Wicked Little Letters

Posted on February 29th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

This could have been a very good film. In fact, it almost touches on greatness, and the difference is largely down to the powerhouse performances of Oliva Colman and Jessie Buckley, who lead a very strong cast. Jonny Sweet’s well-constructed script re-tells a largely true story which rocked the peaceful town of Littlehampton in 1920. Spinsterish pillar of the community Edith Swan (Colman) begins receiving profanity-laced poison pen letters and immediately suspects her freewheeling neighbour (Buckley). Only “Woman Police Office” Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) suspects that the culprit might not be so obvious.

Littered with a wealth of comedy acting talent from newer faces like Vasan or Lolly Adefope (or Matilda herself, Alisha Weir) to stalwart campaigners like Eileen Atkins and Gemma Jones, this is a constant delight and you’re never far from another wonderful bit of business, sharp one-liner or marvellous moment. But there’s an extra bit of ballast which comes from the incredibly layered and detailed playing of the two leads, given extra weight by a truly sinister turn from a terrifying Timothy Spall, embodying the patriarchy as Edith’s horrendous father.

Director Thea Sharrock marshals these competing forces expertly, and while this has no aspirations to be much more than a delightful 100 minutes at the cinema, that is no small feat, and when it can touch on something a bit deeper or more profound, it does so without capsizing the whole enterprise. If you loved See How They Run, then you’ll enjoy this just as much. It isn’t quite as intricately constructed, but it’s arguably got more to say.

American Fiction

Posted on February 11th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Cord Jefferson’s satire on the publishing business through a Black lens is many things. One thing it isn’t is the riproaring, one-liner stuffed, broad comedy which the trailer sells it as. By taking the ten best jokes and stitching them together, the marketeers have badly misrepresented this smart, painful, incisive, thoughtful – and yes, sometimes very funny – film. Ironically, despite the frustrations that this might cause, it seems appropriate for a story in which things are not what they seem, commercial imperatives trump artistic integrity and even vaunted literary prizes are hotbeds of pandering and intellectual shortcuts.

The cast is unimpeachable. Jeffrey Wright has never been better and is given a strong family unit comprising sister Tracee Ellis Ross, mother Leslie Uggams and brother Sterling K Brown. The early part of the story dismantles this strong family, forcing Wright’s hand much in the way that the St Valentine’s day massacre forces Joe and Jerry’s hand in Some Like it Hot. Only the incredibly convenient arrival of the perfect suitor for their live-in-maid strains credulity a little.

Based on what sounds like an unadaptable novel, the film’s unwillingness to settle for a single ending (or a single clear message) is probably the best way of taking the book’s style and finding a cinematic analogue, and Jefferson is careful to pave the way for this development in the way he structures and shoots some earlier moments (which include a lovely cameo from Keith David). He’s also careful to smudge the outline of what could have been too strident a moral, shading Issa Rae’s initially comical character with more depth and unafraid to make out hero seem like something of an asshole from time-to-time.

Possibly the best joke in the whole film, and one the trailer couldn’t spoil (so I will), is the conclusion of the literary judging process in which the three white jurors overrule the two Black ones on the basis that “It’s time to listen to Black voices.” Sharply satirical, but also oddly warm and even moving, this definitely isn’t what was sold to me, but is arguably better.

Oscar Nominations 2024

Posted on February 10th, 2024 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Have just discovered this languishing in my drafts folder. Apologies for the inconvenience.

The Oscar nominations are out and once again, we have ten Best Picture nominees. I have already seen a triumphant eight of these, and will be trying to mop up some of the International and Documentary features in the next few weeks. Here are the runners and riders.

American Fiction is one of the two I haven’t seen, but the trailer is very appealing (although you’d be forgiven for overlooking Sterling K Brown who is glimpsed only briefly, but who notches up a Best Supporting Actor nomination). Full review to follow.

Anatomy of a Fall. Terrific slab of Euro-intrigue which remakes the courtroom drama in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible, blessed with a remarkable tri-lingual script and a tremendous central performance from Sandra Hüller. Full review here.

