LFF 2019 | Clemency

If not a call to arms, then Clemency, from director Chinonye Chukwu (the first black woman to receive Sundance’s Grand Jury prize), is a call to attention.

Exacting and spartan, this death row drama begins as prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) oversees her 11th execution, and ends as she leaves her 12th. What happens in between is the slow unfurling of a tightly coiled woman.

Image result for clemency filmRarely veering from Bernadine’s perspective, it’s as narrow in its focus as the prison corridors it stalks (shot with ingenuity and precision by cinematographer Eric Branco). And this sometimes wears thin. Bernadine is stoic to a fault, unerring in her formality (note how she uses the same refrain to both a death row inmate and his mother as a source of comfort: “We’ll let you know when it’s time.”) and she’s a hard protagonist to penetrate or empathise with, even when the internal crisis between doing her job and doing what’s right begins to bubble over.

Clemency is relentless in its sobriety. Bernadine’s crisp white suits and beige cardigans further reflective of a world without colour, or hope. Both inmates and civilians alike (including her high school teacher husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, and public defender Marty) seem jaded and dormant. The 12th inmate – Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) – gives a particularly poignant performance as a man whose light has been extinguished long before the state declares it.

Conversations have a tendency to feel a bit rote and lifeless – although a scene with Danielle Brooks (on the other side of the glass) is electrifying for both its writing and performance – and contrivance occasionally rears its head.

Yet Clemency rewards viewers who take note of detail – flinches in movement, the slightest grimace, the jolt of waking up from a bad dream – and Chukwu’s calculations pay off in two potent outbursts. The first, a desperate, self-inflicted, and flinch-inducing act of violence. The second, an emotional reprieve and a jolt from a living nightmare that serves as a welcome gasp of air in a film that keeps you underwater and under its spell for much of the running time.

 

Favourite films of 2018

It’s a testament to the power of cinema – not just the artform, but the actual theatrical experience (the physicality of holding a ticket, the anticipation as you wait to enter the cinema, the settling into your seat, the curtains opening, the darkness, the silence, the immersion) – that 10 of the 11 films I consider my favourites released this year, were seen in that setting.

This is largely due to a position of privilege I have lucked into. In working for the BFI I have access to perks, one of which is free tickets to its Southbank cinema. The sense of ‘event’ that swelled around these viewings perhaps influenced my succumbing to their powers of poetry and persuasion. Maybe I like them so much because I saw them in the cinema. Then again, many of the much-hyped films I didn’t connect with, I saw on the big-screen. So perhaps whatever resonated with me was merely amplified by the venue. 

Something else that unites these films is the experience of crying through them. I’ve always been more inclined towards ‘serious’ and sombre independent cinema than the funny-bone tickling predilection of mass entertainment. Game Night, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Black Panther were brilliant, but I didn’t ponder on them for much longer than it took for the credits to roll.

Perhaps since I declared Titanic my favourite film of all-time at the age of 12, I have placed an importance on the medium’s ability to move me. To invite my emotional investment, to encourage empathy, to demand tears – that is what good art achieves, according to my rulebook. It’s how I know I’ve fully succumbed to the world on the screen.

It appears I have a preference for darkness over levity, a disposition for difficulty and reality. And so this is how my favourites of 2018 came to be populated by stories about political conflict, the AIDs crisis, parental abuse and abandonment, brain injury, infertility, and manipulation. Which isn’t to say they left me dispirited. Another shared trait is their appreciation of humanity in all its complexities – its ugliness and illnesses, alongside its capacity for heroism, forgiveness and kindness.

So without further adieu, here are the films that gave me all the feels in 2018…

Summer, 1993

DIR. Carla Simón, Spain

I felt a profound sense of kinship with the 6-year-old female protagonist in Carla Simon’s Summer 1993. Not for the grieving process she must endure after the death of her mother, which results in one helluva emotional sucker punch, but for the navigation of a world in which she is no longer the centre. Such is the strange burden of being an only child. After moving in with her aunt, uncle and young cousin, Frida (Laia Artigas) is thrust into a bewildering rural environment and resorts to the toolbox of the very young – grandstanding, tantrums, sulking, sly manipulation, even cruelty – to beckon affection. Simon’s talent as a director, not least of which is coaxing performances of astounding naturalism from her young cast, is balancing the melancholic with the amusing. It basks in its landscape, but never dawdles and every moment of empathy feels hard-earned. Simon rewards our patience with a story that is as textured as it is tender.

