Posts Tagged ‘drama’

‘What -‘

‘It’s a thriller.’

‘Oh, good.’

In 2006, Lithuania entered the Eurovision Song Contest with a catchy, up-beat, rather tongue-in-cheek number entitled ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision‘ – in the end this proved to be rather optimistic as the song eventually came sixth. So it goes sometimes, but while ‘We are the Winners of Eurovision’ did not eventually win Eurovision, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite has managed to become the buzzy film of the moment and, quite possibly, The Favourite for the awards season which is just about getting under way. Considering that most people know Lanthimos from The Lobster, likely only to win an award for ‘Weirdest Film to Feature a Crustacean’, this is a fairly noteworthy achievement.

The Favourite is not, in fact, a thriller (this was just a cunning ploy I used to get Olinka to come and see it), but is instead… hmmm, well. A very cursory glance at the trailer might lead one to assume this is a grand costume drama in the traditional style – certainly, the setting and characters are the stuff of many a lavish, perhaps slightly staid drama (the film concerns the royal court of England in the early 18th century). However, something much more peculiar is on the cards here.

Ostensibly on the throne is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), but the monarch is temperamental, self-obsessed, stricken with gout and obsessed with her large collection of rabbits. Much of the de facto power rests with her confidante and the keeper of the Privy Purse, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is happy to manipulate the queen, supposedly in the national interest.

Into this situation comes the Duchess’ cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a young noblewoman fallen on hard times. The Duchess is not overly moved to help her and Abigail initially finds herself working in the kitchens. However, her knowledge of herbal medicine proves to be her ticket into the queen’s good books and she finds herself moving in more elevated circles, eventually winning the approval of Anne herself.

Needless to say the appearance of a rival is met with steely hostility from the Duchess, and a superficially well-mannered but actually deeply brutal struggle for ascendancy soon breaks out. Who will eventually become the queen’s favourite? And is the queen herself quite as oblivious to what is going on around her as it appears?

The Favourite is one of those films which has been made from a script which has being kicking around film companies for nearly twenty years, with the early response usually being something along the lines of ‘We like it, but…’ – the main problem usually having something to do with the fact that all three of the main characters are women, thus making the film difficult to market according to industry logic (Nicholas Hoult appears as the scheming politician Robert Harley and Joe Alwyn as one of his dimmer lieutenants, but these are both relatively minor roles). However, as I suspect we are likely to see across the coming weeks, in the wake of the Unique Moment there are a number of high-quality female-dominated movies jostling for attention, and there are few films more female-dominated than this one.

As I say, it may look like a traditional costume drama, but this is something really much more idiosyncratic – we were treated to some surly chuntering from a prominent right-wing writer in the weekend’s Mail on Sunday, grumbling about the film’s wild divergence from historical fact and (supposed) obsession with lesbianism, and if you turn up to The Favourite actually expecting to see a conventional film about the court of Queen Anne then I expect you will be sorely disappointed. Certainly it all looks ravishing, with sumptuous costumes and wigs (all the men look like Brian May, the women are generally more restrained), and many scenes shot solely by candle-light. This inevitably puts one in mind of Barry Lyndon, 15-18 foot lamberts and all, and there is a certain resemblance, but only up to a point. I don’t do that invidious ‘this film is X meets Y’ thing, but if I were, then I would say that, feminine dominance notwithstanding, The Favourite is almost like a cross between Barry Lyndon and The League of Gentlemen TV show – indeed, Mark Gatiss appears in a supporting role, and seems to be very much at home.

By this I mean that The Favourite contains a great deal more (mostly implied) sex and (explicit) vomiting than is generally found in a costume drama, and the whole thing has a twisted, blackly comic sensibility. This is probably the source of all the grumbling about the film’s supposed departures from strict historicity – it is apparently ‘considered unlikely’ that Queen Anne was actually a lesbian, and in any case I doubt that casual conversation around the court was quite as profanity-laden as it is depicted here – but Lanthimos makes it fairly clear from very early on that the cabinet of grotesqueries he has assembled is not intended to be taken at face value. The film keeps wandering off and focusing on oddities – the Prime Minister is obsessed with his prize-winning pet duck, a formal court dance quickly develops into something that looks more like break-dancing, and so on. The choice to use distorting lenses in the camera to give a warped, fish-eye view of events at court at certain points is also something of a giveaway.