Barbie. Thrillingly bonkers Mattel tie-in, which subverts the very play logic which it shockingly embraces to deliver a simplistic but deeply heartfelt feminism-for-beginners message. I briefly wondered if it might gather enough momentum to be a real contender for Best Picture, but with only eight nominations and nothing for Greta Gerwig as director or Margot Robbie as leading actress, I think we can write it off from this contest at least.

The Holdovers. Very Oscar-friendly, but probably not extraordinary enough to win. Full review here.

Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese demonstrates that he hasn’t lost his touch, blending the intimate with the epic, but I would have preferred a more focused two-hour version or a more exploratory six-hour mini-series which would have given more of a voice to the Osage people. Full review here.

Maestro. Despite all of the effort poured in by Bradley Cooper and the wealth of talent he has surrounded himself with, I kept waiting for the story to kick in. This feels like it’s run out of gas already.

Oppenheimer. Clear front-runner, with the most important story to tell, the biggest cultural footprint (possibly with the exception of Barbie) and it made a ton of money to boot.

Past Lives. Beautifully observed, painstakingly assembled, and far more original than its premise would suggest. Doesn’t have much of a chance at the big prize.

Poor Things. Lanthimos’s horny fairy tale horror has the potential to pull off a major upset, and I wouldn’t be mad at it for doing so, despite my reservations about the film. Full review here.

The Zone of Interest. The other one I haven’t seen but advance word is very strong.

In other categories, Best Director looks nailed on for Nolan, regardless of who wins Best Picture. The omission of Greta Gerwig is appalling but somehow not surprising. Nice to see Justine Triet there though. Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor also look set to go Oppenheimer‘s way. Best Actress is a straight fight between Emma Stone and Lily Gladstone. Best Supporting Actress looks more open with probably Emily Blunt the least likely to succeed, but a case could be made for any of the others. Original Screenplay looks like a two horse race between Anatomy of a Fall and The Holdovers. Adapted Screenplay is Nolan’s to lose.

The Zone of Interest

Posted on February 9th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Jonathan Glazer’s approach to the Holocaust is a terrifying exercise in cinematic minimalism. Although I haven’t read it, it seems that he has taken Martin Amis’s novel about Auschwitz CEO Rudolph Höss, stripped it off almost everything resembling a plot, and then shot it with fly-on-the-wall cameras. The result is very much a one-trick film – but it’s one hell of a good trick. As we watch the bourgeois 1940s German family playing with their kids, entertaining friends and relatives, tending the garden, splashing in the pool, the soundtrack never ceases to be filled with the ghastly sounds of the final solution emanating from the camp next door to their middle-class paradise.

Although the goings-on at the death camps are rarely evoked in dialogue, this is not a tale of people blithely looking the other way. They know exactly what is happening, it just isn’t relevant to their day-to-day interests. Yes, the presence of human remains near where his children are playing is enough for an underling to earn a telling-off from Höss, but otherwise the tragedy and brutal evil of the Nazi purge happens in the corners and off-screen.

There’s an element of absurdity in the way that the family refuse to acknowledge the sounds and sights of death and terror right on their doorstep – almost like something out of The Bed Sitting Room or Synecdoche, New York – until you remember that all of this was real, that Auschwitz happened and that the Höss family were real people. That isn’t to say there’s no artistic licence here. The real Auschwitz was a little further away from the Höss garden, I understand, so the absurdity is partly Glazer’s doing, but this is a matter of degree more than anything else.

Something barely resembling a story crops up after about an hour when Höss is transferred and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller from Anatomy of a Fall) refuses to uproot herself and her children, but otherwise this is all Glazer’s Kubrickian detachments from the unholy terrors happening at the edges, with Łukasz Żal’s cinematography giving the sunny days an overlit, almost nuclear, whiteness, and the winter months a cool blue blanket.

Rating this film is something of a struggle for me. I don’t want to see it again, I note the excellent performances, and admire the rigour of the form, but I felt overwhelmed by it, rather than drawn in. That may be what Glazer intended, but it doesn’t make this a film I’m likely to recommend to friends and family. And I felt that restraint slip in the phone call where Höss talks to Hedwig about (theoretically) how to gas a ballroom of partygoers.

