Archive for the ‘At the cinema’ Category

Mary Poppins Redux

Posted on January 2nd, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

WARNING: Spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns

I was really looking forward to Mary Poppins Returns.

I’ve got a lot of nostalgic affection for the original 1964 film – even more so after watching Saving Mr Banks, far better than the pitch would suggest (it’s basically a massive studio making a film about how awesome another one of its films is!). You can’t argue with the pedigree of the talent involved, on both sides of the camera. And the early clips looked great.

What we got was… okay, I guess.

It probably shouldn’t go without saying, but it very often does, that the film looks fantastic. Robert Stevenson’s original is strikingly effortless in its creation of magical effects, with no computer generated imagery available (although Disney did have better blue-screen than anyone else, thanks to Petro Vlahos’s sodium vapor process which other technicians at rival studios had been unable to replicate). Rob Marshall’s follow-up keeps the same easy and unfussy integration of magical elements into a believable, but storybook world and Dion Beebe’s photography smartly keeps a ceiling on the brightness until the world explodes into colour and light towards the end. And if the new songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman aren’t quite in the league of those by the Sherman Brothers, they’re tuneful enough and they get the job done.

But from fairly early on, a lot of elements don’t seem quite right.

We are (re)introduced to the Banks children, now grown up and played by Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer. Wishaw’s Michael is living in his childhood home on Cherrytree Lane and now has three children of his own, and all four are mourning the death of their mother. Aunt Jane (Mortimer) is staying with them and in a needlessly chaotic scene we gather that the plumbing needs seeing to, the groceries need to be got, the house is being repossessed and the kids, especially Annabel are really running the show. They’re certainly more practical help than housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters, taking over from Hermione Baddeley).

Lo, while flying Michael’s old kite, Mary Poppins appears and with a bit of help from lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), they descend into a cartoon world inside a china bowl, pay a call on Poppins’ cousin Topsy (a delightful Meryl Streep) and save the house from the clutches of the bank.

In outline, I suppose, this all sounds fine. But, rather like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new film treats the original less like a springboard from which to find new ideas, but rather as a template to be followed closely. So just like in 1964, we get a magical tidying up, followed by a journey to a cartoon world, followed by adventures with an eccentric friend of Poppins’ up on the ceiling, then a trip to the bank which goes wrong, rescue by Bert/Jack and his gang of workers, then a resolution at the bank, followed by aerial delights with the whole family in the park while Poppins slips away.

But while the structure is followed rigidly, it seems as if writers Marshall, David Magee and John DeLuca are working from a half-remembered version of the original, in which Dick van Dyke plays a chimney sweep (he has a different job in each section of the film), in which Mary Poppins repeatedly transports the children to magical lands (this only happens once) and in which fantastic sequences end with the children waking up as if from a dream (this never happens). In fact, as the cameos from familiar faces start piling up, this begins to feel less like From Russia With Love and more like Operation Kid Brother.

But the original film is also smart and subtle enough to realise that while the source books feel very episodic, movie audiences of all ages need a bit more connecting tissue. So, every episode contributes in some way to the rehabilitation of George Banks. Motifs like “a spoonful of sugar” and “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” are all part of his journey back to his family and the least well-remembered sequence (Ed Wynn on the ceiling) is the cornerstone of this process.

Here, nothing in the underwater “Can You Imagine That” sequence is ever referred to again, and it’s questionable whether we needed either “Turning Turtle” or “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” either. And if it sounds like I’m criticising the film when it copies the original and criticising it again when it doesn’t – well, I suppose I am, but that’s the problem that sequels are often faced with, especially sequels to beloved films which are a very long time in coming. And it’s not particularly a point in the new film’s favour that a lot of the new sequences are drawn from PL Travers’ writing either. Who the hell actually read the books? (Actually I read the first four avidly as a child, but that’s not the point.)

No, here’s the real problem with this film. What’s it actually about? As I’ve said, it was the Sherman Brothers and producer Don Da Gradi’s inspiration that the golden thread uniting all of the elements of their story was that Mary Poppins had arrived not to straighten out unruly kids, but to save their father from himself. What is Mary Poppins’ mission this time round?

Well, at first it seems as if the natural order of things has been reversed. The kids are having to parent their father (Annabel at least). Is this the problem that supernanny is here to solve? Well, Georgie, the youngest, doesn’t suffer this affliction and when she’s done summoning a plumber (who never arrives) and setting off for groceries (which she never buys), Annabel just basically becomes a child again and so does her twin brother John.

Wishaw seems a bit absent-minded, but it’s not clear whether this is brought on by grief or whether it’s a character flaw. Either way, it wouldn’t work for Mary Poppins to make him more organised and rigid, and she clearly isn’t going to bring his wife back from the dead (can you imagine!?), so he isn’t the problem either. And Emily Mortimer’s Jane seems pretty self-reliant and together throughout. The film hints that she might need a man to be whole, but never quite sets off down that rather parochial path.

One interesting thread which is presented is that as they recollect their time with Mary Poppins, the adult Michael and Jane have rewritten their memories, and now believe that their magical adventures were nothing but an overactive imagination. They conclude this in the foreground, as Emily Blunt sails up the bannisters behind them, in what is possible the best shot in the entire film. But they both feel the same way, which is dramatically inert, and they don’t really alter this point of view over the course of the story. At the climax, when the whole family is soaring through the sky, buoyed aloft by Angela Lansbury’s balloons, Lansbury lumpenly spells it out for us – the adults won’t remember this the next day. No change. No growth. No transformation. No point.

In other words, Mary Poppins isn’t doing anyone any good by being there. She’s a fun source of magical adventures, but that isn’t a story. Disney realised that in 1964. Why has no-one clocked it this time round?

Absent a needed emotional transformation of a family member, what does drive the plot of the new film? An achingly tedious find-the-McGuffin routine, over-familiar from countless other films before it, allied with an even more over-familiar race-against-time device. This requires the presence of something which the first film had no need of: a bad actor; a villainous character who is actively and purposefully seeking to cause the Banks family harm for his own personal gain. It was during the otherwise lovely Royal Doulton Bowl sequence, with its wonderfully nostalgic hand-drawn animation that I began to feel as if something was badly wrong. Why are the Banks children in mortal danger? Why is a bad guy rubbing his hands with glee? Why does the sequence not end properly? What the hell is going on?

