Henry Mancini is not only very effective in the opening scene but a nice complement to the whole film. We meet then James McKenna (McParland’s undercover identity), new in town and looking for a job in the mine, of course his first stop is at the pub for a pint and a brawl (there will be more of both down the line), the Irish way to present oneself as a potential friend? Well, it works… sort of… slowly but surely James gets closer to Jack and in the inner circle of the Mollies. At times, the viewer might doubt where his loyalty really lies (kudos to Harris for playing very well the ambiguity) since James and Jack are both working class immigrants from Ireland with essentially the same aspiration: advancement in this new society. In the end, however, the law will prevail but it is a sour victory, James is left with the weight of his betrayal, although he tries his best to shake it off and justify it as a mean to an end. It was promoted more as a Connery’s film since he was fresh from his stint as 007 but, to me, this is a Harris’ film, he has the lion share of the story and the acting chops to carry it. The supporting cast is solid and Ritt has some inspired directing choices. To add more Irish flavour to the tale there aren’t only pints and bar brawls but a heated rugby match and a few traditional songs in the score (played with period instruments), so it makes for a perfect St. Patrick’s day film if you are not looking for light entertainment. Satisfying —7.5/10
This is my contribution to The Luck of the Irish Blog o’thon hosted by Diana & Connie at Silver Scenes, you can read all the other entries here:
Tarkovsky’s first feature film is a rather bleak account of the final year of World War II on the Russian front. The main point of view is not a soldier but a 12-year-old boy, Ivan (Burlyaev), whose life has been ravaged by the German invasion. We find Ivan working as a military scout, infiltrating behind enemy lines and then reporting back information on Nazi positions and movements. He is collected by a sentry after a long swim across a river and delivered to young Lieutenant Galtsev (Zharikov), who, at first, doesn’t believe him to be a scout, being just a boy. Galtsev discovers that Ivan has been taken under the wing by Captain Kholin (Zubkov), his subaltern Katasonov (Krylov) and also his superior Lt. Colonel Gryaznov (Grinko), all of whom would love nothing more than to send him away to safety to a military school. Unfortunately Ivan is hell-bent on revenge against the Nazis and wants only to be part of the war effort, either with the army or with the partisans. Kholin and Gryaznov can only accept his stubbornness and plan the next recon mission, across the same river, in preparation for the Russian offensive. Ivan is carried on a dinghy by Kholin and Galtsev, with the favor of the night and some luck, and then left on the German shore to proceed on his own. It will be the last time Kholin and Galtsey will see him. The film then moves on to the end of the war and the epilogue of the story, seen through Galtsev’s eyes. Tarkosky’s inspired shots and Vadim Yudov’s cinematography perfectly depict the grimness of the life on the front, juxtaposing it with peaceful and beautiful scenery (I’ve never seen a birch wood so enchanting!). The contrast between Ivan’s dreams and his present life is also rendered very well, and I appreciated water as recurring element in both, maybe symbol of connection and, at the same time, separation. Although not for light entertainment, this film is captivating and original, I would say that, along with Battleground, it is the most candid representation of events during World War II, without any glamour or over the top heroics. Unrelenting and gripping —8/10
This post is my contribution to the Russia in classic films blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently. You can read all the other entries here:
An old man (Guerra) tells the story of his childhood in idyllic Sbornia, small peninsula separated from the rest of the world by a huge wall. He reminisces about the simple way of life with its quirks and peculiarities of his birthplace, about his father Kraunos (Gomez) and his good friend Pletskaya (Nicolaiewsky), both appreciated musicians that enlivened the evenings of the town. Besides the love for music and merriment, Sbornians have a penchant for drinking bizuwin, a beverage made with a local, slightly psychotropic plant, and axe ball, a rather unusual sport halfway between rugby and hand-pelota. The bucolic life of Sbornia is disrupted on a fateful day when the wall collapses due to an accident and the modern customs and different social mores of the outside world are brought to Sbornia. Pletskaya and Kraunos observe the reactions of their countrymen and showcase the different attitudes: while some quickly adopt foreign culture as Pletskaya, others prefer