Movie Review – La La Land

It seems like an awfully long time ago the first ripples of buzz for La La Land starting moving through the film community. Ripples which since developed into a full blown tsunami. And, as is customary around awards season, there has also been significant backlash against this film which seems to have captivated so many. With La La Land now sharing the throne with Titanic and All About Eve for most Oscar nominated film in history, both the fans and the critics are more vocal than ever.

La La Land is a film I was practically sold on before I even saw one image. I was completely blown away by Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a piece of work that made me think this particular director was going places and I was going to follow him to those places – figuratively speaking. La La Land was also described as a re-invention of the old Hollywood musical – yes please! And then, the casting of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, whose on-screen chemistry is so powerful the producers probably saw nothing but tap dancing dollar signs on the screen.

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In case you are one of the few people who have absolutely no idea what La La Land is about, let me bring you up to speed. Mia and Sebastian are two young people in Los Angeles, struggling to achieve their dreams. Mia is an actress, but spends more time working in a coffee shop than acting, and has to endure repeated disappointments at castings. Sebastian is a jazz pianist, longing for the golden age of jazz music and dreaming of opening his own jazz club. The two meet and develop a relationship, but the relationship is tested by the all-consuming pursuit of their dreams.

How to define success, and the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness, were issues that were beautifully dealt with in Whiplash, and La La Land picks up on a lot of the same themes. It is a movie that quite forcefully rejects the notion of “having it all” and in this way puts itself in opposition to some of the more dreamy-eyed, naive Hollywood narratives. The look of La La land may be nostalgic, but the message is entirely pragmatic.

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And yet, I have to say that I wasn’t completely dazzled by La La Land. I really, really enjoyed it, make no mistake. But, taking into consideration what Chazelle has done before, I am a tad baffled that this is the film to sweep the awards circuit. It has taken me a long time to digest this film and try to reconcile my conflicting emotions around it.

The chemistry between Stone and Gosling is as cracking as ever, the script is funny and the cinematography is both dreamy and daring. Emma Stone is just on fire in the best possible sense throughout the film. The dancing and singing is not Rogers/Astaire level but I actually love the soundtrack so much I bought it. So what’s missing, and why isn’t it something I would put in the running for movie of the year?

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A very good friend of mine said that she wished they would have just left out the musical parts of La La Land. And I have come to realise that I kind of agree. I like the musical parts, and I like Mia and Sebastian’s journeys towards their dreams. But I maybe like those things better apart? I understand that a key part of the film’s message is that this is a musical which looks so much like a classic Hollywood musical but is not, in actual fact, that movie. And I also appreciate that the film’s musical elements often have a grittier, more realistic take on classic musical scenes. You can really see the dirt and the uneven surfaces of LA’s roads, and Gosling and Stone are more relatable thanks to their less than perfect dancing skills.

But, when you commit yourself to this particular genre, you will invariably be measured according to the standards of the greatest musicals. There’s a really fascinating video essay which does a side-by-side comparison of scenes in La La Land that were inspired by scenes in other musicals. I watched it as I was interested to see what little nods Chazelle had given to these classics, but was also struck by how much better and more vibrant those original scenes looked.

Again, this isn’t to say that I in any way disliked La La Land or that I wish it would burn in the fiery pits of hell as some people seem to feel.

It is a lovely film, which I will probably watch again and which I will encourage others to watch. The message of the the film stuck with me afterwards and made me think. The film as a whole just isn’t as polished and punchy as one might have expected given Chazelle’s previous work – and yes, I do know how young and “new” he still is! I’m a year older and can only make Stikbot videos with my kids, so I really shouldn’t talk.

I wonder if anyone else out there is in the same camp as I find myself, as it seems to be that you either have to think La La Land is the best evs or the worst evs? So let me know how you feel about it in the comments, I’d love to know!

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In Defense of the Disney Princess Movie

A little while ago, I was discussing Moana, the latest “Disney Princess Movie”, with someone when they commented that it was so great that Disney was finally changing its ways and creating good female role models.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment expressed but the topic had been at the forefront of my mind for a while and this incident, combined with this tweet from Caroline Siede really made me want to speak – and write – my mind about the power of the much maligned Disney Princess.

The Disney Princess is a character who has been reduced to sparkly dresses, man-obsessing and merchandise, but I believe this isn’t actually the films’ message, or at least hasn’t been for many, many decades. We do a disservice, not only to the people who have laboured over these films, but also to the little girls who enjoy them, when we assume that these stories are nothing more than “Get the guy and live happily ever after”.

What these films really have in common, their one defining core, is that they all feature a strong, if imperfect, female protagonist who is fighting to be free of the stifling environment she finds herself in. And Disney has been sticking to this same formula for many decades by now, it’s not a new thing.

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Growing up in the 80s and 90s, the heyday of Disney’s revival period, it was the Disney Princess Movie I could turn to when I couldn’t find any other films that featured a female protagonist. In fact, I ask of you which other studio you can think of that has so consistently focused on a female point of view in their movies? Pixar, which when it arrived was hailed as a breath of fresh air in the animation world, took practically forever to have a movie with a female lead.

Meanwhile, Disney Princess Movies were showering us with female leads – and diverse ones at that. Disney movies, as most Hollywood productions, are overwhelmingly white in look and perspective, but which other major studios in the 90s were taking big risks by focusing entire projects around Native American, Arab or Chinese leads? Even now, in 2017, Disney Princess Movies’ diversity is surely unmatched by other major studios.

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But, you may say, the problem is that all these movies tell girls that all they should care about is a prince and a castle. If that’s what you see, you haven’t been paying attention.

With the latest few instalments of the Disney Princess Movie, the studio has gone out of their way to show that this isn’t the case (Frozen, Moana) but I would argue that even the classic Disney revival era Princess Movies (Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast) are more complex than that.