Roma

DIR. Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, USA

The personal is the political in Alfonso Cuarón’s epic, monochromatic exploration of Mexico City in the early 70s. A tale of two women amid domestic and civil unrest, there is a level of intimacy on display that feels novelistic; small moments that might have ended up on the cutting room floor in another film are given full focus. It’s painstaking detail brings to mind a line from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Cuarón’s microscopic and memory-infused evocation of this time and era radiates with affection.

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) 

DIR. Robin Campillo, France

A political and medical movement is given its due, and at times dazzling, attention with Robin Campillo’s drama. Following the activities of Act Up Paris in a procedural of-sorts that details the ups and downs of activism, particularly through the eyes of a new member as he falls in love with an HIV-positive one, Campillo imbues his edifying drama with scenes of passion, fury, sex and dance. Even as it deals with the inevitability of death, this is as enlivening a film as I saw this year.

The Favourite

DIR. Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland, UK, USA

Coruscating, saucy, foul-mouthed and uproariously funny. Like Marie Antoinette by way of The Thick of It, made all the merrier for the sublime ménage à trois at its expertly staged centre.

 

Cold War

DIR. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, UK, France

Pawel Pawlikowski returns to the palate and period that garnered him a golden statuette (for 2015’s Ida) with a story loosely-based on his parent’s love affair. Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are the gorgeous pair at the centre (he’s the composer, she’s the star) of a folkloric musical road-show, increasingly suffocated by Communism’s grip. Jazz and jealousy spike a narrative as distilled as a shot of vodka with enough substance to match its elegantly framed style. But what a style it is. I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on anything as exquisite this year.

Leave No Trace

DIR. Debra Granik, USA

Debra Granik, who bequeathed us with Winter’s Bone, and did Hollywood the favour of discovering Jennifer Lawrence, does the world another solid with Leave No Trace. A film which quietly and captivatingly delves into the lives of a father and daughter existing, geographically and economically, on America’s fringes.

Private Life

DIR. Tamara Jenkins, USA

Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are the literary, near middle-aged couple struggling to conceive in what appear to be tailor made roles. Tamara Jenkins is the deft hand at the helm – having already proved herself a master of unflinching honesty and wit with 2007’s The Savages – documenting the trials and tribulations of IVF treatment with grimace-inducing candor. (The films opens with an ass-bound needle). Speaking of injections, theatre-kid Kayli Carter (familiar to some for her role in Netflix’s Godless, also playing a character called Sadie) is effervescent as the step-niece turned potential surrogate, mainlining charisma and chaos into the fraught (but impeccably furnished) lives of her baby-bewitched relations.

There’s a lived-in-ness to the characters, hammered home perhaps somewhat hammily by the home-movie feel of the cinematography. But this is dramedy as it should be – wry, profound and rewarding.

Also fun fact, Chris Ware, the artist behind the mind-bending graphic novel Building Stories, designed the film’s poster.

The Kindergarten Teacher

DIR. Sara Colangelo, USA

Maggie Gyllenhaal continues to prove herself one of the most intriguing, and versatile performers working today with the story of a morally dubious teacher who discovers one of her students possesses great poetic talent, and goes to boundary-pushing lengths in order to nurture it. Provocative, complex and intelligent, The Kindergarten Teacher raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps like any good educator, that is exactly the point.

Shoplifters

DIR. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan

Kore-eda’s keen eye for the fragility, and necessity, of human connection is woven into his most heartbreaking fable yet as a ragtag ‘family’ of bandits are broken apart by the authorities. 

 

The Rider

DIR. Chloé Zhao, USA

An all too real tale of an injured Bronco rider grappling with identity, masculinity and tradition, against the spectacular backdrop of a South Dakota reservation. Chloé Zhao has the same taste for downbeat Americana as Debra Granik, the same ear and eye for authenticity as Kore-eda, but a talent for blending spirituality and majesty that is all her own.

Petra

DIR. Jaime Rosales, Spain, France, Denmark

If The Favourite was the most hyped film I saw this year, this has to be the least. After watching the delightful and sensual South Korean film Little Forest at the London Film Festival, I decided to stay put at Ciné Lumière and check out the next film on the schedule – Petra. I knew next to nothing about, and ended up having one of the most riveting cinematic experiences in recent memory.