So if The Favourite isn’t actually about the rivalries at the court of Queen Anne, what is it about? Well, I suppose on one level it’s a character piece, especially with regard to Emma Stone’s character: the story of how a (relatively) innocent young woman learns to survive in the snake-pit of court politics, eventually becoming just as ruthless and deceitful as everyone around her. Stone is very good and manages to hold her own against Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, who are both operating on full power throughout – Colman gives the bigger performance, of course, but Weisz has the least obvious character arc and perhaps gets the most nuances to play with.

Beyond issues of gender and sex and history, though, the film is basically about power: what it means to have it, what it means to use it, what people will sacrifice for it, and the other effects it has on them. If the film ultimately has a particular message to impart, it is not immediately clear: it has an oblique, slightly cryptic ending (Olinka thought it was ‘very sad’) – it may be about the isolating effects of power and its tendency to kill anything resembling a genuine relationship.

In the end, though, The Favourite does a very good job of not resembling a particularly serious film, and it really does function as a quirky black comedy-drama powered along by some fine performances. It’s certainly a striking film, but I suspect it may be just a little too off-the-wall to become more than a critical darling. Fun and thought-provoking, though.

Read Full Post »

As long as Kirk Douglas is still with us, the position of Greatest Living Movie Legend is filled, but there are a bunch of honourable mentions just bubbling under, most of them (naturally) ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. Doris Day is 96, Angela Lansbury is 93, Sidney Poitier is 91, and Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood are both 88. Compared to these guys, at only 82 Robert Redford is practically a brash young whipper-snapper, and still feels like a vital and energetic figure in the world of cinema – largely because of his work as a producer and director, and as founder of the Sundance film festival (it is perhaps telling that many younger people are likely aware of Sundance without appreciating the provenance of the name). On the other hand, it’s not as if Redford has ever completely vanished from the screen – there is probably a generation of young viewers who are only really aware of him as the senior bad guy in The Winter Soldier, a role which Redford apparently took mainly because it would be a change of pace and he was interested in learning about the technology involved in making a modern blockbuster.

All this is about to change, of course, as Redford has announced his retirement from screen acting, his final role being the lead in David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun (and produced by Redford himself). This is a mostly true story concerning the doings of Forrest Tucker (played by Redford), a man with an unshakeable love of robbing banks and a comparable fondness for busting out of the various institutions his first passion tends to get him stuck in (at one point escaping from San Quentin in a home-made sail boat). The movie opens with Tucker ambling out of a bank, getting into his car and driving off, only to stop and discreetly change vehicles after only a couple of blocks. Heedless of the police cars zooming about the area, sirens wailing, he goes on to stop and help Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a woman whose car has broken down. Naturally, he refrains from telling her his vocation – or perhaps it’s better to say he doesn’t force the issue when she refuses to believe him on this topic, as he’s just such a warm and pleasant man.

Tucker’s string of bank robberies continues, sometimes alone, sometimes with a couple of equally elderly accomplices (Tom Waits and Danny Glover) – he has a police scanner disguised as a hearing aid, which helps with the getaways. One day he happens to rob a bank which is being visited by down-at-heel police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), managing to do so with hardly anyone noticing. Hunt becomes fascinated by this curiously courteous bank robber (‘Chin up, you’re doing a great job,’ says Tucker to one sobbing cashier) and gets himself assigned to the case of the ‘over the hill gang’. Will Forrest’s growing relationship with Jewel finally motivate him to pack in his criminal career? Or will the forces of law and order finally catch up with their man?