Mean Girls

Posted on February 3rd, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Another day, another musical film of the musical play of the film of the book. And another property I wasn’t that invested in. I saw the original Lindsay Lohan Mean Girls only a few years ago and thought it was fine, but lacking the savage punk energy of the sublime Heathers to which it appears to owe a significant debt. And the unreality of Heathers means that it musicalises really very well (surely the musical film of Heathers can’t be too far away?) whereas this doesn’t have quite the same scope – but also it isn’t trying to be a heartfelt drama about important social issues either.

The cast are all pretty great, most of them new to me. Angourie Rice is a suitably winsome lead, Reneé Rapp, reprising her stage role, is excellent (taking over from Rachel McAdams) but Busy Philipps is a bit of a downgrade from Amy Poehler (whereas Tina Fey and Tim Meadows just reprise their roles, although Fey bizarrely has omitted to give herself anything funny to do). Jon Hamm has three lines, two of them in the trailer. MVP is the hilarious Avantika who bristles with comic energy whenever she’s on screen.

The plot is… Mean Girls. The songs are fine… There’s some sharp lyric writing and some nifty choreography, but I couldn’t hum any of the tunes today, less than 48 hours after seeing the movie. Without the novelty of seeing this for the first time in 2004, and without the excitement of a live performance, this feels constrained (as opposed to the film of Matilda which exploded off the big screen). Directing team Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr make it flow and feel cohesive in the way that Blitz Bazawule didn’t with The Color Purple, and there are flickers of imagination in numbers like “Apex Predator” but overall, this just seems a bit… plastic.

The Color Purple

Posted on January 30th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

I don’t have a big investment in this property. I’ve never read the book and I didn’t see the Spielberg movie until a few years ago as part of my Best Pick project. Sitting down to watch this musicalised version (from the 2004 Broadway play), I realised that much of the previous movie had failed to stay with me. I remembered a couple of isolated scenes, a couple of characters and that was about all. Possibly a blessing as the twists and turns of the plot took me by surprise.

It’s not that I’ve got anything against this story, it’s just that it doesn’t mean much to me, so I’m unlikely to get cross if the creative team has made changes to the source material (or the source material of the source material). I can enjoy it – or not – on its own terms. And there is much to enjoy here. It all looks great, with outstanding production design from Paul D Austerberry, beautifully photographed by Dan Laustsen, and the story is as strong as ever. Does that story of rape, child murder, deprivation, spousal abuse, and general brutality work as a toe-tapping musical? Well, it doesn’t not work, and the best of the songs are suitably rousing, many of them gospel inflected.

But what’s weird about this is that it doesn’t really work as a musical film. My Fair Lady, for all its many virtues, is a bit of a slog, because it’s basically the entire text of Pygmalion with half of the dialogue reprised in song form, which means it takes far longer than is really necessary. This version of Alice Walker’s story has been carefully streamlined, winnowed to its essentials, so that even with around 16 songs, it actually runs slightly shorter than the 1985 version. (About a dozen more from the stage version were not ported over, which makes me think that the stage version might have been a bit of a slog too.)

But there’s no attempt to integrate the songs into the rest of the production. They’re almost all cut brutally short – less than two minutes. Once they’re over, they’re over – they never spill over into the next bit of dialogue, let alone the next scene. And there’s no hint in the rest of the action that this is a world in which people might start spontaneously singing and dancing. The songs never cover the moments of realisation, decisions made, corners turned, epiphanies experienced or relationships altering. All of that stuff happens between the musical numbers, meaning that this is a tale interrupted by songs, not a story told through music.

This is not a problem which seemed to affect other recent film musicals – it certainly isn’t an issue in the sublime movie version of Matilda for example, and nor did I notice it in the otherwise badly flawed Wonka. And I’m not saying that either the drama scenes or the musical numbers are bad – the best musical numbers are terrific (Miss Celie’s Pants was probably my favourite). But if you can go through your musical film and cut out all the musical numbers and have everything still work fine – which I reckon you could – then it does suggest that not all has gone according to plan.