Every Disney Princess Movie has its own “I want” song; it’s usually the one that gets stuck in your head and your 5 year old forces you to listen to on repeat. This song is the heart of every movie, the one that sets the tone and lets you understand the motivation and inner landscape of the girl in question. And, usually though not always, this song comes before the introduction of a romantic interest and is therefore not focused on getting a man.

Instead, it’s about rebelling against the demands of the often patriarchal society she finds herself in. It’s about resisting getting married for the sake of getting married, about breaking free of the rules that restrict her movement and curiosity, about the tedium of living a society that expects so little intellectually of its girl children. Think of Part of Your World: “Bet’cha on land, they understand, Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters, Bright young women, sick of swimming, Ready to stand” A feminist anthem if ever I heard one – even if Ariel presumably was pretty disappointed when she learned the reality on land.

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And little girls eat.this.up. Why else are these songs normally what they remember best of all from the movie? What they remember, word for word, even into adulthood? By the time there’s a kiss and a wedding (if there is one) these girls’ imagination is already somewhere else; paddling down waterfalls, fighting off Mongolians or devouring books in a super-sized library of their own.

Ask any woman of my age what the highlight of Beauty & the Beast was and, apart from that library scene, I bet that most will mention the moment Belle runs into the field behind her house, having rejected the revolting, macho Gaston, and sings her little lungs out about the adventures she yearns for. Yes, sure, the ballroom scene was technically beautiful and we all love Angela Lansbury singing, but I don’t think Belle swirling in a gold dress was really what made her a hero for so many young girls.

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So, apart from those very early Disney movies (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), Disney Princess Movies haven’t featured girls harping on about how much they want a man. But it is true that many of the movies of the 80s and 90s featured a love interest and a traditional happy ending, Pocahontas being a notable exception. However, I fail to see how this should be a problem seeing that about 90% of all movies (and music!) is about love – the having of, the wanting of and the losing of.

On the contrary, it’s a complete joy to see the roles reversed and the man relegated to the  role of pointless, inactive object of affection and desire that is so often given to a woman. I mean, look at Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid. Ah, beautiful, dumb Eric. He doesn’t get to do an awful lot, which means that the movie still focuses entirely on Ariel and what she does, the choices she makes, in order to get what she wants. In this case, a pair of feet and the pretty boy she’s fallen for. Granted, some of her choices are rash and dumb, but why does a 16 year old girl need to be held to a higher standard than a 16 year old boy?

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The pursuit of a love interest is a classic movie storyline, but in Disney princess movies the girl is the one pushing the story forward. And she normally gains what she declared she wanted in her “I want” song, while also getting a nice piece of eye candy on the side. Win-win.

Plus, the Disney princesses are literally fighting patriarchy, as they are usually saddled with a crotchety old dad who is very concerned that they  behave in a certain way. The girls rebel, kick some villain butt, get the guy and at the end of the movies these fathers find themselves changed and softened, thanks to their daughters’ refusal to submit to their will. I don’t really know how much more Captain Obvious these movies need to be.

I realise that Disney Princess Movies are not perfect, but I believe that Disney doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the diversity and pushing of boundaries they have been doing for decades when so many other studios were still dragging their heels. And I know, from a personal level, that when I doubted whether it was “cool” to read so much, go against the  tide or speak my mind, I only had to turn to these characters that I so admired to be re-assured that I was on the right track.

 

Movie Review – Arrival

We are nearly at the end of 2016, and thank God for that. This year has been a supremely tough one, both on a personal level, and because the world as a whole is clearly going to the dogs. Hence the extremely infrequent and erratic writing, despite the best of intentions.

When the going gets tough, I can always seek solace in movies and I have really been holding out hope for Arrival, the latest from Denis Villeneuve. I liked Prisoners, LOVED Enemy and was a bit underwhelmed by Sicario. But I knew that this one delved into questions about the nature of communication, a favourite subject of mine, as well as starring the stunning Amy Adams, so I hoped this would make it a rewarding experience overall.

The story centers around a professor of linguistics, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is chosen to head a team trying to decipher the language of aliens that have come to Earth. These aliens have arrived in 12 huge vessels hovering over different countries around the globe. Her task is not only to make sense of the in-human sounds of the alien language, but to share her findings with other teams around the world, in an atmosphere that is growing increasingly tense and hostile with each passing day that the aliens remain on Earth. No one knows what these creatures are here for; do they mean to harm us or help us?

What then unfolds is a story that is more about humans than it is about aliens. It is an intelligent, but not cold, examination of our human flaws and foibles.

The script, adapted by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, deftly handles the very tricky and seemingly un-cinematic subject of linguistics. It also introduces a believable “aliens just arrived on Earth”-scenario, avoiding the pitfalls of so many other films that are all screaming hordes and shouty army sergeants.

And how refreshing it is to have the hero of a film be a professor of linguistics!  Watching Louise puzzle over the aliens’ attempt at communication alongside her colleague, a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), was, to me, just as exciting as any action scene. As a bit of a linguistics nerd, I savoured the theoretical discussions about language and the way we construct it and it constructs us.

Amy Adams is, as per usual, just a delight to watch. We see our own wonder and curiosity reflected in her face as she slowly gets closer to the aliens she is studying.

All of the fantastic elements of the film are then held together by the most incredible score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. The score is a beautiful combination of otherworldly sounds and mechanical noises with an undercurrent of indecipherable vocals that lend the tracks the same human warmth that is pulsating throughout the film.

And this is where Arrival really stood out for me, and gave me some peace in a worrying and stressful time. The movie doesn’t just grabble with theory. It elevates – and yes, stretches – the ideas behind the theory, and applies it to the narrative in a way that clarifies the human impact of these ideas.