The elaborately-structured plot – non-linear vignettes are introduced with a short precis detailing twists and reveals – is matched by towering performances, particularly that of Bárbara Lennie as the titular artist in search of her biological father. Thrilling, labyrinthine and devastating, Petra is name to remember.

Honourable mentions:

Nancy, First Reformed, Mid90s, Skate Kitchen, A Star is Born, Wild Rose, If Beale Street Could Talk, United Skates, Jeune Femme, The Tale, Game Night, Phantom Thread

Things I’m chomping at the bit to see which might have made the list had I…

Zama, Burning, The Old Man & the Gun, Western, Sweet Country, Dogman, Wildlife, Minding the Gap

Things I saw but didn’t care for as much as other people…

Widows, You Were Never Really Here, Peterloo, Shirkers, BlackKklansman, Support the Girls, 

 

 

May Culture Round-Up

TV 

I Love Dick, Series 1, Amazon

Arresting and squirm-inducingly intimate, this is a defiant depiction of obsession and desire, in all its forms – ugly, unrequited, unruly. Based on Chris Krauss’ memoir of the same name, Transparent’s Jil Soloway is arguably the perfect helmer for this provocative source material and in her hands it becomes even more cerebral and transgressive.

The art world might be alienating to some audiences, but Kathryn Hahn’s aptitude for awkward charm and Kevin Bacon’s aloof roguishness are enough to keep you enthralled. (If you need more convincing there is a scene where he is shirtless and carries a sheep.) The soundtrack, cinematography and direction are also astonishingly good, with Andrea Arnold taking the ropes in a few episodes, utilising the raw-nerved, hypersensitivity on which she has made a career to sizzling effect.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Series 1, Hulu

Reed Morano has long been a favoured cinematographer of mine. Since seeing her work in Frozen River, Little Birds & For Ellen I have been enchanted by the visceral, vérité-style of her shots and her gorgeous attention to detail. It was exciting news then to hear she’d be given her biggest platform yet directing and executive producing The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu.

A damning and darkly modernised version of Margaret Atwood’s novel, there’s a spiky wit and stylishness which pulsates throughout. Its self-reflexive, pop-cultural nods are put to particularly good use in the soundtrack department, as seen in the first two episodes when Leslie Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ play towards the end. Its spine, however, never loses its morality or for that matter, its chill. Despite the hubristic sense of humour, The Handmaid’s Tale sadly remains a timely tale of female subjugation and exploitation.

The casting is also cunningly brilliant. Elisabeth Moss might just be the hottest property in television right now, what with Mad Men and Top of the Lake also on her CV, and her Offred is another bastion of strength, smarts and vulnerability. Samira Wiley and Madeleine Brewer, of Orange Is The New Black fame, also appear as fellow handmaids, whilst Alexis Bledel as the mutilated Ofglen will make you forget she ever played Rory Gilmore.

This is tense, imaginative and rousing TV. Poignantly performed and executed with exacting technical precision, it’s hard to watch but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away.

FILM

Berlin Syndrome (DIR. Cate Shortland, 2017)

Teresa Palmer plays a nervous solo traveller in Cate Shortland’s third and most accessible film yet. As a Berlin-based romance turns sour, and as the title alludes to, escalates into a hostage situation, what begins as moody indie fare turns into something weird, intense and cerebral. The muted performances and consistently menacing, irresistibly mounted cinematography breathe life into a somewhat spare plot. However, predictable this is not. Shortland explores the predator/prey dichotomy with a startling empathy, and eschews the cliché of villain/victim to summon something as sensitive as it can be sickening. As in her debut Somersault, and follow-up Lore, Shortland continues to prove herself a brilliantly tactile and evocative director, weaving a texture at once sensuous and suspenseful. It might be minimalist in design, but the effect is resounding, with the last 30 minutes especially thrilling.

In cinemas now.

BOOKS

The Girls – Emma Cline

I finally got around to reading the wunderkind Emma Cline’s literary sensation The Girls. A novel so talked about its pages were practically curling under the weight of expectation. And sadly, I wasn’t wowed.

The narrative concerns 13-year-old Evie Boyd and her fleeting, though formative experience of a Charles Manson-esque cult, where a ragtag group of women worship their mysterious leader Russell. Cline is especially good at evoking the sun-drenched and soporific landscape of 60s California, as well as the bewildered internal landscape of adolescence that tempt Evie into this world. However, as a reader we’re always kept at a frustrating distance. Evie’s perspective is curbed by her half-hearted initiation into the group. She experiences some, but not all of their deviant activities and in firmly sticking with Evie’s viewpoint, Cline rather limits her own ability to delve deeper into the savagery and sadomasochism of the cult.