The real pleasures here are in the performances. Top-billed Taraji P Henson is luminous as Shug, Colman Domingo (whose wry charisma enlivened many otherwise dull episodes of Fear the Walking Dead) is amazing as Mister – the character who arguably goes on the biggest journey. Danielle Brooks is a blazing, radiant presence, and when she’s crushed by incarceration, it almost feels like a death, until she finds her voice again (arguably a bit too quickly). But it’s movie debutante Fantasia Barrino as Celie who owns this film. Her wonderfully expressive eyes, her soaring voice, her fierce determination cover any number of structural issues – and she even tap dances at one point.

All Of Us Strangers

Posted on January 29th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Ever find you just can’t remember the name of a film? I really enjoyed The End We Start From but whenever I wanted to tell someone about it, I couldn’t remember what it was called. Begin at the End? Starting at the End? Ending the Story? Finishing the Starting? So it was with Strange People, I mean All Strange Together, I mean The Strangers We Are, oh look, you know what I mean.

I have to confess that the prospect of watching this one struck me as the cinematic equivalent of eating my greens – Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal being gloomy for two hours, yay – but I was completely unprepared for how weird, off-kilter, lyrical and moving this ended up being. To examine it fully means spoilers, so I’ll dance around a few things in this brief review, but honestly – do yourself a favour and just go and see it.

Scott’s Adam is an isolated writer living in a terrifyingly uninhabited huge tower block, who reluctantly hooks up with Mescal’s Harry before a personal crisis takes him back to his home town, where he seemingly interacts with his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) who haven’t seen him since he was twelve years old, for the very good reason that that was how old he was when they both died in a car crash.

Mescal and Scott are seemingly an odd pairing. Scott’s a very “busy” actor, and it’s greatly to his credit that I’ve never seen a performance of his collapse under the weight of tics and mannerisms. But cut Paul Mescal and he bleeds pure naturalism. Although also Irish, he sounds Manchester here, and it’s never distracting, and despite their differing approaches, this also never feels like a clash of acting styles. Foy and Bell are superb too, and the only other credited actors are Adam’s 12-year-old self and a waitress.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking that this feels like a play. Although it is mainly people talking in rooms, writer-director Andrew Haigh makes it all feel effortlessly cinematic. And given the premise, you’ll rapidly grasp that few if any of the conversations are in any way possible, and yet all of them feel completely convincing, detailed and relatable.

Things get further fractured, dreamlike and bizarre from there, but Haigh wants us to feel, and not to question. The final twist never feels like a Twilight Zone ending – further cementing a kinship between this and Mescal’s triumph in Aftersun. To me there seemed to be clues throughout that Adam had died in a fire basically as soon as the movie started, but there’s no Jacob’s Ladder-style pull-back-and-reveal and so I wasn’t left feeling unfulfilled because I wasn’t being offered a nice neat ending, rather I felt vaguely ashamed that I’d been thinking along such ploddingly prosaic lines.

I gather this was based on Japanese book by one Taichi Yamada whose oeuvre I am not familiar with. But if the very cursory synopsis on Wikipedia is any guide at all, it seems as if the novel would be the shit version of this idea, whereas the movie version is quite transcendent.


Posted on January 23rd, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Spoilers are funny things. Sometimes you just guess what’s coming next, which I generally think is bad luck more than anything else. Whenever you’re being told a story, you’re guessing what’s coming next. Anticipation is part of the pleasure, and knowing what’s coming next isn’t necessarily a problem. But if something is supposed to come at you from left-field and on your first viewing, you are able to predict it half an hour out, that doesn’t make for the best viewing experience.

What about stories based on life? Does it harm your enjoyment of Apollo 13 if you know the crew were all safely returned to Earth? Will you refuse to see Napoleon because you know what happens at Waterloo? Anyway. If the phrase “Ferrari 1957” doesn’t stir memories in you, you might prefer to watch this film first, and read this review later, because I had no idea what was coming and in the middle of a crowded cinema, I audibly gasped “Jesus!” But, Michael Mann’s narrowly-focused biopic has problems besides – although a key one is the placement of this historic event.

