Film Review Round-Up: Oct/Nov Releases

The autumnal season is, historically, a joyous time for film-goers, anteceding awards season as it does and thus bringing with it a crop of critically-acclaimed cinema. And the last fortnight has been particularly fruitful in dishing up some of this year’s most highly anticipated movies.

So here is a round-up of thoughts on what I’ve seen recently.

N.B (Call Me By Your Name is reviewed in full here and has undoubtedly secured a place in my 2017 Top 10).

The Death of Stalin (released Oct 20)

Armando Iannucci, the creative genius behind The Thick Of It, In The Loop, and Veep turns his attention to Moscow in 1953. Stalin has died and his cabinet of excruciatingly incompetent cronies are climbing over themselves to take his proverbial crown. The stellar ensemble of said cronies includes Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin, and they clearly relish the chance to put on this absurdist pantomime, with gags and awkward moments aplenty. However it’s Jason Isaacs as the army general, Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son and Paddy Considine as a concert-hall attendant who steal the show, and sadly the laughs dry up whenever they’re off-screen.

Breathe (released Oct 27)

A touching tribute to Robin and Diana Cavendish, a British couple who when faced with Robin’s polio diagnosis, decide to liberate themselves from the condition’s constraints. Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy are good, but never surprising, as the loved-up duo inspired to tackle any obstacle that comes their way. Andy Serkis’ direction is expeditious and proficient, if a little paint-by-numbers. And strangely, despite the heart-wrenching goodbyes, soaring music and hues of golden-brown that colour the titles and the Kenyan landscape where the Cavendish’ spent their early years, I was left feeling a little cold.

Take your mother, she will love it.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (released Nov 3)

Yorgos Lanthimos continues to hold the mantle as the most devilishly absurd filmmaker working today. Expectations were high after the critical success of 2015’s The Lobster and here he returns with humour even bleaker and blacker, and satire even more biting. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman (a duo I didn’t know I needed until Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled) are husband and wife, forced to make an incomparable decision when a strange boy (Barry Keoghan) exacts his revenge. This is perverse and unnerving cinema (the score, particularly, had the latter effect) and will likely rub a lot of people the wrong way. Still, Lanthimos has an impeccable ability to create bizarre, yet somehow believable worlds in which the stakes are never higher and however grotesque, you are gripped. The script, as with The Lobster, is acerbic and unerring, with lines that include “My daughter started menstruating last week” serving as cocktail party chatter, and the performances incredibly fine-tuned. I doubt it will have the same success as The Lobster, if just for it being less accessible, but it should never be said that Lanthimos doesn’t push the boundaries of cinema.

P.s. Don’t take your mother, she will hate it.

Thelma (released Nov 3)

Joachim Trier, whose name you might know after 2015’s Louder Than Bombs (starring Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert and Jesse Eisenberg), is clearly a connoisseur of cerebral and muted cinema. Thelma sees his return to the Norwegian-language of his origins, and with it comes a more assured sense of place and mood. He breeds and builds a rattling disquiet, as a young woman with supernatural powers begins her first term at university, desperate to fit in, but prohibitively unique. Yet despite all the sinister symbols – snakes, shattered glass, perilous swimming pools – Thelma never manages to make a splash. It’s classy and intriguing cinema, with some tender moments between its two female leads, who embark on a tentative relationship, but I’d really love to see Trier go for it with his next directorial endeavour.

Murder On The Orient Express (released Nov 3)

A lavish reprise of Agatha Christie’s vengeful tale, which sadly, chugs along at a glacial pace and fails to ignite. More of an exercise in exposition than thrilling storytelling, and considering the main draw is its glittering cast, it’s a shame that they’re given little to do but glance around the train suspiciously and spew their backstories when convenient. Still, if you’re looking for grandeur and glamour in your undemanding entertainment, then climb aboard.