Well, at one point I was planning to watch this with my friend Olinka, who (as regular readers will know) is a sucker for anything which vaguely resembles a thriller. I’m quite glad we didn’t (in the end she decided to go and see Aquaman with me instead), as, despite the bank-robbing-police-manhunt elements of the plot, this isn’t really the kind of film it looks like. On paper it sounds like it has a lot in common with King of Thieves from earlier this year, another film about a gang of superannuated bank robbers, and indeed there are a few things they have in common – in both cases, footage and publicity shots from old movies is re-used to depict the characters as younger men (here we are treated to reminders of Twilight Zone-Death-era Redford, Butch Cassidy-era Redford, and Out of Africa-era Redford) – but while the British film came on like a blackish comedy and gradually acquired an edge of genuine menace, The Old Man & the Gun isn’t really any kind of thriller, but a gentle and low-key character piece (the old man is in the majority of the scenes but the gun never gets used).

The relationship between Redford and Spacek is charming and believable, but the heart of the film is really the relationship (such as it is) between Redford and Affleck. Hunt is apparently a man who has all the important things in life – a beautiful wife and children, a decent job, and so on – yet Affleck manages to suggest a subtle melancholy and a sense of a man who is subtly dissatisfied with his lot. One of the things which fascinates him about Tucker is the fact that, quite apart from the fact that everyone comments on what a nice man he is, he is grinning broadly as he goes about his business. Tucker, the film suggests, is one of those fortunate people who has found the secret of genuine happiness – it’s just that in his case, the secret is to get his fix of robbing banks and escaping from prison on a regular basis. Apart from this, he seems to be a lovely chap.

If the film is trying to make a point about how everyone is different and this makes Tucker’s lengthy criminal career somehow excusable – and, aided by the megawatt power of Robert Redford’s natural charisma, it is almost impossible not to like him by the end of the film – then it does so in a very understated way. This is a very understated film in almost every way, naturalistic and low-key, with a great period soundtrack (it is mostly set in the early 80s). It has to be said that, after an interesting start, the plot ends up just meandering along, really turning into just a series of undeniably effective character vignettes. There are no great character epiphanies by the end, but you do come away with a distinct sense that Forrest Tucker was a man entirely at peace with himself.

Is it too much to say the same is clearly true of Redford himself? It’s easy to get a bit sentimental at a moment like this. As a valedictory appearance before the camera, this is a great summation of everything that has made him such a star: charisma, intelligence, and subtlety. Even the greatest movie stars seldom get the swan songs they deserve, but Robert Redford has come very close to it here, I think. An extremely well-made and very likeable film.


Read Full Post »

Every now and then I reflect on all the films that I would like to see but almost certainly never will – the original cut of The Wicker Man, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, Zeppelin Vs Pterodactyls, Queen Kong, Tiptoes, and so on. Some of these don’t physically exist any more, others were never made, while still others have vanished into obscurity due to either legal problems or their sheer weirdness. For quite a long time I would have added The Other Side of the Wind to this list. This is, or was, one of Orson Welles’ projects as director and writer, which he worked on intermittently between 1970 and 1976 (parts of the great man’s filmography are a litany of incomplete films like Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Dreamers). As you might expect, given the lengthy production period, a huge amount of material was filmed for The Other Side of the Wind, but turning it into a completed film was something beyond Welles’ ability, and his death in 1985 plunged the project into a legal limbo.

Welles enthusiasts and acolytes, some of whom were involved in the film’s production, never quite seemed to give up on it, however – and here we must acknowledge the role played by the market-leading film and TV streaming service in stepping in and assisting in the final completion of The Other Side of the Wind. Forty years after it was filmed, and thirty years after Orson Welles’ death, is this one final example of the director at his best, or just another frustratingly misjudged piece of work?