As The New York Times so succinctly put it:

What results is a historical novel that goes halfway down the rabbit hole and exquisitely reports back. Then it pulls out, eschewing the terrifying, fascinating human murk…Still, it’s a spellbinding story.

 

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

At a lithe 147 pages, Riley’s thoroughly British novel(la) is all the more intriguing when you consider its being shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction and that other such novels to have been nominated include Hanya Yangihara’s behemoth A Little Life and Donna Tartt’s equally weighty The Goldfinch. It says a lot about the particularity and potency of Riley’s writing that she’s considered among them. And not wrongly so. This lovely, if mordantly sad book, concerns Neve and her strained marriage to the ailing Edwyn. In vibrant brushstrokes Riley depicts quite how she ended up there and in doing so, proves herself an absolute fiend for tight, lucid prose. Take the following:

Back in the summer she’d had a birthday M&S voucher she said she wouldn’t use: did I want it? I did. She’d started her turn then as we crossed the floor to Hosiery: surrounded, as we were, by strange statuary. My mother blenched extravagantly at the gussied-up torsos, blinking hard like someone had flashed a torch in her eyes, saying she couldn’t understand why anyone would buy, wear, matching underwear.

For her sheer powers of observation and her ability to locate humour, tenderness and melancholy in the gut-wrenchingly ordinary, Riley must be commended. It’s perhaps a bit on the scant and under-sketched side for my taste, but it’s easy to relate to her exploration of muddied relationships – whether parental, platonic or romantic.

THEATRE

Woyzeck at The Old Vic

I saw this Jack Thorne penned revival of Georg Büchner’s classic on its first night of previews, which means I had the advantage of being completely unswayed by public opinion, but the disadvantage of seeing quite a nervy and fluctuant production. John Boyega takes on the titular role of a hard-up soldier, struggling with past traumas and drug-induced paranoia, though the setting has been relocated to 1980s Cold War Berlin. He’s a charismatic actor and can more than carry himself on stage, and here he delivers a committed, if somewhat gauche performance. Surpassing Boyega in subtlety and charm is his Irish Catholic girlfriend Marie, played by Sarah Greene (Poldark’s former squeeze apparently!), whose got the tough job of being the stable axis around which Boyega erratically rattles. The supporting actors likewise, bring presence to their occasionally stereotypical characters.

Ultimately this is a fierce and robust play about poverty, masculinity and mental-health, and the set design, music and direction all do well to limn the claustrophobic environment and its increasingly malevolent protagonist. However it struggles to reach the levels of gravitas its so desperately striving for.

ART

The American Dream: Pop to Present at The British Museum

Warhol, Liechtenstein, Pollock – the greats are all on display in this exhibition that claims to chart ‘The American Dream’ in all its monolithic, prevailing and consumerist glory. And certainly its scope is extensive, and impressive: there are more than 200 works from 70 artists working between 1960 and 2014 on displays and art movements including abstract, minimalism, photorealism and portraiture are all touched upon. Ed Ruscha’s pleasingly geometric gas station prints and the orange glow of the California room were particular highlights.There are political allusions – AIDs, gender equality, civil rights, the Vietnam War – but the exhibition as a whole felt too hurried and surface to be exploratory or penetrating.

On reflection, I don’t think pop art is my thing.

MUSIC

Angel Olsen at Camden Roundhouse

Angel Olsen knows how to make an entrance. As the woozy backbeat of ‘Heart Shaped Face’ is kickstarted by her suited-and-booted band, she appears, a few bars in and lets her soaring vibrato fill the room. It’s almost better to have not listened to her latest album in a while; to have forgotten how good Angel Olsen is, because her live performance more than reminds you. The show as a whole is muted and magical, with the volume turned way down low on theatrics or distractions, and the focus solely on Olsen’s enthralling, transporting vocals. ‘Shut Up And Kiss Me’ and ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ provided energetic interjections, but ultimately this show was an extension of her album: subdued, smouldering and sublime.


5 Scene Stealing Cats

Amid Britain’s political turmoil and the likely devastating impact on its creative sector, I thought I’d try to bring some levity to bear. And what better way to do that than to talk about cats.