What if your greatest gift would also cause you the greatest pain? Would you embrace it, or would you fight it? The science may not hold up to close scrutiny but, as with any great science fiction story, you need a healthy dose of fiction to go with the science. Great science fiction is never just a showcase for shiny spaceships, cool robots and scary alien creatures. At the core you have to have a human story that helps us see our place in the world more clearly. And, after Arrival, I do.

Movie Review – Captain Fantastic

In Captain Fantastic, we meet a family that has decided to live apart from the modern world. The Cash family live in a forest, in an unbearably quaint campsite they have built for themselves. Mom, dad and their six children spend their days learning survival skills and exploring the natural world around them. They are also a thoroughly intellectual family, spending much of the day reading about and discussing political tomes and classical literature. But, tragedy strikes, and Ben and his children have to leave the place they call home on a road trip that will expose the children to the world – and the people – their parents shunned a long time ago.

Maybe at some point in your life, maybe after reading some Thoreau, you have found yourself thinking: “If only I could pack it all in and go live in the forest, wild and free, reading books and eating foraged berries, then, then I’d be truly happy.”

It certainly feels like we live in a world where, as we are still striving to improve, grow, modernise at any cost, we simultaneously get bombarded with messages about how toxic our modern world is, and how nature has the answers we are all looking for. Modern life is – for an awful lot of us – stressful, lonely, anxiety-inducing and perplexing.

So on the surface, Captain Fantastic might seem like just another David Wolfe-inspired Facebook meme come to life. But, in actual fact, it is a deeply moving and honest portrayal of a family full of individuals trying to figure out who they are and how to define who they are. And, yes, even the adults are still just figuring it out, as are most of us. Their way of living is attractive and is even described by one character as “paradise”, yet we are made to understand from quite early on that living in the wild is not a panacea. There is still pain, and there is no running from it.

The concepts that Captain Fantastic grapples with hit incredibly close to home for me and so naturally I was completely taken with this movie. It is a movie about the difficulty of choosing the right path, parents’ love for their children, unconventional living, family ties, mental health and loss. It asks you to think about what it means to live a good life and how parents can give their children a good life that will shape them into well-rounded adults. How do we walk the balance between our own convictions and the rules of society around us?

The acting is spectacular, with Viggo Mortensen’s performance perfectly pitched as a man trying to come to terms with the mistakes he has made while still fighting to keep his family together. He wholly inhabits the role and it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing as good a job. The children are all fantastic, well-written characters and the actors bring them to life so well. Particularly the eldest child, played by George MacKay, undergoes a complete transformation in front of our eyes, as a young man just coming into himself. You will miss this family once the credits start rolling.

A lot of the reason for this is also thanks to writer-director Matt Ross. His screenplay is witty, fun, thoughtful, heart warming and heart breaking and manages all of those tones well. There is no doubt that he has an affection for these characters and for their unconventional lifestyle. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that he has made some choices in his writing which allow us a more even handed understanding of who these people are than what one might expect at first. As a slightly crunchy liberal type who was reading Marx at 14, but is nonetheless too skeptical to completely douse myself in the organic, vegetable-dyed, sugar-free Kombucha-Kool-Aid that many hippie types offer up,  I really appreciated this balance.

I loved this movie with every fibre of my being, and know this is something I will return to again and again. The thought that I was left with at the end is that, ultimately, the most essential thing is not so much how we live our life but more who we live it for. And that’s something we could all do with thinking about.

Bumper Review Post – Every Movie I Saw on Four Long Distance Flights

You know what they say is the key ingredient that makes a great blog right? Consistency! You have to consistently post something, even if every post isn’t a Pulitzer Prize contender. Well, I guess that makes this blog sub-par, but I hope that hasn’t scared you off.

I intend to make up for my months long absence by throwing a bunch of short and to the point movie reviews at you, as I have watched an awful lot of movies lately. I have just returned from an overseas trip that required several lengthy legs of air travel. These days air travel can feel a bit like cinephile heaven, if you can just ignore the fact that your legs have completely stopped getting a fresh supply of blood, your 8 year old has a screen that randomly changes languages to French and Spanish mid-movie and that your 6 year old refuses to understand the concept of taking off their headphones while talking, resulting in them very loudly asking WHY ARE THEY KISSING LIKE THAT MOMMY as they catch a glimpse of the non-child-friendly film on your screen.

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So yes, maybe these extended cinema trips in the sky have some downsides, but then they also have wine, so it all balances out in the end.

Before we dive into the reviews, a quick disclaimer. When flying and watching movies simultaneously, I cry more easily. This, in fact, is a very common phenomenon, as any faithful listener of Kermode & Mayo’s film review will know. But I also tend to laugh more easily and generally enjoy stupid stuff more.

In fact, when choosing movies on an airplane I often specifically gravitate towards some of the lighter fare that wouldn’t normally be top of my viewing list. I just don’t seem to enjoy serious and slow movies as much on a plane. I once tried watching Tree of Life on a plane; big mistake!

So, take my opinions with a grain of salt, they were likely heavily influenced by the recycled cabin air and all those cute little bottles of free wine.

Where to Invade Next

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Michael Moore decides that, rather than invading foreign countries for their oil, America should rather just steal great idea of governance from other countries, ideas that have so far not taken hold in America. During the film, he goes to Iceland, Tunisia, Slovenia, Italy, France, Portugal, Norway, Finland and Germany in search of better ways to live.

I’m not sure the central conceit of the documentary worked, it was definitely a bit jumbled and didn’t make for a coherent film. I also have serious reservations about some of the facts as they were portrayed in the documentary. But, I really enjoyed it nonetheless. It was uplifting to see so many individuals who had great ideas and beliefs about what makes a good country and what makes a good life, and who actually managed to live by those beliefs.