The film concerns the last day on earth of a legendary film director (played by legendary film director John Huston) who, as the 1970s proceed, finds himself increasingly struggling to find financial backing for his film projects (it is perhaps worth saying that Welles himself always dismissed suggestions that The Other Side of the Wind was in any way autobiographical). The director, Hannaford, is celebrating his 70th birthday (rather eerily, the same age that Welles died at), and as the film begins he, his cast and crew, and various acolytes and hangers-on decamp to an Arizona mansion where a rough cut of his new film, The Other Side of the Wind, will be screened for the assembled company. (Part of the film is also shown to a studio boss, who is thoroughly unimpressed by it.) Also present is a fan of the director who has become a hot young film-maker himself, played by Peter Bogdanovich (a fan of Orson Welles who had become a hot young film-maker himself at the time). As the night wears on, the screening is beset by problems and interruptions, and Hannaford’s dealings with those around him become increasingly fractious. Hard truths emerge, friendships break down, and dreams are shattered.

Intercut with all of this are sequences from the other The Other Side of the Wind – not Welles’ film, but the one that Hannaford has been working on. This is a wordless, heavily symbolic piece of art-house cinema predominantly featuring a beautiful young actress whom Hannaford has apparently become somewhat fixated upon (played by Oja Kodar, a beautiful young actress who was in a relationship with Welles himself at the time).

Perhaps it is worth saying again that Welles was always very clear that The Other Side of the Wind was not intended even semi-autobiographically. This does seem rather like another instance of the great man being somewhat disingenuous, for there seems to be a deliberate attempt to blur the line between fact and fiction in progress for much of the film – Hannaford is described as a Hemingway-esque figure in the world of cinema, which is exactly the same kind of thing that was also said about Huston (Welles had his own, predictably ambivalent relationship with Hemingway, too).

The parallels between Hannaford and Welles are just too numerous for them to be accidental – both are renowned figures, now struggling to get their projects made, both seem to have a thing for Oja Kodar, and – of course – both never quite managed to finish their version of The Other Side of the Wind, either. Once you accept this, the casting of Bogdanovich as the director’s one-time disciple makes perfect sense, as do the various other in-jokes and references to Hollywood denizens of the period when the film was being made – various characters are tuckerised versions of figures like Cybill Shepherd, John Milius and the film critic Pauline Kael. It has to be said that the film is very much a piece from a very particular time and place, when the ‘old Hollywood’ in which Welles got his start was attempting to come to terms with the ‘new Hollywood’ presaged by films like Easy Rider and The Godfather. Outside of this context, many of the jokes and observations in the film simply don’t function.

The same can be said for the film-within-the-film, Hannaford’s version of The Other Side of the Wind, a spot-on imitation of the kind of art-house films being made by Michelangelo Antonioni at around this time (Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point appears to have been Welles’ primary target) – the kind of film which looks suspiciously like a soft-core movie but can’t be, because it’s Art. It is probably most memorable for the rather lengthy sequence of Oja Kodar wandering naked around the MGM backlot – the film-in-the-film doesn’t actually have a plot, and deliberately so.

The problem is that, while Welles may have intended this as a spoof of painfully self-regarding, pretentious, symbolic film-making, his reproduction of it is so effective, and goes on for such a long time, that it really comes across as more of a pastiche than an actual spoof. You get the joke quite quickly, but there’s still a lot to come, and a naked Oja Kodar only goes a certain distance when it comes to making this sort of thing more palatable.

One has to wonder about the role of Oja Kodar in the chequered history of The Other Side of the Wind. As I mentioned, there have been numerous attempts to finish off this movie before, by participants in it and also Welles’ champions in the film industry (some people are, of course, both) – and one of the consistent things to emerge from this frustratingly lengthy process is Kodar’s apparent determination to sabotage them, either consciously or unconsciously. Kodar’s stated desire was apparently to avoid a repeat of the debacle which ensued when an under-funded restoration of Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote, overseen by her, was assembled and released in 1992 (to unfavourable reviews), but, as I say, one wonders. Could there have been an element of reluctance to let her appearance in some rather rum material finally emerge into the wider world? Or even a suspicion that the finished version of The Other Side of the Wind would be unlikely to add to Welles’ reputation as a film-maker?