So here are cinema’s most recent entries into the feline hall of fame…

Nasty Baby | Sula

Cat_001Freddy’s feline friend ‘Sula’ is director Sebastián Silva’s actual cat, an unsurprising discovery given the scant privacy she affords him. In a series of touching scenes, the cat’s presence becomes more than just a gimmick, but undoubtedly the one during which Sula wins the affections of the audience is the bath scene. With trademark curiosity and playfulness, her gentle prodding of Silva’s forehead lend the moment an air of tenderness, befitting the film’s raw and improvised tone.

Listen Up Philip | Gadzuki

Cat_002Like a child in a faltering marriage, Gadzuki the cat, in Alex Ross Perry’s lacerating comedy Listen Up Philip becomes a pawn in the drawn out break-up of Philip (Jason Schwartzman) and Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). Gadzuki is a staple throughout, sharing several heart-warming exchanges with Moss, and even garnering his own voiceover mention and narrative resolution, but his shining moment occurs roughly one hour in. When Philip returns to New York to win Ashley back, Gadzuki serves as proof that Ashley has moved on and is even used as a puppet to express Ashley’s newly unearthed dislike of her ex. It’s an empowering scene for Ashley, and perhaps a slightly exploitive one for Gadzuki, but the duo make a charming pair and you can’t help but feel they’ve got each other’s backs.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis | Ulysses

Cat_003The Coen Brothers’ poignant exploration of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, arguably features the most characterful cat ever to have graced screens. Indeed, Oscar Isaac’s flame-haired companion has inspired endless critical evaluations. What is its significance? Is the cat Llewyn? The consensus seems to be that the cat amplifies Llewyn’s quest for an identity outside of his folk duo, joining him on a journey of self-reflection and giving him a sense of purpose when he so desperately needs one. Even if that is just retrieving said cat from various escapades.

The Grand Budapest Hotel | Persian Cat

Cat_004The most ill-fated cat of the bunch begins his cameo in the arms of Jeff Goldblum’s Kovacs and ends it dispatched from the clutches of Willem Dafoe’s Jopling. A particularly fluffy specimen, though the Persian’s appearance is short-lived, it’s a memorable addition to Wes Anderson’s bevy of whimsical characters. What’s more, his exit allows for a signature Andersonian visual gag; even the cat’s corpse is perfectly symmetrical.

The Voices | Mr. Whiskers

Cat_005Unlike the other films where the cat is a somewhat comforting presence, in Marjane Sartrapi’s black-comedy The Voices, Mr. Whiskers is a manifestation of Jerry’s (Ryan Reynolds) more deranged thoughts. As Jerry spirals downhill into a murderous pickle, Mr. Whiskers – the sardonic Scottish-accented sociopath to Bosco the dog’s more optimistic offerings – steals every scene he’s in with his morbid diatribe.

Top 10 Films About Literary Icons

With International Dylan Thomas day having just passed, I deemed it high-time to take a look at a movies that have dared to delve into the backstories of literary icons…and done it rather well.

Originally published on Top 10 Films.

 1. Capote (Bennett Miller, US, 2005)

The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman took home an Oscar for his expertly-calibrated performance as Truman Capote. Based on the research process that produced the controversial novel In Cold Blood, director Bennett Miller (of Foxcatcher fame) shows precision and integrity in his handling of the material, producing a film at once pervasively tense and quietly hypnotic. Hoffman captures the charm and power of the unparalleled Capote to electrifying effect, but the film never shies away from depicting the darker underbelly that facilitated his success. Capote dazzles not just as a character study of the immensely complex, and compulsive author but also as a fascinating look at the relationship between a writer and his subject, and a rare entity in the biopic canon in that it avoids idolatry.

Capote

2. Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK, 2009)

Jane Campion proves herself a force to be reckoned with in this wistful and melancholic rendering of the unconsummated romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish are the literary love-birds whose relationship seems doomed from the outset. Still, for the all the tragedy, Campion’s film is disarmingly beautiful, bursting with colour, restless camera movements, lingering close-ups and of course, Keats’ spirited poetry.

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3. The End Of The Tour (James Ponsoldt, US, 2015)

 Not a biopic of David Foster Wallace, insomuch as a rendezvous with the idea of him. Based on David Lipsky’s memoir of his five-day interview with Wallace for Rolling Stone during the tour for the eccentric novelist’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, The End Of The Tour is essentially an extended conversation, but an illuminating, meditative and ferocious one at that. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg (harkening back to the rapid-fire dialogue he perfected in The Social Network) turn in career-best work as the two David’s. This emotionally and intellectually charged two-hander is fuelled by their effervescent chemistry.