Early on, Mann does very little hand-holding. About the first twenty minutes of this movie is anonymous people getting on and off trains, leaving one house to go to another, making calls in which one person we don’t know tells another person we don’t know that a third person we don’t know has done something whose significance is uncertain. A few introductory captions are a “new kid” to whom things could be explained would have helped a lot.

Eventually things come into focus, and it becomes clear that Enzo Ferrari is struggling to hold his business together, juggling two families and pinning all of his hopes on winning the famous thousand mile “Mille Miglia” race, the glory of which will regenerate his car manufacturing business. But there’s precious little drama in any of this, and bizarrely having cast passionate, explosive Adam Driver (nominative determinism strikes again!) he’s then encouraged him to greet every turn of events – whether fortuitous, disastrous, bizarre or mundane – with the same dignified glower. It deadens the narrative and is a frankly confounding choice.

Penélope Cruz and Shailene Woodley feel a little freer – but all of these American actors have been asked to do Chico Marx Italian accents (except Cruz who just sticks with her natural Spanish) which adds an additional layer of absurdity. So after two hours of planning, pontificating, organising and glowering (mainly glowering), it’s race time. And the tired old Hollywood sports movie structure would suggest that this is when Ferrari seizes victory from the jaws of defeat. However, the problem here is that victory is in the hands of his drivers and all Ferrari can do is offer futile advice from the sidelines.

What actually happens – as you very well may know – is that although one of his drivers wins the race, another one has a blow-out at 120 miles an hour and spins off the road into a collection of excited onlookers, in a devastating accident which left eleven people dead, one of them gruesomely bisected. Five of them children. It’s an astonishing moment, and the power of it does galvanise the rest of the film. But if you were hoping to discover the effect that this has on Ferrari – as engineer, as one-time race driver, as family man, as entrepreneur – then you’ll be disappointed because ten minutes later the credits are rolling. Why is this hideous turning point not positioned in the middle of the film, so we can deal with the aftermath properly? (Wikipedia tells me that the court cases rumbled on for years).

Everything is shot with Mann’s customary style and energy, and this did a decent job of teaching me about a bit of history I had no knowledge of. But it’s weighed down by poor choices in the fundamental organisation of the material, and a hugely disappointing turn from the magnificently talented Driver.

The Holdovers / The End We Start From

Posted on January 21st, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

I don’t quite know where to put The Holdovers. Alexander Payne’s style isn’t the rigorous near cookie-cutter filmmaking system of Wes Anderson, which constantly threatens to subsume the material (and often succeeds). But Payne’s recent output does show a sameyness which, sure, is the mark of an artist with something to say, but I left this film having had a decent enough time, but slightly baffled at the rapturous reception this has received in some quarters. Nothing like as vinegar-sharp as Election, this is more in the same vein as The Descendants, Sideways or Nebraska, in which grumpy middle-aged men grouse about life’s petty indignities until the external structure of the story brings them into land.

It all looks lovely, and so seventies, I assume it was shot with mahogany cameras on film made of bri-nylon. At my screening, there was even a (fake) British Board of Film Censors card giving it an “AA” rating. And a walleyed Paul Giamatti (who is being very coy about how this look was achieved) is on suitably splenetic form. Much attention is given early on to prize jackass Teddy Kountze, who is the standout asshole in Mr Hunham’s collection of lonely students who have to suffer Christmas at school. But, thanks to a conveniently-deployed helicopter, it ends up being only Dominic Sessa’s Angus Tully who is left behind, and we only have some harsh sun reflected off the ski-slopes by way of karmic retribution for Kountze.