Well, I have to say that I am by no means an unconditional admirer of Netflix, and do have my concerns about the company’s influence over modern cinema, but I have to admit that the average ‘Netflix original’ (which is what The Other Side of the Wind technically is) is a reasonably polished and proficient piece of work, in terms of its production if not its conception. Parts of this film, however, show its ramshackle, cash-strapped nature all too clearly – there are sections, particularly early on, which are dismayingly primitive in their execution. Still, as it proceeds, it improves, and even if you can’t quite grasp all the in-jokes and allusions in the scenes with Hannaford at the party, you’re never in doubt that there’s a distinct artistic sensibility at work here – the sheer number of film directors amongst the cast, coupled to the frequency with which movie cameras appear in the background, suggests that Welles is making a point about how film-making can become an all-consuming, solipsistic pursuit.

Certainly there is a rising sense of despair running through the final scenes of the film, in which Hannaford perhaps breaks through the artifice of the world which has formed around him and approaches something resembling truth. At this point we are reminded that the first thing we learn about him is the fact of his impending death. Perhaps, yet again, Welles is alluding to the story of Don Quixote, who regains his sanity only at the end of his life. One wouldn’t be surprised; Orson Welles is that kind of erudite, allusive artist. And this is an erudite and allusive film in many ways, even if in others it feels frustratingly laborious and even somewhat pretentious: some of the Welles magic is there, even if it’s in a raw and unpolished form. I still don’t think this is genuinely a masterpiece, but another thing you can say about Orson Welles is that while not everything he did was brilliant, it was seldom ever boring, and The Other Side of the Wind is a welcome reminder of that.

(Hey, and it turns out that Queen Kong on the internet. I know what I’ll be doing this week.)

Read Full Post »

Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it.

your correspondent, writing about Creed and displaying the usual level of uncanny precognitive ability

Christmas works party time rolled around again, and we reconvened in a pub a short walk outside the city centre, each having filled the time between ceasing pretending to work and the start of the festivities in our own particular way.

‘Did you go to the cinema?’ one colleague (whose name I shall be withholding) asked me. ‘What did you see?’

‘Creed II,’ I said.

‘I’ve not heard of that. What’s it about?’

The imp of the perverse was whispering in my ear, I’m afraid, and being aware that she was perhaps of a High Church of England-ish disposition… ‘It’s about the Council of Nicaea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed,’ I said. Keeping my face straight was almost too easy, now I think back on it.

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah, it’s all about the splits in the early Christian church,’ I went on. ‘At the end of the first Creed they thought they’d figured most of it out, but in this one the Arian heresy rears its ugly head and it causes them all an awful lot of trouble.’

‘Wow! I can’t believe they did a film about that,’ she said, clearly wondering how she could have missed hearing about this.

I did consider going on to describe how the Emperor Constantine was played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ossius of Corduba by George Clooney, but my better nature made an unexpected reappearance and I had to confess it was all a pack of lies: Creed II is actually a boxing movie, the sequel to Creed and the eighth movie in the Rocky series, directed by Steven Caple Jr and (perhaps inevitably) co-written, co-starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone. (My colleague and I are still on good terms, thankfully.)

The movie opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) fulfilling his potential and finally becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Yet nagging doubts remain – can he really live up to the example set by his late father, legendary champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, who doesn’t appear in person, but who one hopes is getting decent remuneration for the use of his image throughout the movie)? Impending marriage and parenthood only add to the pressures on the young athlete.

And then Donnie’s trainer Rocky (Stallone) is startled by the reappearance of a figure from his past: Russian former boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring decades before, and who was then humiliated by Rocky in a rematch on Russian soil. Drago was left in disgrace and has spent the intervening years raising his son Viktor (the splendidly-named Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) as a living instrument of vengeance. The Dragos challenge Donnie to what’s basically a second-generation rematch, and one which Donnie feels obliged to accept, despite Rocky’s deep misgivings (not least because his own fight with Ivan Drago left him with permanent brain damage, not that anyone mentions this much nowadays).