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4. The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes, UK, 2013)

A languidly-paced period drama that charts the intricacies of Charles Dickens’ extramarital relationship with ingénue Nelly Robinson, starring British acting pedigree Ralph Fiennes (also taking on the mantle as director) and rebel-trooper-in-waiting Felicity Jones. Sizzling with repressed desire and sideway glances, Fiennes shows a cunning eye for detail in his debut outing as director. 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 biopic.

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5. Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, US, 2013)

Delightfully campy and quippy, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson go head-to-head as Walt Disney and PL Travers in this chronicle of how the Mary Poppins film came to be. The shiny, upbeat veneer is balanced by a poignant backstory giving credence to Poppins’ origins, where Colin Farrell does empathetic work as Travers’ alcoholic father. It’s twinkly-eyed, without ever pulling too mercilessly on the heartstrings, and who better than Hanks and Thompson to make the sparring go down sweeter. Magic.

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6. Set Fire To The Stars (Andy Goddard, UK, 2014)

Exquisitely shot and elegantly staged, director Andy Goddard takes a monochromatic look at Dylan Thomas’ tour to New York in 1950, three years before his whiskey-fuelled death. Elijah Wood is doe-eyed academic John Brinnin, tasked with taming the beast, whilst Welsh-born Celyn Jones plays the poetic hell-raiser in question. What escalates is part bromance, part road-movie and though it never really digs beneath the surface of its characters, it remains a handsome snapshot of a bygone era and a beloved wordsmith.

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7. Barfly (Barbet Schroeder, US, 1987)

 Roger Ebert labelled Barfly one of the best films of 1987 and this semi-autobiographical tale of poet and author Charles Bukowski, is certainly an atmospheric paean to the sordid back-alleys and dive bars of 1980s LA. Worthy of mention for Mickey Rourke’s performance alone, his besmirched poet – a Bukowski type figure named Henry, as opposed to a direct invocation – is all the more resonant because you sense that the potential scuppered by way of alcohol abuse would come to haunt Rourke’s own career.

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8. Big Sur (Michael Polish, US, 2013)

Infused with a pragmatic perspective, director Michael Polish doesn’t condemn the Beat generation, nor does he revere them. In this coalescing of Jack Kerouac’s novel with the real events that inspired it, Polish achieves an intriguingly complex and impressionistic portrait of an elusive, much-fabled literary figure. Majestic, surreal and meditative, it doesn’t quite capture the charismatic intensity attributed to Kerouac (Jean Marc-Barr), but at a pacy 70 minutes it plays with the hyperactive restlessness that the Beat generation were so seduced by.

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9. The Edge Of Love (John Maybury, UK, 2008)

 A fanciful, fleeting peek into a supposed ménage à trois between Dylan Thomas, his wife Caitlin and his childhood friend Vera. Matthew Rhys, Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley captivate as the bohemian trio who flock to the Welsh hills to escape the calamities of WW2. Director John Maybury has flagrantly assumed creative license; regardless it crackles with desire, tension and jealousy and conveys Thomas’ zest for life.

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10. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, US, 2003)

 Blending documentary, drama and animation what emerges from this unconventional portrait of underground comic-book artist Harvey Pekar, is something as engrossing as it is poignant. Considered a ‘blue-collar Mark Twain’, the film’s exploration of Pekar’s quotidian lifestyle allows his true originality to shine through. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis have great fun as Pekar and his third wife Joyce Brabner, rivalling some of the great screwball partnerships of the 40s. Directed by real-life couple Berman & Pulcini, whose screenplay earned them an Oscar nomination, it hums with the kind of oddball creativity you imagine the real Pekar would’ve appreciated. Exhilaratingly subversive.

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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: Lost River

With Ryan Gosling attached as it’s director, Lost River, previously title ‘How to Catch a Monster’, was always going to be enveloped by a certain level of expectation. The star of Blue Valentine, The Notebook, Place Beyond The Pines and Drive had a lot to live up to, and when the film premiered at Cannes the general mood was one of disappointment.

Released in cinemas and on VOD today in the UK, the buzz ignites once again and this time around the reception seems to be more generous. If not entirely coherent or consistent, at the very least, Lost River is a phatasmagorical adventure you’ll want to bear witness to.