The Florida Project (released Nov 10)

Sean Baker, director of ‘the iPhone movie’ Tangerine, returns with a kaleidoscopic, kitschy and blistering tale of fantasy and poverty. 6-year-old Moonee and her barely-functional, if tenacious mother Halley live on society’s fringes, specifically in a colourful motel just outside of Florida’s Disney World, and are barely managing to get by.  In spite of their tough economic circumstances, the film never loses its vibrancy, nor is Moonee’s imagination ever blighted by these realities, and aside from the strikingly, garish set-design and cinematography, this is down to Brooklynn Prince’s rascal of a performance. Moonee and her merry band of mischief-makers are a joy to watch as they amble about the grounds of the motel, cursing, dropping water bombs on tourists, scamming money for ice-cream and generally causing mild mayhem for the motel’s manager (a compassionate Willem Dafoe). As Halley continues down a path of deviance, disenchantment threatens to prevail. But Baker, having explored this world through Moonee’s eyes, allows her innocence to survive for that bit longer.

It’s a world you don’t want to miss.

Ingrid Goes West (released Nov 17)

It’s particularly apt for a film about an Instagram-obsessive (Aubrey Plaza) who moves to Los Angeles to stalk/befriend a social media influencer (Elizabeth Olsen), to be so surface. Writer-director Matt Spicer doesn’t say anything particularly new about the loneliness and hollowness of a life lived online, and the ending feels more neat than authentic. It’s equal parts savage, sad and insightful, if ultimately forgettable. #basic

Coming Soon: Nov 17 – Good Time, Mudbound, Nov 24 – Battle of the Sexes, Beach Rats

Review: The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, is a sensual and occasionally moving film, but one that altogether lacks gumption or dynamism.

Telling the story of Lili Elbe, an artist who became one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, Hooper employs a sedate and sumptuous approach that may have suited his Oscar-winning biopic The King’s Speech, but feels somewhat inappropriate here.

We first meet Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) as the picture of marital bliss. Flirtatious, loving and both artistically-inclined, theirs is a relationship of complete affinity, so much so that Gerda describes her first kiss with Einar as though it was like ‘kissing myself’.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

The couple are bohemian royalty, with Einar enjoying relative fame and success as a landscape painter and Gerda – though slighted by her own lack of recognition as a portraitist – content to frolic at society parties and lavish amid the dreamy surroundings of Copenhagen circa 1926.

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However that happiness is no sooner established than quickly punctured by Einar’s apparent fetish for femininity and all that comes with it. Asked to sit in for their ballet dancer friend (a playful Amber Heard), whom Gerda is painting, Einar – feigning reluctance, though visibly animated – dons stockings, shoes and a dress and adopts an elegant pose. The picture is all too funny for Gerda, but for Einar it stirs a feeling of deep-seated dissatisfaction with his masculine identity. Touching the silk fabrics, there are already glimmers that he might feel more complete, more himself, were he to embrace a different persona altogether.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

Gerda, still caught up in the heady hilarity of her husband’s pantomime, encourages Einar to attend a party with her dressed as a woman. Together they conjure up Lili, a bashful cousin of Einar’s, whom bears a striking resemblance to him. As Lili gradually begins to manifest full time, the film become more parodic.

Redmayne does a marvellous job of conveying Einar’s inner turmoil, and certainly as he gazes at himself in the mirror, distorting his own body to adopt a womanly form, one can’t fail to be convinced of the transformative talents of the very actor that became Stephen Hawking for last year’s The Theory Of Everything. But here the very casting a cisgender man lends falseness to the entire film, for Redmayne cannot very well become a woman. Despite his earnest attempts at delicacy and elegance, he is ultimately playing dress-up and his performance often consists more of certain poses, movements or facial expressions than it does of an underlying sense of womanhood. Redmayne captures the subtleties of body language, but all too often it feels affected and superficial.