There were some truly touching moments in the film, such as when an American school teacher explained why she had moved to Finland to teach, as well as when the father of a teenager murdered during the terrorist attack in Norway explains how Norway managed to come out of that horrific time with its national identity and freedoms intact. Indeed, the whole section on Norway and their approach to incarceration was a complete eye opener and has left me thinking about it for days afterwards.

Eye in the Sky

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Eye in the Sky takes place in several different locations around the world, but the bulk of the focus of the film is in Nairobi, Kenya. This is the location of a house with known terrorists and we follow various military personnel and ministers around the world as they try to decide whether to agree to a drone strike. A child is in the vicinity of the target for the drone strike and so the implications of that need to be considered.

I had heard several great reviews of Eye in the Sky but I was also slightly wary of watching another drone warfare movie. I have already watched Good Kill, which I enjoyed well enough, but I worried that this would just be more of the same. I needn’t have worried. The film was thought provoking and truly thrilling, nail-biting stuff. At one point, I half hid under by airplane issued blanket because I couldn’t bear the tension. And this is in a movie with very little action, the main action was people in rooms arguing with each other.

I thoroughly recommend this movie. It’s rare that you find a movie that has you on the edge of your seat AND also gives your mind things to chew on for a long time afterwards. It’s timely, relevant and important and it has Alan Rickman. What more is there to say?

Everybody Wants Some!!

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Richard Linklater’s newest movie, set in the early eighties, follows a house full of rowdy baseball players in the days leading up to the start of college.

I have a soft spot for Linklater’s work. The whole Before trilogy is an absolute delight and I also loved Boyhood. If I could use just two words to describe my general feeling about Linklater’s movies, it would be “deeply human”. They feel like flesh and blood movies, pulsing with experiences, ideas and conversations that so many of us have had, across ages, genders, races, nationalities etc. The Before trilogy is my favourite; romantic movies that don’t romanticise but show the real conflicts and ambiguities inherent in any relationship between two separate human beings trying to form and maintain a meaningful relationship.

Everybody Wants Some!! left me feeling far more conflicted. To begin with, I couldn’t stand the characters in the movie, the exact types of people I would have never spent time with in college, or university, as I would call it. Chauvinist young men who think it’s charming to pester girls and who have no particular interest in actually learning anything of an academic nature while in an institute of higher learning. The movie featured so much raucous, macho shouting that at times I just wanted to turn off the sound completely.

However, the acting was great and many of the actors had enough charisma that they wore down my defences and allowed me to connect with the characters more. There is an obvious nostalgia trip here for Linklater and it’s also clear that he has great affection for these characters. This affection is strong enough that some of it rubbed off on me, despite myself.

Linklater has made a movie which probably authentically describes his own college experience and that’s okay. It would just have benefited from a bit more balance and some self-reflection, in particular in regards to its female characters.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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Based on a memoir by journalist Kim Barker about her time living in and reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan, this movie stars Tina Fey, Margot Robbie and other well known faces.

Honestly, don’t have too much to say about this one. It was forgettable to the point where I can’t recall much of what happened and can’t even remember how it ended. Maybe I was also seriously sleep deprived at this stage? It’s possible that I nodded off during parts of the movie but, hey, if it had been gripping enough I wouldn’t have! It has some amusing parts to it, but I didn’t particularly like any character in the movie. And, despite trying to address the whole ‘white lady travels to exotic place to find herself’-trope in at least once instance, it doesn’t really do much to move beyond that trope and tell a story that engages on a different level.

It wasn’t offensive or terrible, but I would rather have had more sleep than watched it. And we’re talking about sleeping bolt upright with my head dangling from side to side in Economy class of a long haul flight.

Anomalisa

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Customer service guru goes to a conference to speak, tries to hook up with ex, meets a stranger that he immediately falls in love with and wants to leave his wife for, decides “nah”, has mental breakdown during conference talk, goes home. Oh, and it’s stop-motion!

Anomalisa is a memorable film in a very unusual format. It’s not every day we see very adult issues acted out by puppets brought to life via stop-motion. Its main strength lies in its ability to make its characters seem believable and human even when they are clearly not.

That being said, the central character of Michael Stone is so unlikeable and pitiful that it was difficult to really get onboard with the movie. It is perfectly possible to have unlikeable characters in movies, but it does require that the movie reflects critically on its character’s flaws, and I didn’t feel Anomalisa did so.

The film seems so centrally anchored in Stone’s bleak world view where everyone else is somehow uninteresting and bland, and if only he could just find a special snowflake like himself, all his problems would go away. His greatest problem in life seems to be that he is burdened by having other people around him that are not him. I would have loved to have seen this story from the character of Lisa’s point of view, as Stone was just unbearable to be around.

I am not one to dissuade anyone from seeing Anomalisa though. It is unusual and I would love to see more films of that nature finding an audience and paving the way for other unconventional film-making methods.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

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The final, no really, for real, instalment in The Hunger Games series, where Katniss and the rebels finally make it to the Capitol to bring the battle to President’s Snow front door.

I read the Hunger Games years ago and watched the first movie in the series in the cinema. Since then, my interest has waned though. I would usually stream the movies at home, but with this final one I didn’t even do that. So it was that I only watched this when I had a lot of hours to kill on a plane. The reviews I had heard also led me to think I might not have missed out on much.

However, I have to say that this movie was a pleasant surprise and a fitting finish to the series. Despite seeing this on the – very – small screen, the action scenes were impressive and the pace was great. There was a sense of danger and risk and it’s a relief to not see as much weightless destruction as, for example, a lot of superhero movies dabble in. The themes of war and trauma are also as strong as ever and rendered in a meaningful way.

It also felt like a more complete film than Mockingjay Part 1, which is not surprising. It is unfortunate that so many movie franchises get hacked up into so many pieces that some of those pieces end up completely out of place and seem pointless on their own. There’s almost a palpable relief to this movie, that they don’t have to tread water anymore and can actually finish what was always going to happen anyway. Or maybe that’s what I brought to it?