And Colin Firth is required to jump through any number of nonsensical plot hoops to make all this work. He gives Wishaw a job, even though he wants him to default on the loan. He voluntarily stays at the bank till midnight, even though he could go home at 5:00pm and guarantee that his scheme succeeds. He allows himself to be suckered in by the incredibly lame device of Miranda and co turning back the hands of Big Ben so that the deadline can be extended (a literal race-against-time, yawn) and then every single action anyone has taken in the last half hour is rendered moot by the Deus Ex Van Dyke at the end. Without Indy, the Nazis would probably still have found the Ark eventually, but at least because he was there, it ends up safe in the hands of the American government, who have the wisdom not to try and weaponise it. Without Mary Poppins’s return… I don’t know. Everything is exactly the same, I guess. Because she’s there to give the kids adventures, but the plot revolves around a bank loan. The pieces don’t mesh, and I don’t feel anything when I watch it.

The nearest I got to being moved was when the kids sing The Place Where Lost Things Go to their dad, who realises that they’ve been parenting him. Yes. Briefly. Before Mary Poppins showed up. But this epiphany doesn’t actually change Wishaw’s behaviour in any way, so – again – what’s the point of it? And it doesn’t help that this is the latest in a too-long line of supposedly insightful bon mots which attempt to recapture the simple truth of “A spoonful of sugar” but none of them quite make the grade. Different point of view.” “If it makes no sense it can’t be true.” “A cover is not the book.” And most vacantly of all “You can’t lose what you’ve never lost.” Eh?

Even the shot of Firth’s balloon sinking to the ground at the end, leaving him humiliated and earthbound just seems wrong to me. Mary Poppins is about taking crusty adults who have forgotten the elation of being childlike and giving them that joy back again. It’s not about sorting adults into winners and losers and then laughing cruelly at the losers. Ugh.

One of many reasons why the 1964 film works so well is that its makers were in no way in awe of the books. They disregarded PL Travers every chance they got, in order to put their vision of Mary Poppins on screen. As Saving Mr Banks tells us, they then had to defend and fight for every single one of those changes, which is perhaps why the final film feels so perfectly balanced.

The new film has been made by people whose reverence for the original seems overwhelming, and yet at the same time, who didn’t really understand it at all. It’s a cargo-cult version of the original, with a smashing cast, decent songs, a good sense of fun and some eye-popping visuals. But it has no engine and that’s why it can’t ever actually take off and fly.

Pre-Oscars 2019: Roma

Posted on December 15th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

I like structure.

I like structure in movies, and I like it both explicitly and implicitly.

I like it when a film is divided into chapters, or falls neatly into sections, or mirrors itself in some way.

But I also appreciate a well-constructed story, in which everything is there for a reason, in which chains of cause-and-effect link the actions of the characters and everything builds to a satisfying resolution. I like it even more if the plot points are artfully concealed, and if it’s at all original or has something to say, than that’s even better, but even building a complete structure like that and successfully hiding the scaffolding from view is not easy, which is why it so often makes me cross to hear critics carping about the three act structure, as if writing according to this template is some sort of paint-by-numbers job. Really? You try it.

Independent films which reject the three act structure often find very little to go in its place. As I’ve observed before, writing a film with no structure, in which a bunch of things happen and then the film ends, may or may not be truer to life, may or may not feel fresh compared to the Hollywood template, but it is certainly a great deal easier to write than a film which requires careful set-ups and payoffs all the way through.

So, films like Boyhood, The Tree of Life or Beasts of the Southern Wild (to pick three previous Best Picture nominees) often leave me cold. On the other hand, I don’t have a single template for movie narratives into which I insist that every story be forced. The three act structure endures because it works and because it’s so flexible, encompassing everything from Dumb and Dumber to Citizen Kane, but other structures are possible – they’re just harder.

In the case, for example, of The Hurt Locker, the only thing I didn’t like was the emergence of traditional Hollywood storytelling in the final third. It jarred and felt artificial next to the terrifying realism of the preceding hour. Or there’s Amour in which the brilliant performances and acutely observed details of the lives of the protagonists, combined with the pitiless direction to make an extraordinary, if harrowing movie experience.

All of which brings us to Alfonsa Cuaron’s Roma. This is not Gravity Cuaron. This is not Harry Potter Cuaron. This is not even Children of Men Cuaron. It’s closer if anything to Y Tu Mama Tambien in structure, if not in tone. A synopsis doesn’t really do it justice, because the story, although it contains many powerful and affecting elements, isn’t really the point. Roma is not a film you watch. It’s a film you experience.

Recreating and lightly fictionalising his childhood, growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuaron takes us through a year in the life of a wealthy family facing domestic strife, not from the point of view of one of the children, as you might expect, but from the point of view of Cleo, the maid and nanny. Point of view is of course vitally important. It’s what distinguishes storytelling from journalism. This perspective immediately brings harsh realities of class, economics, politics and relationships into sharp relief. There is the sense here that the mother’s story, or the child’s or possibly even the father’s would be good movies in their own right, but Cuaron is never distracted, keeping Cleo at the centre of every event, including momentous ones in her own life, the family’s life and Mexico’s history.

Over some of the bland domesticity which takes up about the first half of the film, there is the constant hum of potential violence. Hard-edged technology creeps into the softness of the family home. Too-large cars crunch into narrow drive ways. Cleo’s boyfriend shows off his martial artistry. Planes whine overhead. When Cleo visits a shanty town, a man is being shot of a cannon in the background. When, in the last third of the film, this violence erupts, it’s incredibly shocking and what follows is one of the most upsetting scenes in recent cinema history. But like those planes that are so often in view, Cuaron tells us that this too shall pass.

This has no need of any kind of three act structure, and would not be helped by it. The film would have been riveting enough with these performances (among a uniformly strong cast, Yalitza Aparicio is exceptional as Cleo) and this kind of storytelling. What catapults this to the very top of my list of movies for 2018 is the way that Cuaron tells the story visually.

Shooting in gorgeous 65mm black and white in 2.35:1, this couldn’t look less like an old movie, and yet the monochrome images can’t help but evoke the past (as does a cheeky reference to Marooned, a sort of 1969 version of Gravity). But although Cleo is the emotional heart of the film, by giving us a modern lens on an earlier time, Cuaron inserts himself discreetly into the movie too. This is 1971 from a 2018 standpoint.