to reaffirm the Sbornian traditions and resist imperialism much like Kraunos. The latter witnesses, with increasing dismay, the dramatic changes without being able to prevent the inevitable doom. To complicate matters, Pletskaya falls in love with Coqueliquot, daughter of the magnate that is industrialising Sbornia to produce a soda flavoured with bizuwin. The film is based on the play “Tangos & Tragédias” and it is an insightful picture of social and economical changes in a small community with plenty of humour and amazing music. The authors of the play, Nico Nicolaiewsky and Hique Gomez, have also wrote and composed most of this movie’s great songs and happens to be the voices of the main characters. The animation and the drawing style are distinctive and appealing, the story has a good pace and it’s very entertaining. Lively —8/10
Doctor Cukrowicz (Clift) is a young and capable neurosurgeon, recently arrived at the Lions View Hospital in New Orleans from Chicago. He is developing an experimental treatment for mental illnesses: lobotomy, considered a rather cutting-edge (pun intended) and effective approach in 1937. Having read about him in the newspaper, Mrs Violet Venable (Hepburn), a wealthy and well known widow, summons the good doctor to her house and presses him into using his surgeon’s skills on her disturbed niece, Cathy (Taylor), who is currently residing at a private facility for the mentally ill. The board is set for this family drama to unfold, the viewer will slowly discover more details about Violet and Cathy along with the Doc and, naturally, there is a deep, dark secret that will be uncovered at the end. In this character-driven film, deftly directed by Mankiewicz, women have the lion’s share: Hepburn and Taylor are both brilliant and give spellbinding interpretations. Violet makes a very striking entrance, coming down in an open elevator, all wrapped in white and talking fondly about her son Sebastian, the poet. The audience learns about gifted, charming Sebastian who died, suddenly, the previous summer in Spain, while travelling with his cousin Cathy. The latter came back rather “unhinged” and with an amnesia about what exactly happened to Sebastian. She is committed to a facility and basically held there because of her unseemly tales about Sebastian, which Violet finds disquieting. We also detect a simmering anger and jealousy in Violet, since she had an unsound, possessive, co-dependent relationship with her son and she resents and holds Cathy responsible for what occurred. The doctor is caught up between these two strong women and seems a bit lost at times, mostly due to Clift’s portrayal, very subdued and lacking the necessary clout and charisma. The story is moved forward through what it would be considered today an excess of dialogue, which is understandable being an adaptation of a play by Williams, but I think it works very well and it helps in shaping all-round characters. The only complaint about the film could be about not using enough the visual medium as a way to tell the story, although Mankiewicz made some interesting choices for the final monologue that I found very effective. Riveting —7.5/10
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This post is part of the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by Margaret Perry, read all the other interesting contributions here:
This beautifully shot drama made in 1963 is a perfect example of kitchen sink realism i.e. the British New Wave. Set in Yorkshire, it tells the story of Frank Machin (Harris), a bitter young man who works in a coal mine but dreams of better things. Anderson uses a flashback-narrative for the first half of the film, with a bold cutting style, mixing Frank’s past and present in an effective and haunting way. The viewer learns how he succeeds at a try-out for the Wakefield rugby team, making quite an impression with his ruthless and aggressive style of playing, so much that the owner, Gerald Weaver (Bendel) signs him up in the top team as loose forward. It is also clear that, unlike his sporting life, Frank’s personal life is not so great, he is clearly in love with his recently widowed landlady, Mrs. Margaret Hammond (Roberts), but she treats him rather coldly and doesn’t think much of him. This attitude is an additional spur that pushes Frank to improve his social status and to obtain the things he wants. Unfortunately for him, life is far more complicated than rugby, although the director appears to suggest a parallel between mining and playing: both are harsh, dirty and consuming. While things seem improving with Margaret, Frank starts to have problems with the team’s management, in particular Mr. Weaver, they do not appreciate his cocky attitude and his recklessness on the field. This happens, purely coincidentally (yeah sure!), right after Frank refuses Mrs. Weaver’s (Godsell) advances, who is not only a predatory woman but also a vindictive one. Naturally nothing will end well, Frank will be left only with his sporting life (which, of course, won’t last very long), vulnerable to the ravages of time and injury. Harris portraits Frank with the right mix of angst, vulnerability, smugness and violence, he gives us a touching and convincing performance that really makes the film. All the scenes between Frank and Margaret are tense, charged with what is not said or done, making this story of amour fou real and believable, the terrible fate of wanting something unattainable. Impressive and gut-wrenching —8/10