45 Years

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A married couple is preparing to celebrate their 45 year wedding anniversary, when the husband receives news about the girlfriend who died on a hiking trip years before he met his wife.

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay star in, and effectively carry, this moving drama about marriage, secrets, ageing and love. This is one of those quiet, slow movies, which I’m usually scared to watch on a plane in case my mental faculties are not working as well and I end up disliking something that is actually good. Not so with this one, I enjoyed it immensely even under the circumstances and it has stayed with me since.

The acting is just stunning, never more so than when Rampling’s character is filmed looking at old slides in the attic. This moment feels so intimate, so immense that you almost want to look away. But her face mesmerises and you can’t. The portrayal of a marriage that has lasted so many decades rings true and the honesty is refreshing. This film doesn’t try to romanticise what it means to live with the same person for the better part of a lifetime, but it also doesn’t shy away from showing how older people love and make love to each other. The characters’ story is the kind of story we do not see often enough portrayed on film.

This is a quiet movie that will make a lot noise in your head for a while afterwards.

How To Be Single

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Comedy about a young woman who arrives in New York, dead set on standing on her own two feet outside the confines of a relationship but then has a bunch of relationships before realising where her priorities should lie.

On paper, this is the kind of movie I would absolutely hate. I really, sincerely don’t like the genre of movie that has a voice over where the lead character muses on the supposedly profound wisdom she has accumulated through her romantic dalliances. And, no, I never liked Sex & the City – the movies or the TV series.

And this movie does have that annoying voice over. That being said, the bits in between are actually not that annoying; amusing and entertaining even. There are a lot of likeable, fairly fleshed out characters and the movie does manage to avoid a lot of cliches it could have thrown itself head first into. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the raunchier jokes were edited out for this plane-friendly version, so I probably got the watered down version.

But, seriously, why are these kinds of movies never set in Seattle or Washington D.C. or something?

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Okay, that’s it folks. You’ve made it to the end, but I kindly request that you remain seated until the fasten seatbelt signs have been switched off. Hope to see you back again soon!

Review – Hush

Last month, I was lucky enough to stumble across a couple of movies that have not been released in cinemas and have instead gone straight to streaming platforms. This used to be a sign of a forgettable movie; “straight to DVD” being in effect a three word review that said all you needed it to say. But, as viewing patterns and technology evolve, we can’t always rely on this any longer. And, if we do, we run the risk of missing some real gems, such as the movie I’ve reviewed here.

Hush was released this year by Netflix and is directed by Mike Flanagan who was also the director behind Oculus. I wasn’t a huge fan of Oculus, but there were enough interesting elements in it to make me give this one a shot. Flanagan also co-wrote the script with the lead actor Kate Siegel, so in every way this is a small scale production.

Kate Siegel plays Maddie, a deaf author who lives by herself out in the forest. One night, a psychotic serial killer comes to her house intent on adding her to his list of victims, but not before he has played a very twisted cat and mouse game with her.

It’s a very simple premise, but it is one that works. There are two main reasons for why this is a standout horror movie that I hope more people seek out.

Firstly, the premise of having a deaf/mute girl as the main character brings some really interesting elements to the horror genre. While watching the movie, you realise how dependent you as the viewer and the characters within horror movies are on sound to alert you to danger lurking around the corner/in the next shot. Reducing the film’s reliance on creaky floorboards, shaking doorknobs etc. means that tension levels automatically shoot sky high.

You just have to watch the trailer above to get a sense of how the film uses the lead character’s hearing impediment, as well as our modern technology in the form of cell phones and instant messaging, to really good, creepy effect. This part of the film also bears strong resemblance to the opening scene of Scream, in the best possible way.

Surprisingly, I found the fact that Maddie doesn’t speak to be an oddly empowering aspect of her character, making her stand out from the endless female targets in horror movies. It took a while for me to realise that I was watching a horror movie that had almost no screaming in it. It’s very refreshing and sets film apart from more torture-porn-like films. In a way, Maddie’s silence is her strength. In a situation where the odds might seem stacked against her, by refusing her stalker the – for him – gratifying sound of her despair and fear, she is helping to rig the whole game just slightly more in her favour.

Secondly, the film’s small budget has been used to the absolute best effect and it translates to a focused, taught story. We never leave Maddie’s house and its immediate surroundings and this gives a sense of claustrophobic tension. The small budget and small,  but solid cast, is what helps it feel like a well executed horror movie unlike so many baggy, unfocused horrors we are subjected to.

The running time is kept short at 1 hours 20 minutes so we don’t waste a lot of time on back story and character motivations. Nothing impresses me more these days than when a director has the good sense to allow his/her movie to hold something back, to not tell us everything, and to let its audience free of its grip before they start looking at their watches and shifting in their seats.

Hush is the kind of horror movie I wish received more attention, so that studios took more notice. Not so that they could swoop in and plan Hush 2, 3 and 4 but rather so horror movies that have great stories and believable characters were given the time of day more often. At a time where cookie cutter horror movies are being churned out, Hush is – excuse the pun – a quiet little film that packs a punch.

90s Movies I’m Not Even Ashamed of Loving

The 90s, what a decade! Having been born in the 80s, most of my memories of the 90s consist of the myriad of bad fashion choices I made as an akward adolescent, namely: pink velvet tops, yellow copycat Dr Marten boots, upper arm cuffs, nighties worn under a top and over your pants (why???), chokers, glittery frost blue coloured lipstick, brown lipstick (versatility!), multicoloured rubberbands on my braces and an extremely ill-conceived attempt to copy Gwen Stefani by painting a bindi on my forehead.