We know Cuaron loves long takes, but here his style evolves again. Although shot with tremendous flexibility and panache, time and again, the camera tracks sideways or pans left and right across that widest of widescreen frames, almost like a security camera – observing but never intruding, And this unfussy style, combined with the patient editing, means that when the story is told in eye-popping images, which it so often is, it never feels forced, contrived or showy. This may have been bankrolled by Netflix, but you need to see it on a big screen.

Roma is an extraordinary achievement, clearly a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language film this year, and if there’s any justice at all, it will become the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. I’m not saying that’s going to happen – it probably won’t. I am saying I find it very hard to imagine seeing a better film than Roma this year.

Pre-Oscars 2019 – A Star Is Born

Posted on November 30th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

We don’t yet know what’s on Academy voters’ minds for next year, but it’s a near-certainty that Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut will feature heavily. I confidently expect to see half-a-dozen nominations for A Star is Born, not just making up the numbers in Best Picture, but likely some or all of Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Score and Best Original Song too.

Not that this is a new story of course. First filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March as a bitter satire on Hollywood’s star-making system, it became Judy Garland’s comeback vehicle in 1954 when she made a musical version with James Mason. In 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson kept the music, but moved the action away from movies and into rock concerts, and that’s the pitch for the 2018 incarnation, which stars Lady Gaga as waitress-singer-songwriter Ally.

Part of the issue with the story, across all these variants, has always been – whose is it? Very often, the female lead has been the bigger name, but the structure of the plot generally means that the male lead takes over in the final third. Here, it’s much more Cooper’s story than Gaga’s all the way through. Previous incarnations of her character have been given new names as part of the star-making process (so Esther Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester). Here, slimy producer Rafi Gavron simply takes away Ally’s surname – a moment that never really lands because, almost unbelievably, we never find out what her original surname is!

Both Cooper and Gaga have families around them (which isn’t always the case in earlier versions), but Cooper’s is much more fleshed-out and his interactions with brother Sam Elliot (never better), and Dave Chapelle drive much of the action. What’s weird is that, Gaga aside, this is a woman-free story. Ally has a father (Andrew Dice Clay – no, really!) but no mother. She sings at a male drag bar. Her best friend is a gay man. Where are her female friends??

Little of this really matters while the film is on though. Cooper and Gaga have chemistry to spare, and even if the film closely hugs the contours of previous versions, it consistently finds ways to make them fresh and engaging. Ally’s first song on-stage with Jackson Maine is particularly fine, with Gaga pitching Ally’s uncertainty, strength, talent, delight and terror perfectly. Only the end of Jackson’s story seems a little hasty. Norman Maine overhears Esther Blodgett deciding to give up her career to look after her husband. Jackson Maine just takes his wife’s producer’s word for it and obediently fetches a sturdy belt.

As director, Cooper occasionally falls prey to some TV-commercial lighting and framing, and his sometimes eccentric editing rhythms don’t always work, but overall, this is confident, engaging, character-driven movie-making. It deserves its bonanza box office and if it does take home armfuls of Oscars – well, it will be a safe but not undeserving choice.

Oscars 2018 – Lady Bird and The Shape of Water

Posted on February 27th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Apparently, I’ve been saving the best for last. According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Lady Bird was briefly the best-reviewed movie of all time (now overtaken by Paddington 2). I therefore sat down to watch Greta Gerwig’s unassuming coming-of-age movie with high expectations. It is, of course, excellently done, but I am slightly bewildered at the overwhelming adoration it has received. Maybe critics who are lauding it as an amazing debut didn’t see Frances Ha, also written by Gerwig (but with Noah Baumbach directing) which now looks somewhat like a trial run for this.

This is not to say that it isn’t excellent. It absolutely is. Gerwig’s acutely observed script follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson through the end of high school and the beginning of college, and essentially watches her – as many people do at this time in their lives – try on different personalities, ways of engaging with the world and circles of friends, in an attempt to discover who she is and what space there is left in the world for her. Time and again, Lady Bird presents us with situations very familiar from other movies (high school prom, losing virginity, meeting the parents), but time and again Gerwig finds a way to twist, tweak, surprise or invert these tropes, without the film ever departing from reality too much.

To deliver this script, Gerwig has marshalled an incredible cast, from the effortless Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, to the impeccable Laurie Metcalfe as her mother, to Beanie Feldstein as her off-again, on-again best friend. And – look! – there’s Timothée Chalamet, so utterly convincing in Call Me By Your Name, incredibly funny and having a whale of a time playing the hideously pretentious boyfriend whom Lady Bird goes to bed with.

But as well done as all of this is, it seems inherently and necessarily limited in its scope. The themes, although universal, rarely rise above the trivial, and the appeal to religiosity at the end, while it might have more resonance with American audiences, did nothing whatever for me. So I would file this under “really well made” rather than “changed my life”.

I had almost equally high expectations for The Shape of Water, which comes to the 90th Academy Awards with the most nominations (13 including director, screenplay, score and cinematography). I made a point of watching del Toro’s early hit Pan’s Labyrinth which I hadn’t seen before and which I thought was absolutely amazing – far darker and grimmer than the whimsical fantasy I was anticipating, but hugely effective.

A few similar themes recur here, but the intent is subtly shifted. The period setting and the slight unreality of the production design create a fully-integrated world in which Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man fits properly. This contrasts with Pan’s Labyrinth in which the “real world” is generally presented in a realistic fashion and the hidden world of sprites and fauns seems fantastical. There’s also something fairy tale about Sally Hawkins’ apparent refusal to speak (although the marks on her neck, which give rise to the wonderful visual pun at the end hint at some physical trauma robbing her of the power).

But elsewhere, the feel is much more realistic, with some fairly grim and gruesome violence, not least Michael Shannon’s severed, reattached and rotting fingers, and it’s when these two approaches collide that the film is on thin ice. For much of its running time, the sheer conviction of the players – Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and fabulously expressive and winning Sally Hawkins – carries it through. But all it takes is for the audience to think – even for a second – hang on, this is all a bit silly isn’t it? And suddenly the whole enterprise collapses. And it’s hard not to think that when Hawkins is blissfully filling her entire bathroom with water from an overflowing bath in order to engage in sub-aqua nookie with a fish man. Dear god!