What follows basically confirms that the Rocky series is the great sentimental soap opera of mainstream American cinema, as the various characters struggle with their personal demons, make tough choices, cope with success and failure, and so on, all expressed through a combination of character-based scenes, training montages, people talking to graves, and protracted fight sequences. This film tells a classical narrative of hubris, nemesis, and redemption, and the fact it is so familiar may be why it feels so satisfying to watch. The trick to these films, I have realised, lies not in the fight sequences themselves, for these are almost always completely predictable – given their context in the film, you always know who is going to eventually win in any particular situation. The film’s success lies in the fact that you don’t mind knowing what’s going to happen – what’s going to happen is what you want to happen, because the film has made you root for the hero and want to see the bad guy take the beating they have been earning throughout the film up to this point. Creed II is very successful in this respect, and credit must go to the screenplay (by Stallone and Juel Taylor) and the performances, particularly those of Jordan and Stallone (even if the latter’s transformation into someone resembling Popeye seems to be accelerating). On the other hand, it has to be said that this is very much a guy’s film, its themes of parental expectation and legacy largely expressed through the relationship between fathers and sons, and Tessa Thompson ends up with a slightly underwritten part as a result, mainly just there as girlfriend and mother.

Of course, the film may also be familiar due to the fact that, in that in many respects, it basically repeats the plot of Rocky IV, albeit with one rather big modification. You could argue that in some ways the first Creed basically revisited the plot of the original Rocky, which was a solid drama and won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976 (even if it has been known to pop up on lists of ‘Worst Film ever to win Best Picture’). Perhaps the most remarkable (possibly even miraculous) thing about Creed II is that it revisits the characters and events of Rocky IV, surely the silliest of these films, and still manages to produce a credible and affecting drama. I’m almost tempted to say that this is the kind of film The Expendables should have been: there’s a genuine sense of a significant moment taking place when Stallone and Lundgren finally meet one another, and it must be said that the big Swede gives a highly effective performance as the film’s antagonist (Munteanu is largely just there as a physical presence, though his acting performance is perfectly acceptable). It’s entirely possible that this is the best acting work Dolph Lundgren has ever done (not that this is necessarily saying very much, of course). Perhaps even more startlingly, the film also sees the return of Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s ex-wife Ludmilla, albeit in a much more limited cameo. I expect that this film’s willingness to embrace the past of the series so whole-heartedly (I would have said that if you went into a major Hollywood studio and proposed doing a movie with Lundgren and Nielsen in key roles you’d just get laughed at) will largely be lost on the young audience it is aiming for, but for those of us who’ve been following along for many years, it’s a very impressive and likeable trait.

I did enjoy the first Creed a lot, as a solid sports drama, but I have to say it’s entirely possible I had an even better time watching Creed II, for its connections to the series’ past as much as its own very real merits as a drama. Eight films in, with critical plaudits still flowing, I expect the temptation will be to keep on going – but the Creed-Drago rematch was the obvious way to go with a sequel (even if it seemed quite unlikely to me it would ever get made, two and a bit years ago). I’m not sure if they could find a worthwhile direction to take this story in – but based on the strength of the first two films, I’d happily give them the benefit of the doubt. This is excellent entertainment.

Read Full Post »

It is with a definite sense of regret that I have to report that the Phoenix in Jericho appears to have abandoned its nascent tradition of showing a classic British fantasy-horror movie for Christmas in its Vintage Classics strand. After The Blood on Satan’s Claw two years ago, and The Company of Wolves last December, I was looking forward to seeing what the programmers might come up with this festive season – a welcome revival of Hellraiser II, perhaps? Alas no: more conventional judgement seems to have prevailed and the cinema is showing its usual mixture of serious mainstream fare, cool new documentaries, and the occasional foreign-language arthouse darling.