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As Einar begins to consider the possibility of becoming Lili full-time, and consulting doctors that could grant his wish, Gerda’s career begins to soar. Her portraits of Lili find an audience in Paris and as she becomes increasingly visible to society, her husband slowly disappears.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film. Where Redmayne is all poise and grace, hers is a performance that feels spontaneous and raw, every emotion possible flickering across her face as Gerda grapples with Einar’s new identity. The scene where Gerda begs Lili to give her her husband back is perhaps the most gut wrenching.

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It’s hard to fault the filmmaking. Hooper is a director obsessed with perfection and wherever you look there is more exquisite scenery and furniture and fabric to absorb. The protagonist’s lives might be falling apart, but dammit their sofas can be flawlessly upholstered. It’s this tendency to prettify that becomes the film’s and ironically, Lili’s, undoing.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film.

The precise, calculated style feels too measured and not messy enough for the subject matter at hand. The painterly aesthetic might reflect its protagonist’s craft, however it doesn’t do justice to the challenge and trauma of Lili’s transition. Even when threat looms in the form of prejudiced assailants or dangerously conventional doctors, it feels tentative and performative rather than real and frightening.

Hooper and co-wreddie-redmayne-alicia-vikander-the-danish-girl.jpgiter Lucinda Coxon have not only neatened Lili’s story and presumably made it more palatable for mainstream cinema-going audiences (and no doubt Oscar voters), but rather worse cut it short. Lili died at the age of 49 from a fatal womb transplant after enduring a series of operations, and therefore it seems unlikely she had a moment of epiphanic self-acceptance before conceding to death in Gerda’s arms, shortly followed by an overwhelmingly saccharine scene – that practically yells SYMBOLISM – where Lili’s scarf drifts across the Danish landscapes she hitherto committed to canvas.

Indeed Gerda’s own life took a sour turn. She did not get swept off her feet by the dashing Matthias Schoenaarts (as Hooper would have you believe), but married an Italian officer who drained her of all her financial resources. (Read more about the true story here).

The Danish Girl, for all its good intentions, is a contrived vanity project that sadly diminishes the struggle of Lili’s transformation. I walked away from the cinema thinking it was all very lovely, which I fear, was hardly the point.

Review: The Imitation Game

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The Imitation Game, UK, 2014. DIR. Morten Tyldum. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Mark Strong,

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Alan Turing. Until 2013, when the Queen granted this wartime cryptanalyst and mathematician a royal pardon, he had all but been omitted from the history books.

imitation-game-2014-001-group-around-benedict-cumberbatch-on-enigma-machineThis biopic seeks to correct that. Partitioned into three segments: his time at Sherbourne School in Dorset, during which he was builled; his ground-breaking and astounding contributions to deciphering the German Enigma code during WW2 and his tragic conviction of ‘ gross indecency’ that led to chemical castration and ultimately, suicide, in 1954. Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a belated and beloved recognition of the man that history forgot.

Demanding our attention from the get-go, Tyldum combines enthralling thriller with tasteful period drama in equal measure. Naval bombings collide with cucumber sandwiches, Nazi superiority with walks in the stunning British countryside and Soviet spies with pints in the pub. It makes for a biopic that is surprisingly amusing, and frequently heart-pounding.

imageIt’s testament to screenwriter Graham Moore and Tyldum’s slick, pacy direction that that a set-up where we ultimately know the outcome, can feel so tense and emotionally heightened. As Turing battles authorities and naysayers to build his painstakingly crafted enigma-deciphering machine Christopher, I could feel my fists clenching in the hope the cogs would eventually stop to signify a cracked code.

Alongside all the calculations, computers and cryptography, this is a film dealing very much with relationships and humanity. Alex Lawther plays young Alan Turing with incredible pathos, as a boy struggling to connect with his classmates. Whilst Turing’s later interactions with his Bletchley Park colleagues provide some much needed humour amid WW2 woes.