Looking back on the nine nominees, then, it strikes me that while there are no outright disasters – nothing nominated this year is anything like as bad as The Imitation Game, Hacksaw Ridge or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – most of the nominees have been bettered by their own directors. Here, The Shape of Water is good, but not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is good, but not as good as the same director’s Memento (or even The Dark Knight). Phantom Thread is good, but not as good as Magnolia. Three Billboards is good, but not as good as In Bruges. The Post is good but – take your pick! Call Me My Your Name may be better than I am Love, but I haven’t seen it.

Passing over Darkest Hour, which really isn’t all that good, that just leaves Lady Bird and Get Out: two films from first-time directors which really stand out as being true statements of intent from fascinating artists to look out for in the years to come. And although I thoroughly enjoyed Lady Bird, it can’t match the breadth, depth, complexity and ambition of Get Out, which – I’m slightly surprised to report – turns out to be my favourite of this year’s nominees.

On to predictions, briefly. I suspect another split year, with Three Billboards gaining enough momentum to overtake The Shape of Water (which is also dogged by accusations of plagiarism) for Best Picture, but I can’t see anyone other than del Toro winning Best Director. Best Actor and Best Actress are foregone conclusions (Oldman and McDormand) as is Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney). Best Supporting Actor is a little more open but Sam Rockwell should probably have a speech ready.

Screenplay is much harder to call. Really, any of the five nominated films could take Best Original Screenplay, with Three Billboards probably having a slight edge, but I’d love Jordan Peele to take it. Best Adapted Screenplay won’t go to The Disaster Artist or Logan, but the other three all have a shot. I suspect the Academy’s tastes lean more towards Molly’s Game than Call Me By Your Name, but I’m by no means sure.

Join me back here this time next week and we’ll all know for certain.

Oscars 2018 – The Post and Phantom Thread

Posted on February 16th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post almost looks like a spoof Oscar-garnering machine. Beloved actors working together for the first time, a true story about noble crusaders standing up against the powerful elite, an expert director and plenty of hype from a long way off. But when it actually arrived, it seemed to have run out of puff a little. In practice it only ended up with two nominations – Best Picture and Best Actress for Meryl Streep.

And I entered the cinema with a slight sense of obligation. Sure, I know Spielberg will marshal the material with grace and elan; Hanks and Streep are never less than watchable; and I wasn’t overly-familiar with the story. But honestly, with the classic All The President’s Men showing us The Washington Post taking on Nixon already, and the very recent, Best Picture winning Spotlight giving us a more modern take on the brave reporters uncover the truth story, I couldn’t help wondering whether there was any real need for The Post?

The story is very simple. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg smuggles out classified reports on the doomed Vietnam War and the New York Times begins to run them but is halted by a court injunction. When copies find their way to the Washington Post, editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham have to decide whether to risk their newly public company by following suit. And that’s it! That’s the whole story. So this is a film about process, and a film about character.

Spielberg’s ability with shots and editing is unrivalled, of course, but it’s his ability to deploy all of the resources of a filmmaker’s arsenal to deliver story which really sets him apart. I’ve recently noted the care with which he sets up Lincoln’s need to pass a constitutional amendment, and his 2015 film Bridge of Spies is another example of his immense skill and care. So, if anyone is going to tell this story, it’s this filmmaker.

What lets the script down a bit is the relentless determination to make it relevant. The parallels between the Nixon administration’s attempt to win the public debate by using the courts to silence dissenting voices are obvious, but that doesn’t stop the film from reminding us again and again and again that Trump is behaving in a very similar way. But at its heart, this is a film about characters, and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer create moments for even the smallest parts, which is partly why the roster of talent continues way past the marquee names. Take a bow Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Michael Stuhlbarg and more besides.

Hanks, of course, is tremendous, delivering a straight-arrow part with straight-arrow charisma. But – perhaps predictably – it’s Meryl Streep’s movie. The portrait of a publishing heiress with the guts to risk it all could have been movie-of-the-week tepid triumph, but Streep invests her with such tremendous vulnerability – even when she’s in the very process of standing up to her army of advisors – that it becomes a uniquely fascinating take on a woman in whom multiple clashing forces are chaotically fighting it out. Sadly, for Streep, Frances McDormand is in the race too, but with three acting Oscars and an unprecedented 21 nominations, I think Streep will be able to bear not winning this one.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is much more complex and unapproachable. In what is being touted as his final film, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the gloriously-named Reynolds Woodcock, fifties dressmaker to London’s great and good. With his severe sister (Leslie Manville – magnetic) as his second-in-command, the tetchy, fussy genius of couture continues to command his army of seamstresses and turn out stunning ball gowns and wedding dresses.

Into this controlled and controlling world comes Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson and a very strange and twisted battle of wills ensues. If The Post’s storyline is simple, Phantom Thread’s is positively anaemic. Much of the running-time resembles a series of short films, some of which are delightful, some of which are less diverting, some are just a bit frustrating. When Alma, ignoring all advice, tries to disrupt Woodcock’s routine by making him a private romantic dinner, she displays so little understanding of his character, and he displays so little sympathy for her feelings, that it’s hard not to feel entirely fed up with both of them, and it’s very hard to remain invested in the future of their romantic relationship.

When the real nature of their relationship is finally revealed, it’s undeniably arresting and original, and does draw various thematic threads together (sorry) but it’s also faintly ridiculous, with a whiff of off-brand Roald Dahl. And what’s also a peculiar choice is that the film opens with the casual dismissal of the previous girlfriend. This sets Alma up as merely the latest in a series of women, which should make Alma’s refusal to go away much more of a threat to Manville’s Cyril. But in fact, Manville plays almost no part in the final act of the film.

So, it’s also a little hard to understand, particularly in light of the dinner scene above, just what Alma is getting out of the relationship, and also how she is able to see into Woodcock’s soul.

I suspect, more than anything, this is a question of taste. I saw this film with two others one of who adored it and one of whom couldn’t wait for it to end. That leaves me somewhere in the middle. The performances, especially the three leads, are absolutely excellent, and director Anderson makes the most of the locations and wintery London scenes. It’s undeniably original and richly realised, but I think fundamentally I didn’t enjoy being in the company of these people and I began to lose interest in the horrible things they chose to do to each other.

Two films left to go, and to hear my thoughts on Oscar-winners past, do check out my new podcast Best Pick, wherein John Dorney, Jessica Regan and I are watching and reviewing every Academy Award Best Picture winner in no particular order.