Over time, Giamatti and Sessa’s relationship ebbs and flows, they learn a little more about each other, confess some secrets and reveal some vulnerabilities. The acting is splendid with great turns also from Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Carrie Preston. But what’s it all for? And haven’t we seen a lot of this snotty-kids-from-fancy-Academies-learn-a-thing-or-two-about-life-from-a-crochety-yet-charismatic-ersatz-father-figure before in films like Good Will Hunting, Scent of a Woman, Dead Poets Society and more besides?

I admire all the care and craft that’s been poured into this, and the script (an original by David Hemingson) is full of choice one-liners, but it feels as if the director was so keen to evoke a time, he forget to evoke all that much meaning.

The End We Start From couldn’t be more different. If Alexander Payne’s film is a warm bath slowing growing tepid, then Mahalia Belo’s is a blast of cold water in the face. And that’s more or less what happens to Jodie Comer’s young mother whose onset of labour is interrupted not by her waters breaking but by flood waters crashing through her bay windows. Plotted like a disaster movie (script by Alice Birch from the novel by Megan Hunter), this focuses not on the devastation of the UK by unstoppable storms, but on the human fallout. And like all good survival films, the biggest problem isn’t the climate disaster / erupting volcano / hoards of zombies / cordyceps infections / man-eating plants – it’s your fellow survivors and their moral weaknesses.

Indomitably trudging through this bleakness, tiny baby strapped to her chest, Jodie Comer is outstanding, and given great support by Katherine Waterston as the similarly blessed friend she makes along the way. Whether by choice, or as a consequence of the kind of limited budget generally afforded British films, the editing is lean to the point of choppy, with very few scenes allowed to linger, but the score by Anna Meredith (with occasional overtones of John Carpenter) knits the whole thing together, and the result is a harrowing tale which feels all too believable, but which crucially doesn’t forget the power of a good laugh every so often. “Do we really have nothing left to eat?” asks Comer at one point. “Only these delicious babies,” responds Waterston.

None of the characters have names, which I almost didn’t notice until moments before the end, but this gives a dark hint that this could happen to anyone. And all the details of how different people and institutions might react to such as disaster are well-worked out. With strong themes of family, duty, home and belonging, this remarkable film effortlessly transcends its pulpy premise, and adds another to a string of sensational performances from Comer who is surely one of the very best actors working in Britain today.

Baked Ziti

Posted on January 19th, 2024 in recipes | No Comments »

This has suddenly become one of my dinner party / weekend cook-ahead / feeding a crowd staples. Super-delicious, not difficult to make and vegetarian (or at least this version is).

Prep time: 1 hour. Cook time: 40 minutes. Feeds 6-8.

For the red sauce

  • Three medium onions
  • Three cans chopped tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp dried mixed herbs
  • 4-6 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp sugar/honey/maple syrup
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper

For the white sauce

  • 250g ricotta cheese
  • 50g parmesan
  • 1 medium egg
  • 150g double cream
  • 50g fresh basil

For the pasta

  • 500g rigatoni or other tube-shaped pasta
  • 20g parmesan
  • 250g mozzarella

To make the red sauce, finely dice the onions and gently fry in olive oil until soft. Add the garlic and if your basil has nice-looking stems, you can finely slice those and add them too. Add the tomato paste, canned tomatoes, herbs and sugar/vinegar/salt/pepper to taste (depends how sharp your tomatoes are). Simmer for twenty minutes until thick.

While the red sauce cooks, boil the pasta until it has just begun to soften, about 6-7 minutes. Drain and splash over some olive oil so it doesn’t stick together.

To make the white sauce, beat the egg and combine with the ricotta, cream, chopped basil and finely grated parmesan. It probably won’t need salt because the parmesan is salty, but you can add some pepper if you like.

When everything is ready, combine the pasta, red sauce and white sauce. Spoon half the pasta mixture into the bottom of a baking dish, and dot with half the mozzarella, cut into little cubes. Spoon the rest of the pasta mixture over and then top with the remaining mozzarella, the extra grated parmesan and a light sprinkling of olive oil.

Cook in a medium-high oven for about 40 minutes until crisp on top and bubbling.

Serve with a fresh green salad and some nice bread rolls, with more basil and parmesan to sprinkle over.