As with the fashion, I also watched and adored a lot of movies that, with the benefit of hindsight and a more developed brain, I have come to understand might not be as genius as I believed them to be at the time. However, movies from that time have left a mark on me, and however mediocre or bad they may be, they were also part of what set me down this path of loving all things cinematic.

I spent hours in the local video (yes, video!) store and discovered many strange and wonderful things on those shelves. I watched plenty of movies that are still considered great and timeless movies, and I’m grateful to my parents for exposing me to and allowing me to choose movies that were a bit above my pay grade, so to speak. But today I want to focus on the cinematic equivalent of that frost blue coloured lipstick, the films that are sneered at now – and probably even then – but that made this a little cinephile-to-be’s heart beat fast and infused my already overactive imagination.

It’s difficult to discard the things I have learnt since about good and bad taste and to fully embrace these movies as enthusiastically as I did once, but I’ve decided to trust my memories of the first viewings, leave my dignity at the door and just jump head first into a 90s extravaganza.

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

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In case you don’t know the (ludicrous) plot for this movie, it goes like this: five kids are left with an ageing babysitter when their mom heads off to Australia for a few months with her new boyfriend. The babysitter turns out to be a real pain for the free-spirited kids and when she suddenly dies, as old people are want to do, they decide not to tell anyone and just enjoy their freedom, Home-Alone-style. However, growing kids can’t survive on freedom alone, and the eldest of the kids, Sue Ellen (Christina Applegate), has to pretend to be a college grad in order to bag a job to earn some money for them.

Why do I love this movie so much? Let me count the ways! A movie like this could never be made today. Like Home Alone and a lot of other 90s movies featuring kids, the children lead such free range lives and the parents are often harmlessly hapless and self-involved. Leaving your kids for a hot and heavy holiday with your boyfriend? Listen, the idea was a bit silly then, but it’s completely outrageous now. Yet, the kids love it and just want their lame mom out of their lives for a bit. It really makes me long for a time when there wasn’t such a heavy burden of perfection and constant surveillance on parents’ shoulders and kids were encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them.

Plus, as a child I loved the storyline of Sue Ellen going out in the big world, dressed as an adult and trying to figure things out in the work place. My friends and I would emulate the movie by sitting in my dad’s office, typing gobbledegook on his typewriter (yes, typewriter!) and, uhm, filing stuff. Don’t ask me why but, at that age, working in an office seemed the height of excitement. How things have changed!

The characters are fantastic and memorable and, in the midst of a fairly mediocre script, there are one-liners you’ll never forget, such as “I’m right on top of that, Rose!”. Also, as an impressionable young girl, I definitely noticed that the nice male characters were sensitive and kind, and the not-so-nice ones were slimeballs. I’m sure my highly tuned abilities to spot a douchebag from miles away are partly down to this movie.

Legends of the Fall (1994)

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Counterpoint to the above argument, you may be tempted to say that my love of Legends of the Fall proves I cannot spot a douchebag as long as he comes riding into my life on horseback with long, golden hair flowing under his cowboy hat. Man, Tristan really was kind of a douche, amirite?

If you don’t know the story, Legends of the Fall spans several decades in the lives of an American family in the early 1900s. We follow Colonel Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) as he struggles to raise his three sons; the dutiful and somber Alfred (Aidan Quinn), the wild and irresponsible Tristan (Brad Pitt) and the young, naive Samuel (Henry Thomas).

I think this must have been one of my earliest memories of a true epic, and I was completely smitten by the Montana setting, the clothes, the music, the love stories, the characters and the blatant emotional manipulation. I could fill the North Sea with all the salty tears I have cried watching this movie. It starts with that scene (SPOILERS) with Samuel and the teargas and then I pretty much keep going until, eventually, the floodgates completely break and I crumble onto the floor during the final scene when the aged Colonel finally acknowledges Alfred and gives him the fatherly love he has been craving all his life. That scene always, without fail, gets me.

It’s completely melodramatic, and that doesn’t bother me one bit. This is one of the movies from that time period I can watch again and again and it still resonates with me the way it did then.

Now and Then (1995)

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Another movie that was a real crowd pleaser amongst my friends and I as we were growing up. It’s a movie that follows a group of four friends, with two timelines running simultaneously, one from their adolescence in the 70s and then as adults when they get together again in their hometown. It had everything that little girls could ask for: friendship, drama and, most importantly, Devon Sawa. It is a universally known fact that Sawa, who also starred in Casper and Little Giants, is solely responsible for a huge portion of the female population in the 90s prematurely hitting puberty, such was the power of those piercing blue eyes and floppy blonde hair.

I’ll be honest here; a few years ago a good friend and I wanted to see if we could relive our childhood and attempted to re-watch Now and Then. About 2 minutes in we decided it was best to leave it as a cherished memory. So, while it doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny, it had real value to girls of a certain age who longed for a coming-of-age story like the many that have been made for boys in the same age bracket. For that, it gets to stay.

Independence Day (1996)

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Independence Day, does it really need an introduction? Aliens come to Earth, there’s a lot of BOOM’ing and CRASH’ing, the White House gets blown up, Bill Pullman is the coolest president ever, Will Smith kicks alien butt and Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum. It’s a ridiculous movie but that didn’t stop it from being my favourite for a couple of years.

I really can’t explain exactly why I loved this movie so much, other than at the time the effects were truly awe-inspiring, it was funny and the whole alien-theme found fertile ground in a mind that had been heavily influenced by X-files and the like in the 90s. Now, there’s a new Independence Day movie in the works, and I can’t say I see a reason for it. But, Jeff Goldblum is in it and that’s as good a reason as any to make a movie I guess.