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Gosling’s debut explores the turbulent journey of Bones (Iain De Caestecker), a young man who’s family is on the brink of eviction, whose mother (Christina Hendricks) is doing everything she can to pay the bills and who is pursued by a post-apocalyptic, microphone-brandishing tyrant named Bully (Matt Smith).

lost-river-trailer-christina-hendricksIt begins drenched in nostalgia, with dappled lighting, a lullaby song and meadows indicating the innocence of childhood dreams. An innocence which quickly gives way to a nightmarish vision of corruption. As the camera careens past abandoned homes and decaying neighbourhoods, weaving through scenes of violence, despair and destruction, Gosling injects the fabric of the film with bright neon colours, pulsating synth music, and fairytale imagery.

The result is something as visually arresting as it is atmospherically rich, evoking the 1955 cult classic Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum. Both have a sinister glow, intertwining thriller and fantasy elements to create something idiosyncratic, film noirish, avante garde, dream-like, expressionistic and strange.

Early on, I felt that the jaunty camera movement and lighting gave the film a transient, watery texture; an intention seemingly confirmed in Saoirse Ronan’s Rat alluding to the town being “underwater”. Yet other directorial decisions felt unfounded or merely distracting. The editing is at times unnecessarily jumpy, whilst at other times incredibly meandering. There’s a very keen sense that Gosling is trying to show all of his visionary skills in one film, and it consequently suffers from a chaotic, erratic tone.

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Gosling is clearly a cinophile; absorbing and integrating a composite of influences and aesthetics into his ambitious debut. It has the eeriness of Lynch, the bizarreness of Malick, the flashiness of Spring Breakers, the neo-noir essence of Refn, and infuses the same desolate whimsicality as last year’s Beasts of a Southern Wild, all whilst invoking a sense of uniqueness. But this imagistic assemblage is also the film’s downfall; with the overarching stylisation coming so prominently to the fore it threatens to derail the narrative.

be783e9951e22422217984336f84d412_cannes-2014_4The characters are a colourful menagerie of villains, vagrants and victims. Christina Hendricks as single mother Billy does a great job of centring the film emotionally; a task the other ‘lead’ Caestecker in his detached delivery doesn’t quite manage. Ben Mendelsohn and Eva Mendes meanwhile provide provocative cameos as both owner and star of a grotesque horror-themed nightclub Billy becomes embroiled in. Mendelsohn particularly elevates every scene he is in, oozing with a malicious lust and giving Michael Jackson a run for his money in the ‘moves’ department.

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Yet, for all the fleeting shots of brilliance – and there are plenty – alongside Gosling’s tendency to hone in on his actor’s face and let their expressions do the talking, there is a distinct lack of depth, motivation or grit to any of his creations. They are as desultory as the names they are given. Intriguing but utterly random.

Ostensibly, it tackles the Detroit foreclosure crisis and the damaging effect of the fiscal crisis on an already impoverished community. And it does so with sensitivity and an understanding that its residents are trapped in a nightmarish bubble – a theme lent authenticity by the presence of actual Detroiters – where bankruptcy, eviction and collapse ominously threaten. This portentous atmosphere looms throughout, frequently bubbling to the surface in macabre (and often random) exchanges. However, there’s something incomplete and unrefined about the film as a whole.

Lost River‘s strength like in its visual audacity and ability to conjure up a hallucinatory landscape, whilst  the phosporescent lighting and eclectic sound design are particularly reminiscent of Drive, (in a good way). It’s deviation from traditional narrative structures however won’t satiate everyone’s palate and there’s definitely a need for more substance behind the style.

Ultimately, Ryan Gosling continues to cast audiences under a spell, even from behind the camera and he shows great artistic potential as a director, but the overriding niggle is that his story got as lost as the river.

Verdict: Mesmerising, frustrating and bold. Gosling has splashed his cinematic canvas with as many colours as he could find, and it makes for a coruscating experience. Let’s hope his follow-up has just as much panache, but a little less abstraction. 

PS. I saw the actual Ryan Gosling and Matt Smith at a live Q+A hosted by Ritzy Picturehouse, and certainly hearing about Gosling’s intentions and inspirations for the film gave me an appreciation for it that might otherwise have been lacking. Then again, he did make eye contact with me, so I might have just been swayed by that.

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