 

Oscars 2018 – Darkest Hour and Three Billboards

Posted on January 31st, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Here we are again. As well as podcasting about the Oscars, I intend to continue blogging about them, so here are the runners and riders for the 90th Academy Awards…

Call Me By Your Namereviewed here. Moving drama with incredible performances and not quite enough story to sustain the length.

Darkest Hour – enjoyable history lesson with some ghastly lapses, held together by a wonderful central performance. Full review below.

Dunkirk – often very effective outing for Nolan’s rigorous style and not overlong, but not all sequences are equally effective

Get Out – stunning achievement, marrying black comedy, horror and social commentary in a brilliantly controlled manner.

Lady Bird – have yet to see, but looks great

Phantom Thread – have yet to see, and I don’t always enjoy Paul Thomas Anderson’s stuff, so I’m anxious

The Post – have yet to see, and worry that it is inessential

The Shape of Water – have yet to see, but it looks amazing

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – marvellous, meditative drama, which always kept me guessing. Full review below

Darkest Hour

Where would the Academy Awards be without a biopic of a famous historical character, played by a beloved character actor, labouring under mounds of latex? Some years we get several, this year Joe Wright and Gary Oldman provide the only one (unless you count The Post) although not the only film about Dunkirk.

To begin with, Oldman is amazing, with the aforementioned mound of latex applied gingerly and not too roughly, so that – while the resemblance is sometimes absolutely total – Oldman’s interpretation of the role is allowed to shine through. He completely inhabits the character – flaws, ideals, strengths, lapses and doubts – and never dips into caricature. Overall, I think his performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is probably finer (who else would dare go toe-to-toe with Alec Guinness) but this is the kind of expert showboating that the Academy loves and it’s hugely satisfying and fun to watch.

Director Joe Wright surrounds Oldman with an impressive roster of supporting actors too, from Kristin Scott-Thomas who eagerly laps up what tiny crumbs the script gives her and manages to sketch in something resembling a human in barely five minutes of screen-time; to Ronald Pickup, born to play Chamberlain and an excellent Ben Mendelsohn as stammering Bertie.

What isn’t quite so satisfactory is the script. The raw story arguably gives writer Anthony McCarten more to work with than the life of Stephen Hawking, but the pages he has produced are often equally flaccid and unconvincing as they were in The Theory of Everything. One huge problem is that the story, which pits Churchill’s newly-anointed Prime Minister against a gag of senior appeasers, doesn’t give him adequate space to articulate his views on how best to deal with the Nazi menace.

Senior parliamentary figures, having agreed to a war-time coalition on the basis that Chamberlain is removed from office, select Churchill as his successor, presumably knowing that he is certain that Hitler must be opposed and by military force, and then proceed to act as if the very thing was absolutely unthinkable. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that appeasement would have been a dreadful folly, but McCarten is so keen to make sure that Chamberlain, Halifax and the others are able to clearly explain the logic behind appeasement that he never gives Churchill the same opportunity. The result is that Winston is painted as a warmongering maverick who on this occasion got lucky. See Spielberg’s Lincoln for how to do this right. That film glides sedately to a stop while the President lays out exactly why nothing short of a constitutional amendment will do, because Spielberg understands that while such a scene might lack in visual excitement or emotional heft, if that issue is not made absolutely clear, then nothing else in the movie is going to matter.

And this may be the wrong place to bring this criticism up, but Oldman-as-Churchill is the latest in a long line of figures which I might call The Rude Good Man. This is a character who is breathtakingly arrogant and rude to those around him (often women) but whose rudeness is not without wit, and so we are invited to find it funny and iconoclastic (instead of just aggressive and unpleasant) and with whom we empathise because he is saying the unsayable and he is ultimately on the side of the angels. Isn’t it time this figure was laid to rest and Lily James given something to do other than have verbal punishment meted out to her?

So at the end of the film, Churchill must win over the doubters. Unlike Ava DuVernay, Wright is able to use Churchill’s real speeches, so we don’t get some awful paraphrase of “We will fight them on the beaches,” but the already-shaky logic of the film rather falls apart here. Churchill is criticised early on for not being straight with the people of Britain about just how dire the situation is. When the King comes around to his Prime Minister’s way of thinking (an epiphany which frustratingly happens off-screen) he tells him that they are now in partnership, but that the PM must start being straight with the British people. Churchill nods in agreement, but that is the last appearance of the King in the movie, and Churchill’s next opportunity to speak to the nation is the aforementioned famous barnstorming speech.

In fact, according to McCarten and Wright, what Churchill needed was to spend an implausibly long time going one stop on the London Underground, hob-nobbing with ordinary Londoners in order to kick-start his torpid confirmation bias. The absurd scene is the nadir of an otherwise fairly enjoyable film, and appears to have been left over from an earlier, sillier draft in which Churchill was made to sound like a Spitting Image puppet of Jeremy Corbyn, trying to score points in the house by asking questions from “ordinary voters”.

As far as the shooting goes, Wright does create a strong sense of place and time and texture, and he manages to pull off some impressive shots. What he lacks is the ability – which, again, Spielberg always seems to have had – to sew a number of amazing shots together into a fluid and dynamic sequence. Wright’s bravura dollies-to-the-sky and so on stand out because in the edit they are too often sandwiched between very static or otherwise pedestrian set-ups.

So – top ten movie of the year? Clearly not. But quite an enjoyable history lesson and a wonderful opportunity for one of our best actors to have a blast.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Following his debut feature In Bruges, which was astonishing unless you were already familiar with his amazing stage work, writer-director Martin McDonagh stumbled slightly with the diverting but hollow Seven Psychopaths. Three Billboards feels like his most mature, complex and satisfying work to date. Not nearly as much fun as In Bruges (no-one even comes close to exploding the head of a little person, even though there’s a little person right there and nobody calls anyone an inanimate fucking object at any stage) but considerably deeper, richer and more interesting.

Frances McDormand is excellent as grieving mother Mildred Hayes, who pays $5000 to put up three enormous billboards on a quiet country road, taunting the local police for their inability to find her daughter’s killer. McDonagh’s work in the theatre hasn’t lead him to fall into the trap of telling the whole story verbally. People having ideas is one of the hardest things to pull off in cinema. From the opening of this film, I know I’m in safe hands, because McDonagh doesn’t make a meal of it. He just films McDormand driving past the derelict billboards and looking at them. That’s all you need.