Falling smack into the latter category is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (J-title: Manbiki Kazoku, literally Shoplifting Family), which won the Olympic medal as far as arthouse darlings are concerned by scooping the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year. Having seen the film, I can see why: in addition to simply being very good (which is not the only prerequisite for a Cannes win, of course), it shows a distinct artistic sensibility as well as having a bit of a social conscience. (You don’t have to be an arthouse film in order to win at Cannes, of course: even a cursory glance at the list of past victors turns up a few surprises.)

At first glance, Shoplifters is a family saga of the type which Japanese directors like Yasujiro Ozu have been renowned for making for many decades. The main point of difference is that – as the title suggests – Shoplifters concerns people from the lowest levels of society. If the film had been entitled Haijshirazu No (Shameless), that might have been a better point of reference for UK viewers, but despite the superficial resemblance, Kore-eda is ultimately making something much more serious than that.

As the film opens we meet a man, Osamu (Lily Franky), and a boy, Shota (Kairi Jo), who are out paying a visit to the local shops. They are not actually shopping, of course, but making ends meet by nicking stuff, something which they are clearly highly skilled at. (It’s not really stealing, according to Osamu, if nobody’s actually bought it yet.) It all gets taken back to a small, decrepit, and chaotic home which they share with Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and the grandma of their little family (the veteran actor Kirin Kiki, in her final role). There’s also another young woman named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) present, whose exact relationship to the rest of them is deliberately kept rather vague to begin with. Officially, Osamu is a day labourer on a construction site, and Nobuyo works in a laundry, but really they live off a combination of Granny’s pension and the proceeds of the rest of the family’s criminal endeavours. (Aki has a job as a sex worker but is excused having to contribute to the family budget, on Granny’s insistence.)

The starting point for the story comes when Osamu and Shota meet a young girl while coming home from one of their thieving excursions. She says her name is Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) and she shows every sign of being maltreated by her uncaring parents. Almost by accident, Osamu and the clan find themselves broadening their criminal palette to include a sort of unpremeditated benevolent child abduction, as they end up taking Yuri into their home and making her part of the family – Shota is a little resentful of the new arrival at first, but is told she is his new little sister.

Life goes on in its cheerful way for the family, and the first two thirds or so of the film depicts this. I expect that on paper it all sounds potentially quite bleak and depressing, but what’s notable about it is the warmth of it, the compassion Kore-eda shows towards even the most dubious of his characters, and its sheer non-judgemental nature. The family look out for each other, genuinely seem to care about Yuri and her welfare, and Osamu and Nobuyo at least are surprisingly self-aware about just what kind of people they are. At least they know they are bad guys – or completely amoral – even if they don’t seem to show much motivation to actually change their ways.

The final part of the film, however, is the one which reveals the reality and the truths which underlie the family’s situation (which, for obvious reasons, I don’t want to go into much detail about here). It becomes clear that this film isn’t just about a family, but about the idea of family and the grip it can exert on people. At one point in the film, Nobuyo reassures Yuri that the sign that someone loves you is that they hug you, rather than hit you, and there is no shortage of care and affection between the different characters. And yet it becomes clear that they are also capable of shocking, perhaps even appalling acts in order to preserve the group. One of the questions raised by the film is whether it is selfish to be so compelled to have other people around you.

The film never resolves this central ambiguity – the characters remain strangely endearing, even when the true extent of their moral bankruptcy is revealed – and there are some extremely powerful, poignant scenes as the film draws to a close. Most of the storytelling is marvellously subtle and understated, with superb performances from the actors: as Osamu, Franky is unimposing and rather feckless, in many ways as much of a child as Shota, but for all of his wheedling shiftiness it is clear he deeply wants to be a proper father. Ando’s performance makes it clear that Nobuyo is the brains and quite probably the heart of the clan, the one holding it all together. There are scenes of genuine warmth and intimacy between them all – a trip to the beach together, the group gathering to watch fireworks from their porch – and these are at the heart of the film, as much as any of the scenes which make for somewhat more harrowing viewing.