Every film by Jim Jarmusch feels like discovering a hidden treasure. The indie auteur par excellence gives us a story about love, darkness and the beauty of simple things, an extremely unusual take on a current mainstream theme: vampires. I know what you are thinking: “Vampires, seriously! Haven’t we seen and endured enough!?!”; well this is Jarmusch, give him a chance, you won’t be disappointed. The viewer is introduced to the titular lovers with a few masterful scenes. Adam (Hiddlestone) is a reclusive, underground musician with a penchant for science and technology who settled in Detroit (do I see a subtle homage/reference to Terry Gilliam in Adam’s tech contraptions? Maybe, maybe not). Eve (Swinton) is a book-lover (I used to pack like her before the advent of e-readers) and an aesthete, who resides in Tangier. They are both centuries-old vampires but they have found a non-violent way to feed, with the help of compliant doctors, not so much for moral qualms but to avoid hassles and prevent disruptions of their quite life. The audience makes also the acquaintance of Ian (Adam’s agent/helper), friendly, solicitous and human, and Kit Marlowe, vampire, writer and old friend of Eve. Adam and Eve (always appreciate Jarmusch’s irony) have been together for a very long time and when Eve realises that Adam is depressed (again) about the state of the world, she rushes at his side. We see them spending time together, in contented simplicity, talking about their past and present and sharing their interests. It is a rather alluring description of long-lasting love and friendship, that will go on with its perfect harmony, as in “my vegetable love should grow, vaster than empires, and more slow” (Andrew Marvell). Their domestic bliss is however shattered by the arrival of impulsive and reckless Ava, Eve’s sister. A poor judgement call on Ava’s part forces Adam and Eve to flee Detroit and go back to Tangier, where more woes await them. It is a haunting film, it feels like that place between sleep and awake. The captivating shots of a deserted Detroit and teeming Tangier tell a whole story by themselves, juxtapose as metaphors for Adam and Eve’s state of mind. The magnetic performances of Hiddlestone and Swinton (eerier than ever) and a mesmerising soundtrack complete the movie and make it a little gem. Beguiling —8/10
Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is a “booze, sex, drugs and rodeo” kind of guy, he is full of swagger and not really what you would call a nice person. One day he ends up in a hospital, after collapsing, and the doctors (O’Hare and Garner) inform him that he has AIDS and only 30 days left to live. It is 1986 and that type of diagnose doesn’t imply only a fatal prognosis but also social stigma. Ron’s co-workers and friends ostracize him and he’s forced to leave his job and his house. We follow his struggle for survival by any means, legal or illegal (mostly the latter though) and his desperate attempts at finding an effective treatment among the different experimental medicines. Along the way Ron will meet a lot of people: most of them struggling with his very same problem (survive an incurable disease), some who genuinely want to help and others who are from blatantly callous to just be blind cogs of the establishment-machine (health system and FDA). The most important and life changing meeting for Ron happens early on at the hospital with Rayon (Leto, a well deserved oscar!), a transgender who has AIDS as well. The duo starts the titular club recruiting members among AIDS patients, who pay a monthly fee to get medicines that Ron imports illegally (being not FDA approved). We witness Ron’s struggle between his more greedy nature and a growing, genuine sentiment of empathy and kindness, mostly due to the positive influence of Rayon. The film is well-written and has a good pace although the whole storyline with Garner’s character is a little cliched and juxtapose to give a caring face to the health system, opposite to O’Hare’s doctor who is unsympathetic and slave to the system. The best for me wasn’t the much celebrated transformation and acting of McConaughey but Leto’s Rayon. His character was apparently meant to bring some lightness and comic relief moments in a dramatic story however, with his subtle acting, Leto gives the most heart-wrenching interpretation of the film and delivers the most powerful scenes. Captivating —8/10