This action sets up a wave of recriminations which touches Sam Rockwell’s racist thug of a cop, John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, Caleb Landry-Jones as the billboard manager and essentially the whole town. McDonagh’s first master-stroke (of many) is making the principle antagonist, Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, not an intransigent authority figure but instead a deeply compassionate family man with a cancer diagnosis.

To say much more would be to spoil this endlessly rich and rewarding film, but what really struck me was how the playwright’s cynical and mordant tone has shifted into something much more hopeful and optimistic. So, yes, we do get some clumsy racial slurs early on (which to be honest, the film doesn’t need and which stick in the throat a bit), as well as the nasty fun of McDormand drilling a hole through a disgruntled dentist’s thumbnail, or – in one amazing shot – Rockwell tossing Landry-Jones out of a second-storey window. But ultimately, the film offers us a redemptive view of humanity which is hugely refreshing and uplifting.

Some of the plot contrivances have come in for criticism, and I understand where those critiques are coming from (hi guys) but I don’t entirely share them, except in one case, very near the middle of the film, where poor old Željko Ivanek is made to recite some truly awful dialogue which makes no sense at all, but which is simply required to move one of the chess pieces to the appropriate square on the board. What’s much more laudable is the way McDonagh manages to avoid the plot disintegrating into a very uninteresting whodunnit without the gears grinding in the least little way. And what’s truly impressive is the that the film constantly kept me guessing without me ever feeling cheated, bewildered or manipulated.

Every member of the cast acquits themselves with honour – look it’s Lester Freamon! – and Carter Burwell’s music knits the whole thing together. A wonderful film to savour, bar a few tiny stumbles.

Molly’s Game

Posted on January 7th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut arrives and it’s certainly a heady concoction, full of fizz and invention, but it does end up feeling just a little hollow. It’s the true story of the improbably-named Molly Bloom, whose career as a professional skier is interrupted by an injury and who ends up making more money running her boss’s poker game than she does doing her job. She therefore takes the game away from him and ends up as the unwitting confidante of a number of top players, including members of the Russian Mob.

Sorkin borrows a page from his own Facebook, designing the structure of the film around Molly’s court case, in which her phones full of incriminating texts from regulars at her poker games become the prize which law enforcement is after but which Molly, despite protestations from her lawyer, is unwilling to surrender. Around this main narrative thread, there are frequent flashbacks to Molly’s childhood, young adulthood and evenings running poker rooms.

The two different parts of the movie are handled very differently. Especially early on, Sorkin makes the flashbacks an assault on the senses. Chastain rattles out Sorkin’s voice-over dialogue with crisp authority as driving music knits together images from a huge variety of sources, to the point where the style is not so much Award Winning Prestige Motion Picture, but more YouTube video. At times, he seems about to fall prey to one of what David Frost called “Lord Privy Seals“.

The rest of the film – mainly contemporary verbal fencing between Jessica Chastain’s resolute Molly and Idris Elba’s compassionate lawyer (thankfully much more cautious Stringer Bell than lumpen Luther) –  is more conventionally shot and edited. Sorkin, whether wisely or not, trusts that his dialogue and his actors will carry the day. And they mostly do. Both Elba and Chastain do solid work, if a little one-note. Kevin Costner and Jeremy Strong are both fine. Michael Cera has fun as movie-star composite Player X, and Chris O’Dowd possibly has little too much fun as the hilariously inarticulate Douglas Downey, whose Russian Mob connections prove to be Molly’s downfall. It’s just a shame that as a director, Sorkin hasn’t found any middle ground between shooting his scenes like a particularly demented music video on the one hand, and like any random episode of The West Wing on the other.

The story itself is well-paced and never less than entertaining. Sorkin uses the backstory well, serves the needs of poker and poker-related gamesmanship, family drama and legal thriller equally and adroitly, and – as you might expect – the dialogue crackles along. He is also unafraid to deploy jokes, even during moment of the highest drama, so when Elba is speechifying or Chastain is expositing, all is right with the world.

But there are a few niggles. Surprisingly, not all the poker stuff is completely accurate. Twice Sorkin, who must have known better, over-reaches. Wanting to establish Michael Cera’s character as a brilliantly player who can force better hands to fold, he gives the other player the nuts, i.e. an unbeatable hand, which strains credulity quite unnecessarily. Later, he allows Molly to begin raking the pot in the middle of a hand, which is highly unlikely to be true. I suppose it could be, I haven’t read the book, but most players would revolt at this sudden, unexpected and irrevocable rewriting of the rules.

Ultimately, with an eye on the Oscars, the question becomes – is this just a thrill ride, a roller coaster of words and situations, or does it illuminate something bigger than itself. In conversations with Dad Costner and lawyer Elba, the nature of Molly’s stubborn integrity is probed, but she remains a movie hero, who plays by her own rules, but whose interior life is only glimpsed occasionally, unless it’s being spelled out for us in voice over.

And as the film has no ambitions to explore anything beyond the realms of poker and crime, this remains a well-made entertainment rather than a masterpiece.

Look out for episode 0 of my new podcast Best Pick, dropping on Wednesday, and be back here on 23 January for the Oscar nominations,

Pre-Oscars 2018

Posted on January 4th, 2018 in At the cinema | 1 Comment »

Although the nominations have not yet been announced, I’ve got my eye on what films are getting “buzz”. One leading candidate I’ve already seen (Dunkirk) and at least a couple of other slightly more left-field possibilities are also in the bag (Get Out and Bladerunner 2049) but back in London with a less-than-usually hectic schedule, I sought out a couple of indie films likely to get mentions on 23 January.

Please remember, my reviews are not guaranteed to be spoiler-free. Proceed at your own risk.

The first film I took in was The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s depiction of a young mother struggling to make ends meet for her and her six-year-old daughter in her run-down motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World in Orlando. Brooklyn Prince as Halley and Bria Vinaite as her daughter Mooney are outstanding as is the rest of the mostly-unknown cast who all give hugely engaging, truthful performances. Really only Willem Dafoe is at all familiar, but he slips in beautifully as Bobby, the wearily compassionate manager of the Magic Castle.