The Rock (1996)

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Clearly, 1996 was the year I came to embrace movies with a lot of BOOM’ing and CRASH’ing. The Rock is maybe the most difficult for me to add to this list, because I am not at all a Michael Bay fan. There isn’t anything that I can say about Bay’s appalling film-making that film critic Mark Kermode hasn’t already said much better. Take, for example, his takedown of Pain & Gain:

In my defence, at 12 years old, I was probably at the exact intellectual level that Michael Bay’s movies are aimed towards. I was swept up in the action and, of course, there was Nicholas Cage who, at the time, was still a cool dude with a lot of box office pull. In fact, the movie is mostly held together by a great cast and some exciting action sequences. It definitely isn’t the plot doing it, as it’s utterly preposterous.

Titanic (1997)

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Yes, I do understand that Titanic is at times saccharine and indulgent, that Jack should easily have survived if Rose would just scooch up a bit, and that listening to My Heart Will Go On has become akin to hearing nails on a chalkboard. But I really feel this is a movie that, in the years since its release, has received a far more negative reputation than it deserves. In fact, when looking up the movie on Rotten Tomatoes, I was surprised to see the great reviews it has, as it seems to always be talked about in a condescending tone.

I think we are quick to forget just what an impact – no pun intended – the film had at the time of its release. It was truly a phenomenon, and the kind of endeavour that seemed to deserve the hype it was getting. As opposed to now, where every run-of-the-mill blockbuster’s production gets hyped for months, if not years.

Just a few weeks ago, my kids asked me about the Titanic, which then made us talk about the movie, and I showed them a trailer. Watching the trailer, my heart actually started racing when re-watching the clips of Rose and Jack fighting their way through the icy water rushing in, as well as when they hold on to the ship as it starts going down and people are falling all around them. And it wasn’t just the action scenes that stuck. Titanic had highly memorable characters and touching, human moments. And, yes, I was 13 and absolutely the target market.

I watched  Titanic 4 times in the cinema, and I made sure I was ready and waiting to buy the DVD on the day it was released. In many ways, it was around this time that my obsession with movies bloomed into being about more than just entertaining myself for a few hours and I came to love the craft and everything that surrounds it. Thanks, James Cameron!

So there you have it; 6 movies that may not be the classiest but that hold a special place in my heart. I’m a firm believer in not letting ideas of high-brow and low-brow get in the way of you enjoyment of films or literature. Sometimes, the blandest of artistic endeavours becomes a gateway drug to bigger and grander things. And, sometimes, they just let you pass a few hours with a warm and fuzzy feeling at your centre, and that’s okay too.

 

Trailer Tuesdays – Midnight Special

I have been excited for Midnight Special for some time now. The first trailer came out a while ago but we now have another one to enjoy:

There’s a host of reasons why this is a film to look forward to.

  • The director is Jeff Nichols. Nichols directed Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012), both excellent movies that are worth your time if you haven’t already seen them. He makes movies that infuse you with their mood and linger with you long after they’re finished.
  • The cast. You had me at Michael Shannon, but throw in Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver too and things really start to get interesting.
  • The mystery. The trailer gives us a peak into what the movie is about but, if Nichols’ previous films are anything to go by, you need to be prepared for the movie being about more than what you see on the surface. And it won’t be spelled out for you either, you’ll have to do some thinking.

In essence, the trailer shows us the story of a father and son on the run, as the son clearly has some special powers that his father can’t keep hidden any longer. The FBI is after them, but so are others, as their story becomes public knowledge. The premise is intriguing and it could be a refreshing perspective on what happens to someone with powers that humans cannot explain – who would want to get a hold of such a person, how can you make sense of the purpose of those powers? And if that someone was your child, what would you do?

Midnight Special is released in March, and I’ll be keeping fingers crossed that this lives up to expectations.

Review – The Revenant

In recent years, it feels like survival stories have been the basis of some of the most popular movies to grace our screens. A couple of years ago, we had both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity and now we have The Revenant. And, yes, I feel like 12 Years a Slave fits in this category as the story of a human being who endures the unbearable and through grit, determination and ingenuity finds his way back home.

There is an obvious appeal in these kinds of stories for audiences. We are forced to examine what is possible and to consider how far we would go to survive if faced with a situation where the odds – and the elements – are against us. They make us feel small, make us recognise our own frailty yet, when the protagonist prevails, reminds us that there is always hope and that this most singular of human emotions can be stronger than forces much bigger than us.

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The Revenant is the semi-biographical story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper in America in the 1800s who is on an ill-fated expedition. His hunting party is decimated in an attack by Native Americans and he is subsequently torn to shreds – really, literally – in a gruesome bear attack. Incapacitated and barely alive, he becomes a great burden to the group, but his son and others in the hunting party refuse to give up on him. However, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the men in the group, murders Glass’s son and leaves Glass for dead in a shallow grave. In single minded determination, Glass slowly, painfully makes his way out of his grave and across a hostile, frozen landscape to exact his revenge on Fitzgerald.

In this way, the story differs from the other movies I have mentioned, as it is not a story of a man wanting to survive for surviving’s sake, or to see his family again – Glass has none left now  – he wants to survive to kill Fitzgerald and that is his sole motivation. My favourite movie critic, Mark Kermode, argued in his review that it was a survival story more than a revenge one, but I have to disagree. It is a movie about a man surviving unbearable conditions, yes, but only in order to revenge his son. Glass even puts words to this in the movie: “He knows how far I’ve come to find him…” He sure hasn’t come that far to put up his boots and rest by the fireplace with a hot toddy and a nice sandwich!