The film starts with Lulu (Karin Viard) preparing herself and then being interviewed for a job, at first glance we see that she is neither a very self-confident nor an assertive person. After failing miserably at the interview, she misses the last train home, you know one of those days…anyone can relate. So Lulu informs her family of the mishap, leaving instructions to her eldest daughter and then checks in at a local hotel, clearly planning to catch the first train in the morning. Up to this point everything is pretty normal but, of course, the next day Lulu doesn’t get on that train, she just decides to stay. In her escape from responsibilities (her sister keeps asking her to go back to her children and husband) she meets Charles and his peculiar brothers. She rediscovers what means to be valued and treated with kindness and when reality comes calling she runs again. This second time is an old, lonely lady (Claude Gensac) that incarnates kindness and a sort of redemption. We watch Lulu thrives and regains confidence, so much that she will finally turn a new leaf once back home. It is a touching. simple story with a quirky protagonist that make for a pleasant hour and half. The film might feel a bit slow but you never know what to expect next so it keeps you engaged. Viard portraits Lulu very well and makes her an all-rounded character and I really like Gensac’s performance. The movie is based on a graphic novel and it seems that the French cinema is experiencing a “nouvelle vague” of sort: getting inspiration from comic books (e.g. La Vie D’Adele), only they are not Marvel or DC comics but something different and new for a change. Refreshing —7/10
Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), former journalist and “spin-doctor” for the Labour government, doesn’t know what to do with himself after he got the sack. While in this limbo, he stumbles on a good subject for a “human interest” story: Philomena Lee (Dench). Her tale of woes begins in Ireland in the early fifties when she became pregnant. Being a teenager she was shamed and abandoned by her family and forced to live in a convent, you know the go-to-a-nunnery type of thing. She lived there with her son, in rather appalling conditions, for a few years until one faithful day her son is given away to a well-to-do family by the nuns. Philomena keeps the secret for fifty years but, after telling her daughter, she sets out to find her lost son with Martin’s help. The film follows this odd couple of characters in a quest for truth that is also a journey of self-discovery for both. Judi Dench gives an extraordinary portrayal of Philomena: subdue and subtle, never forced or exaggerated; which is the real strong point of the movie and what makes it involving. I guess it is never easy to make a quality film which is based on a book based on a true story… this one feels a bit re-hashed and more focused on the journalist and his achievement, telling a riveting tale and doing something good in the bargain, than on the actual, far more interesting, story of Philomena. Somewhat disappointing, watch Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters instead! —6.5/10
This is a story about friendship between two boys, Arbor and Shifty, from the margins of the working class of the Midlands. Arbor is outgoing and full of energy but he’s also prone to violent outbursts for which he takes medications. He lives with his mom and his junkie older brother. Shifty is more subdue and reserved, he’s kind, soft-hearted and tries to be responsible. He is the eldest of a large brood and his parents can barely scrap a living. Arbor and Shifty are always out and about, both to amuse themselves and to get a penny. After being kicked out of school for fighting, they enter the shady world of metal scrappers and its borderline or outright illegal activities. They befriend Kitten, the owner of the local scrap yard, and rent his cart and horse to wander around town and collect metal. As they earn some money, they see how they could earn more and Arbor gets bolder and reckless in his capers to obtain quality copper. Shifty acts like the voice of reason and he’s more concerned about the well-being of people and horses. The two boys have a fall out and they reconcile only for tragedy to strike. This is a heartfelt and engaging film made by a skilled and keen observer of mankind. The two young actors are just brilliant and the absence of a music score makes each scene more relatable and powerful. Clio Barnard is a director to watch, her style reminds me of Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) and Cate Shortland (Somersault). Compelling —8/10
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