Halley scams, makes friends, makes enemies. Mooney plays, makes friends, makes enemies. Bobby bears witness, tries to protect Halley from herself and the motel from Halley, and all of this takes place walking distance from The Happiest Place On Earth™. Baker is very aware of the irony, but to his credit, never leans on it too heavily. It’s all beautifully observed and never less than fascinating to watch, but although to some extent Halley’s misdeeds do start catching up with her at the end of the film, I never quite got the sense of the dominoes starting to topple. Sean Baker has essentially made a dozen or so short films set in this fascinating location, but for me there’s no sense of crescendo even when social services arrive and try and take Mooney away. And the eventual (slightly inexplicable) trip to the real Magic Kingdom at the end doesn’t deliver the necessary catharsis either, because it’s all over with very quickly, and too many threads are left hanging.

Similarly episodic, but (slightly) more in control of the narrative structure is Call Me By Your Name which arrives festooned with awards and critical acclaim. Directed by Luca Guadagnino with a script by James Ivory from the novel by André Aciman, this is a coming-of-age story in four languages set in a bucolic Italian retreat some time in the 1980s.

Elio, the slightly feckless son of academic Jewish couple the Perlmans, sees his regular summer sojourns as a tedious stretch to be endured, but he begins experimenting sexually with one of the local girls, not least as a distraction from this year’s visiting student Oliver, played with brawny intelligence by Armie Hammer. Eventually, the two of them develop a sexual relationship.

As Elio, Timothée Chalamet is revelatory, his unstudied awkwardness and fleeting articulacy capturing with pure honesty the way a young life is slowly assembled through different experiences. But while this film doesn’t have the near-random order of events that weakens Florida, it does get a bit bogged-down in the long middle section where Elio and Oliver continue their affair, happily, warmly, equally and without fear of discovery or approbation. The desire to avoid melodrama is laudable, but the danger is that one avoids drama.

Looking at a synopsis, I can see that the plot of the novel has been streamlined, and I can understand why, but when it becomes clear that this is not an older man taking advantage of a younger man, nor a foolish infatuation of a teenager with an adult, but a genuine meeting-of-minds, then simply watching that play out is not quite as interesting to me as it apparently is for Guadagnino. So I found that the episodic feeling was a bigger problem here than with The Florida Project simply because the stakes feel so low here.

Unlike Florida, though, when the catharsis comes, it really hits home. In a movie which is largely concerned with visuals, where many scenes play out with little or no dialogue, the crucial scene is essentially a monologue from Michael Stuhlbarg to his son. Stahlbarg, a fabulous actor, pulls it off magnificently, and so finally, and without ever tipping into hysteria, the film delivers a real punch of an ending, which considerably makes up for the sluggish preceding half hour or so.

That’s it for now. Other movies which I imagine are in the running include The Post, Molly’s GameThree Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Lady Bird, and Detroit. I also wouldn’t rule out The Big SickThe Shape of Water and I Tonya.

Oscars 2017 – Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, predictions

Posted on February 26th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Hell or High Water

This was still showing at a couple of rep cinemas but I missed it and had to catch up with it on iTunes. Maybe it would have cast a stronger spell over me in a cinema, but watching at home on my own I was immensely struck by how ordinary it was, especially in the light of the other nominees. It’s not a bad film by any means, but nothing in it is in any way striking, original or important.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are fine as the brothers resorting to bank robbery for reasons which (to create a bit of extra false suspense) are not immediately clear and Jeff Bridges is in good form as the laconic sheriff on their tale. The sprawling rural setting, casual violence and Bridges in particular all call the Coen Brothers to mind, but this is even more straight down the line than True Grit, arguably their most conventional film, and it sorely lacks the kind of idiosyncrasies which they or someone like them might have been able to bring.

Taylor Sheridan’s script is unhurried (good!), the characters do more than simply go through the motions, and David Mackenzie photographs and paces it well, but I couldn’t find anything to excite me. It’s all fine, but it’s all been done as well or better elsewhere, notably on TV in shows like Justified and especially Breaking Bad.

Hidden Figures

More problematic is Hidden Figures, which aims higher and misses much more comprehensively. On paper, this looks like ideal Oscar fodder. Like Best Picture Winners before it including The King’s Speech, Argo and god help us, Shakespeare in Love, it appears to tackle important issues but does so in a way which is ultimately reassuring rather than challenging. While this is not as cack-handed as either, this film reminded me not of the foregoing but rather of previous nominees The Help and The Imitation Game.

To begin with, this was a story which deserved a wider airing and if people who had not known about their contribution beforehand leave the cinema able to cite the names Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson (as well as appreciating that they were three of an entire team of African-American women who contributed to NASA in very significant ways over several decades) then that is a very good thing indeed.

But it’s a shame that the movie itself is so generic, bland and unconvincing. As with The Imitation Game, I am not unduly worried about historical accuracy (although it’s reassuring that unlike with that film, someone on set knows how to pronounce the name Euler). I did feel that I didn’t learn an awful lot, compared to, say Selma for example, but to be fair it’s not entirely to Selma’s credit that I was rather uninformed about that period of Dr King’s life, nor is it a slam against the makers of Hidden Figures that I was rather more aware of the facts that movie is based on. But whereas Selma viscerally made me feel what life was like for black people in the segregated south, Hidden Figures feels like the carnival float version, depicting the pain and struggle in very broad and familiar brushstrokes.

So I don’t mind at all that in reality Katherine Johnson just went ahead and used the whites-only ladies’ room, nor that although John Glenn did ask for her personally to check the calculations, she had a couple of days to do it. What I do mind is that the depiction of these women’s struggle is not on its own terms convincing, illuminating or even terribly interesting. Compared to the depiction of sexism (and to a lesser extent, racism) in Mad Men, although the fictional versions of Dorothy, Katherine and Mary do face a lot of road blocks, most of them are overcome fairly easily once they make an Impassioned Speech. When in 2017, Donald Trump is trying to stop transgender people from using appropriate bathrooms and stopping green card holders from being with their families, the cosy come-on-in-and-join-us, racism-is-solved moments come across as smug and complacent, rather than punch-the-air triumphant. The slow thawing of Kirsten Dunst’s character towards Octavia Spencer is the sole exception, as this is at least presented without the implausible grandstanding seen elsewhere.

Screenwriter Allison Schroeder does little to really establish who these three women are and what sets them apart from each other, so we must be thankful that the three leads do such amazing work. Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae all manage to find moments to elevate the largely sit-com style script to something a bit deeper and more complex, but these opportunities are frustratingly rare. Meanwhile Director Theodore Melfi has failed to learn the lesson of Apollo 13, where Ron Howard used all-CGI shots of rockets and spacecraft, but made them all look as much like real footage as possible. Here we have science-fiction style sequences where virtual cameras whirl around shiny capsules, cut together with archive footage which clashes horribly.