The Revenant is first and foremost a beautiful film. It looks gorgeous even when the screen is splattered with blood. Emmanuel Lubezki is very likely to get his third Oscar in a row for cinematography, which is certainly deserved but also a bit sad if it means once again passing over Deakins’ work, this year in Sicario. But Lubezki does undeniable have a skill for manipulating your emotions with his camera work, fluctuating between making you feel trapped and scared on the one hand and completely in awe of the stunning landscape on the other hand. Early on in the movie, at the beginning of the first attack scene, the camera angle is capturing everything from below and looking out from the hunting party’s point of view, with little indication of where the attack is coming from. It is an almost claustrophobic experience, as you feel disoriented and like you want the camera to pan out and scan, so that you can find your bearings. Exactly how the characters feel. There are too many examples of great cinematography to list here but it’s important to stress how integral to the film it is.

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There are also great performances throughout the movie. Much has been made of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar nominated performance, although I would argue that Tom Hardy gives the greater performance. The more I see of Tom Hardy, the more I am in awe of how he works. He has a particular knack for acting in a way that I can only describe as unselfish. His performance is solely about his character and the character’s part in the story, not about grandstanding. And he’s a chameleon; just compare this role to the one he played in Inception. Will Poulter is also fantastic in a role that is a far cry from his role in We Are The Millers. May he go from strength to strength. There are unfortunately few female characters in the film but Melaw Nakehk’o as Powaqa gives us one of my favourite moments in the movie, right at the end (POTENTIAL SPOILERS!) where she gives Glass a look that says a whole lot of things but, mainly, “Yes, you’ve been spared now, you know why, but don’t for one second think that makes you anything. I’m a f***ing princess” It’s a moment that goes some way to restore some balance in a movie that has women mainly as corpses or victims of sexual assault and prostitution.

Despite all these great elements, The Revenant is still not a perfect movie, or even the year’s best movie. The parts of the film where Glass is remembering his deceased wife seem ill-judged, and pander to the old cliché of having a Native American character who does nothing but speak of the wind and the trees in a quasi-profound way. It really takes you out of the grittiness and earthiness of the movie. I’m also not sure that we really feel emotionally involved enough in Glass’ character, rather than just his struggle. Could his character not have been exchanged with any other in the movie and the result would be largely the same?

Finally, it’s too long and because of it seems a tad self-indulgent. There is, in my opinion, a tendency with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films to tip over into indulgence and self-importance. It’s one of the reasons I love Mad Max: Fury Road so; it manages to be hugely entertaining and looks completely over the top, but scratch the surface and it shows real restraint in what it decides to include and exclude. 

Overall, The Revenant is a beautiful, often nail-biting, movie worth seeing, preferably in a cinema where you can really drink in the scenery the way it was intended to. But at times it is lacking the structure and focus that it needs to hold up all that luscious cinematography. Let’s see if The Academy agrees in a few weeks time. Until then, let me know what you thought of The Revenant in the comments below!

Review – Sicario

Sicario is the latest movie directed by Denis Villeneuve, who was also behind Prisoners and Enemy. Enemy was, without a doubt, one of my favourite movies of 2014; a completely mind bending experience that just kept on getting better the more I delved into its possible meanings after it ended. I was disappointed that it wasn’t more widely viewed so when hype started building around his next project, Sicario, I was pleased to say the least. He’s a film maker that deserves more attention.

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The film introduces us to the FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is recruited for a special unit tasked with locating cartel hitman Manuel Díaz who will hopefully lead them to the whereabouts of the Mexican drug lord Fausto Alarcón. Joining the task force means following the leader of the task force Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and working alongside his partner, the elusive and stone faced Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro). At the beginning, we don’t know much about Gillick or the role he plays in the operation, except that he seems to work with unorthodox methods. Macer, with her idealism and play-by-the-book attitude, is a fish out of water in this operation and we follow her down the rabbit hole of horror that is the war on drugs.

The first part of the movie is truly exhilarating and terrifying. With skilful direction and the superb cinematography of the Roger Deakins, each frame looks like a painting, if a painting was a living, breathing thing. From the moment the film starts, it pulls no punches in showing us the horrors of the drug trade and the inhumane effect it has on all the areas it passes through. The part of the movie set in Juarez is edge-of-your-seat film making; each pothole the heavily armoured police vehicles drive over sending a jolt through you, as if you were sitting in the vehicle yourself. The score makes you think we are in Mordor, and the sheer brutality on the streets suggests you shouldn’t be surprised to find orcs running at you at any moment. The tension builds and builds until we find the characters stuck in a traffic jam, a scene which is very probably one of the best of the year.

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The problem with the movie, however, is that it peaks right here. All the elements of an outstanding movie are there, great cast (not least del Toro, who stands out), director and cinematography, a story which is more real than you would wish and, yet, somewhere in the middle of the movie, I found myself bored. I really, really tried to suppress the feeling, but there was no denying that my mind was drifting and my hand was twitching for my phone. The movie hits another high note towards the end of the film with an incredibly tense dinner table scene, but the damage had been done by then and I wasn’t fully engaged any longer.

I don’t know if the middle of the movie was actually boring or if it was just that it started on such a high note and then shifted tone abruptly. Maybe, if we had all the character exposition at the beginning, building up to a climax, I wouldn’t have felt so deprived of the adrenaline that surged through me at the start.

What did work for me though, was the way the movie uses Blunt’s character as our introduction into this world. The story, for me, is actually mostly about del Toro’s character and his quest to right the wrongs that have been done to him. But had we been fed his story in a more traditional way, with him in the centre of the movie, the movie would have felt very different. In that scenario, they could have replaced him with Liam Neeson and had him growling at people about his “special set of skills”.

As we see things through Macer, Gillick is more of an enigma and that does keep your interest longer than it otherwise would have. Macer herself is a frustrating character sometimes, but the movie needs a newcomer to this world to remind us of our own humanity and not just get swept away by the violence and chaos.

Sicario is by no means a bad movie. It has a multitude of strengths and in parts displays real cinematic genius. But it was a disappointment for this Villeneuve fan. Will I be watching his next film? You bet! Will I temper my expectations next time around? You can count on it.