Despite all these ingredients spelling out masterpiece, I can’t help but feel we’re two letters short of the truth. The Imitation Game skates around the periphery of the sensitive subject matter and dives headfirst into safe, saccharine territory. There are clichés in abundance and each moment of dramatic intensity is orchestrated to the point of contrivance. The moment during which a relative of one of the code-breakers is on a naval ship about to be bombed, you find Tyldum and co. hammering home this conflict just a tad too indelicately.

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation GameThe Imitation Game is as calculating and tightly-woven as the Turing machine itself – almost to the point of robotic predictability. Economical in it’s dispatch of narrative strands and executed with the extraordinary precision seen in Tyldum’s first film, the slick Norwegian thriller ‘Headhunters’, my only wish is that the film had coloured outside of the lines just once.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t deliver when it comes to emotional climaxes or generating sympathy for this hitherto historically neglected figure, but rather it never trusts the audience to glean its emotional complexity without first spelling it out. Almost like a teacher consistently reminding you to ‘show us how you got there’ when doing Maths problems.

Screenwriter Graham Moore, believes firmly in the rule of three and forgoes nuance for a rather cumbersome repetition of the film’s central tenet: “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Indeed, it goes through various stages of transformation and takes on different meanings, but the underlying feeling is that Moore prefers clarity as cut-glass as the British accents that feature than any possibility of ambiguity or interpretation.

Some films that err on the side of caution, as arguably this biopic does, are elevated by central performances of overwhelming conviction and magnetism. Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln is one such example. Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing is another.

To say Cumberbatch completely immerses himself in this role seems flippant. Turing’s clipped vowels, curt mannerisms and anti-social behaviours are mastered with beguiling ease. And as the stakes are raised, his intellectual capabilities, vulnerabilities and the tragic, climactic result of gross mistreatment are conveyed with the assured and poignant dexterity of a man at the height of his game. The point at which Turing tries to push poor Joan Clarke away reveals the many layers to Cumberbatch’s performance, one for which he fully deserves that much hyped Oscar nomination.

183367Keira Knightley too, elevates the film and seems at her most comfortable when playing distressed individuals in period dramas. And the character of Joan Clarke provides ample opportunity for her to demonstrate the compassion, subtlety and wit of which she is capable. Knightley’s Clarke exudes warmth, vivacity and the frustration of a woman frequently underestimated.

There is steadfast support from the likes of Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong and Allen Leech, as various cogs in the code-breaking machine. Though their characters are all relatively one-note caricatures, they are no-less charming for it.

The look and sound of the film are exquisitely composed. The soundtrack is delivered courtesy of the genius that is Alexandre Desplat, of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ fame. He underscores the intensity and urgency of certain situations with great style, and the rhythmic, pulsating feel of the score seems to resemble the high-wired, methodical nature of Turing’s mind. It’s far more constant and elegant than his quirky work on Wes Anderson’s latest, but in that regard it suits the film perfectly.

Meanwhile, the cinematography effervescently captures crisp, autumnal British weather and the soft-focus lighting makes it ideal for Sunday afternoon viewing. Oscar Faura has given us something utterly sumptuous and pristine to look at, and Bletchley Park has perhaps never looked so alive.

imitation-game-2Grumblings about brushing Turing’s homosexuality under the carpet have been voiced. Indeed, whilst open to his colleagues and to Joan about his sexuality, we never see him act upon or necessarily confront these desires. Instead they are given credence – and innocence – during a flashback to Turing’s childhood when a close friendship develops into something potentially more. And then sidelined somewhat to focus on the blossoming intellectual companionship between Turing and Clarke. Once again, heterosexuality is championed as being the safer, and more lucrative option.

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And yet for all this potential criticism, Tyldum has delivered a thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly British and thoroughly engrossing depiction of the events at Bletchley Park that altered history. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t leave the cinema wiping away stray tears. But for a man as unique, eccentric and brilliant as Alan Turing, it all feels rather, well, tame

Verdict: A paint-by-numbers biopic, comparable to ‘a beginners guide’ to Alan Turing. Nevertheless, this is a memorable and poignant cinematic experience, featuring a career best turn from Benedict.