So, I fear that one of the films I was most looking forward to ends up as probably the weakest of this year’s bunch.

Now – predictions. The big question is: will this be La La Land’s night? I’m going to say yes. Moonlight is gathering a lot of buzz but faced with a choice between the feel-good musical about Hollywood itself, or the low-key drama about a black, gay man whose life is turned around by the drug trade, the very conservative Academy is going to stick firmly in the middle ground, so La La Land takes Best Picture and Damien Chazelle takes Best Director, although I wouldn’t entirely rule Barry Jenkins out of the running.

Denzel Washington has probably done enough to eclipse Casey Affleck in the Best Actor stakes, but if it is going to be La La Land’s night, then Emma Stone will take Best Actress. The Best Supporting categories are far easier to predict, with Mahershala Ali needing to write a speech and Viola Davis probably having already cleared space on her dresser.

As they are nominated in different categories, Moonlight and La La Land can expect to split the screenwriting awards and I’d expect La La Land to take Best Song, Best Score and maybe Best Cinematography too.

Let’s check back here tomorrow and see how I did.

Oscars 2017- Fences and Moonlight

Posted on February 19th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It would be easy to lazily lump these two films in the same category – family dramas dealing with contemporary issues of race and class – but actually Denzel Washington and Barry Jenkins’ films reveal two fundamentally different approaches to movie-making. I didn’t think either of them was entirely “complete” but both have immensely powerful moments.

Fences

Fences is probably an extremely good play. I never saw it on the stage, either on its first run in 1987, or its 2010 production with Washington and Viola Davis. It won a slew of awards in the eighties though, and watching the movie, I can sense its power. But original author August Wilson died in 2005 and Tony Kushner (discreetly taking only a producer credit) has reverentially adapted it for the screen, while Denzel Washington directs himself in the leading part.

From the opening scenes, something is off. Troy Maxson (Washington) and buddy Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) shoot the shit, first riding around on the back of their garbage truck, later with Maxson’s wife Rose (Davis). Their dialogue is full of non-sequiturs, half-sentences and interruptions, but the rhythms are practised, mannered and artificial. Part of the problem is that Washington is such an articulate and literate actor that, in these early scenes, Troy’s storytelling never convinces as the imagination of a salt-of-the-earth working man. The fourth wall becomes a narrow slit through which we glimpse real humans only occasionally, through a mesh of stylised language and pseudo-authentic banter.

The story takes its time to get going as well, but as it does, the depths of Troy’s character are revealed and the movie begins to evade its stagey origins. An early speech from Troy to his son in which he is lectured about the importance of duty sets up just how selfish and hypocritical this man truly is. Washington has never had any compunction about playing morally flawed characters, but Troy Maxson must be the most compromised of all his creations, constantly screwing over the people around him, while angrily denouncing the injustices which life metes out to him.

Despite this, the fog of artificiality never really goes away and among the very small cast (one major character is never seen at all) Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother in particular fails to convince. One key problem is that not only has Kushner been unable or unwilling to open the play out in any useful way, but as director Washington often frames the shots awkwardly and almost never finds ways of telling the story visually. Even the fence of the title is much more often talked about than seen, to the point where each repetition clangs more absurdly than the last.

However, as the human drama builds, the film slowly starts to weave its spell, and when Troy has to tell his wife the worst news she’s ever heard, Washington just points the camera at Viola Davis and lets her fall apart. It’s an incredible piece of acting, a shattering moment in the story and there can’t be many actors alive who could have pulled it off.

The last episode in the film belongs to Jovan Adepo, as Troy’s son Cory. This young British/American actor had been extremely solid bouncing off Washington earlier, but he is completely convincing in these final fifteen minutes, and if it weren’t for Davis’s barnstorming performance, would have been the MVP for sure.

It’s a shame then that such quality material has been handled with such clumsy reverence. Washington is good when he’s good, but he’s been better on-screen many times before, and as director it feels like he’s out of his depth. However, Viola Davis is absolutely sensational and her grip on the Best Actress Oscar is now iron-clad.

Moonlight

If Fences is a film stuck in the eighties, then Moonlight feels like a film which simply could not have been made even three years ago. Although the story is much simpler, smaller, more contained than Fences, it feels like cinema throughout, with its three narrative sections identified by named and numbered chapters (one of my favourite devices), we meet our hero as a child, teenager and young man. Early on, Jenkins is so determined that this small story should not feel like TV (or, worse, theatre) that his camera whirls dementedly around a simple three-person dialogue scene. Later on it settles down, but the shot selection is always inventive and the lighting and grading are sumptuous.

The first section revolves as much around Juan (Mahershala Ali, worlds away from the smooth charisma of Remy Danton on House of Cards) as it does Chiron, a taciturn and lonely child whose mother (Naomie Harris, also miles away from Moneypenny) is slowly falling apart. The drug trade is an ever-present feature of the film, but it is presented clearly and without judgement. Juan is the most principled and compassionate drug lord you are ever likely to meet, and when later Chiron slips into his erstwhile mentor’s shoes he is presented more as a successful entrepreneur than anything else.

The second section is at once the most familiar and the most successful. In its early parts, where Chiron is bullied at school, it feels like every other eighties or nineties high school movie remixed, but the tone is so intense that the broad familiarity ceases to matter as the specific details make it sing. When Chiron finally connects with Kevin, it’s a really beautiful moment.

In a film filled with truthful, subtle and powerful acting, the third section is blessed with a marvellous performance from Andre Holland (Selma). Kevin and Chiron, reunited after countless years, struggle to reconnect and rebuild what they once had. So far, so fantastic. Moments of real power, beautifully underplayed and shot with great skill and panache. But the movie doesn’t so much end as stop, leaving any number of unanswered questions and a gnawing feeling that the shattering conclusion which would bring these various threads together is still sitting on Barry Jenkins’ hard drive.

It’s fascinating how the old-fashioned melodrama of Fences, finally overcomes the staginess of its presentation to create a moment whose sucker-punch power Moonlight cannot hope to match. But it’s equally fascinating how, even without a narrative which conforms to those expected shapes, the tiny details of Chiron’s life remain telling, affecting and moving.