Review: The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman
The Invisible Woman, 2013. DIR. Ralph Fiennes. Starring: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan

Despite being Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial effort, with himself starring as acclaimed novelist, philanthropist and public figure Charles Dickens, this is the story of how Nelly Ternan became his lover, and this is Felicity Jones’ film.

It is she that the film opens and closes with, as we find Nelly operating under a different name, working as a teacher and telling her husband Dickens was a childhood acquaintance. It is her anguish, isolation and desire that the Abi Morgan penned (based on Claire Tomalin’s novel) biopic explores and through her position as Dickens’ lover, muse and confidante that we discover the women that lived in the shadow of a national treasure.

From the moment we observe Nelly’s all-black ensemble, slightly aged face and brisk walking pace across a vast and empty beach, there is a sense of her being haunted by the past. Thus, when the film takes us back to Dickens’ and Nelly’s first meeting, there interaction thereafter is tainted with the torment and tragedy that is to follow.

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Felicity Jones turns in a mesmerising, heart-wrenching performance as the beguiling ingénue, who captivates the self-absorbed Dickens with her clarity and sensitivity. Her subtlety and sadness match the tone of the film perfectly, both saying more in glances stolen, and secrets untold.

The scenes between Nelly and Charles are refreshingly non-sexual, and focus on their intellectual compatibility rather than their bedroom antics. Indeed, one particular scene that sees Nelly torn between her love for Charles and her social reputation shows incredible restraint in not allowing the protagonists to kiss. The longing gazes and yearning caresses are tantalisingly painful to watch; the characters almost afraid to cross a line from which there is no turning back.

After flamboyant, vivid turns in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Coriolanus, Fiennes demonstrates his versatility as both a director, and actor, who has accomplished restraint and delicacy in his treatment of this romantic partnership. His Charles’ is vexing, cruel, and narcissistic; a man who boards up half of his house to physically separate himself from his long-suffering wife Catherine, who admits he loves his audience more than his family. And yet, his passion, joie de vivre, and seemingly genuine interest in the welfare of the underclass, allows us to understand Nelly’s attraction to him. the-invisible-woman-2013-img01

Their relationship is at once paternalistic (a facet perhaps aided by the fact Fiennes and Jones played father and daughter in 2010’s Cemetery Junction) and tender. Conversations had by candlelight and secluded country walks cement a romanticism, rather than perversity to their pairing – she was 18, and he 45 when they met. And both actors bring these real people back to life with assurance, charm and poignancy.

Fantastic support is found in the performances of Kristin Scott-Thomas, as Nelly’s reluctantly complicit mother; Tom Hollander, as Dickens’ friend and colleague – himself living with a mistress and finally, and the astounding Joanna Scanlan as Dicken’s rejected wife. Her finest moment comes when she is forced to confront Nelly upon Charles’ order to deliver a present to her. Ouch, indeed.

The pacing of the film is almost irritatingly languid, with Fiennes choosing to focus a great deal more on their introduction and gradual getting to know one another, rather than their actual relationship – which is in fact boiled down to the denouement.

Nevertheless, the film manages to wonderfully capture the Victorian era, replete with 4am revelry, the poverty of the working class and the restrictions and shame that women were subjected to. And as with many period dramas that detail the difficult of a forbidden affair, potency is found in the moments and words left unsaid. Fiennes’ acknowledges this to devastating effect.

Verdict: Assured and sensitive, there are echoes of ‘Bright Star’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ as Fiennes’ painstakingly unravels the makings of a forgotten muse. With a keen grasp of the novelist’s talent and influence, as well as the era, The Invisible Woman makes for an aesthetically pleasing and engaging, if not entirely pleasurable cinematic experience.