Shoplifters is set in urban Japan but I think it has a rather universal quality – I imagine there are families like this scraping along in the wainscots of most modern societies, and the desire to be part of a family is again something that most people can relate to. On the other hand, this is not a film exactly bursting with mainstream audience appeal, in the UK at least – it’s a fairly lengthy foreign-language drama which has the look of a social issue film about it. But it’s a much more textured, thoughtful, and likeable film than that. Well worth watching if you’re in the mood for something with a bit of depth.

Read Full Post »

Olinka and I settled into our seats, opened a bag of chocolate eggs, and prepared to enjoy the trailers. ‘And, of course, the good thing is,’ I said, ‘that these should all be trailers for thrillers.’

‘Aren’t they always?’ said Olinka, crunching an egg.

Yes, as regular readers will be aware, Olinka’s fondness for going to the cinema is considerable, as is her nigh-on miraculous ability to watch a movie and yet not actually be aware of what genre it is. This is the woman who thought Kray twin biopic Legend was a black comedy, and that properly spooky horror movie Ghost Stories was a thriller. (She also thought that going to watch Hereditary was actually a good idea, but it would be unchivalrous to dwell on that too much.) When I suggest we go and see a film, Olinka’s first question is nearly always ‘is it a thriller?’ And the pleasant thing is that I can always answer ‘yes’, safe in the knowledge that, as far she’s concerned, it probably will be.

This time we got the previews for The Favourite, Glass, Robin Hood, and The Girl in the Lucrative Franchise, only the last of which I would honestly describe as a proper thriller, but there you go, you can never be sure these days. I think I’ve observed in the past that films that don’t fit easily into genre categories tend to have more diverse trailers running in front of them, and the fact is that the film we had gone to see is a curious mixture of genre movie and very serious drama: I speak of Widows, directed by Steve McQueen (no, the other one). It was the thriller element that I expected Olinka to enjoy, but this is also a female-led movie and I felt sure she’d appreciate that bit, too.


The film is set in present-day Chicago. Viola Davis plays Veronica Rawlins, a former teacher married to Harry (Liam Neeson), who is a professional criminal (this might seem like a rather unlikely relationship for all sorts of reasons, but the actors and script are good enough to sell it to the viewer). However, no sooner has the movie got underway than we are plunged into the midst of Harry’s latest enterprise, which is going horribly awry. The robbery at least is quite successful, but then the crew are pursued by the police, there is a hail of bullets, an explosion, and a fireball. Veronica and the wives of the other robbers are now, well, widows.

This would be stressful enough in the normal way of things, but it gets worse: it turned out that in the fateful job-gone-wrong, Harry and the others stole two million dollars from another criminal, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning has decided to go legit, or at least become a better class of criminal, by going into politics, and is currently locked in a bad-tempered electoral race with establishment candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Manning needs the money back in order to fund his campaign, and is not about to let the fact it all got incinerated incline him to let Veronica off the hook. She has a month to raise the cash or it will go very much the worse for her.

However, Veronica finds herself the recipient of a rather unusual bequest from her late husband: a notebook containing the plans for his next heist, which would have netted him five million dollars. Rather than just selling the plans to Manning, Veronica decides that on this occasion, sisters are going to do it for themselves, and recruits two of her fellow widows (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) to help her execute the job…

This is, I would argue, the other Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date, and looks every inch the slick Hollywood thriller. Nevertheless, this started life as a six-part drama on British TV thirty-five years ago: just goes to show that sometimes these things spend a while coming to fruition, I suppose (I’m sure I heard somewhere that Ann Mitchell, star of the TV version, has a walk-on part at one point in the movie, but I didn’t spot her).

Original writer Lynda La Plante gets a credit but you could be forgiven for assuming this had been written for the American screen by McQueen and collaborator Gillian Flynn (yup, the one from Gone Girl). La Plante’s plot survives essentially intact, but the idiom is wholly American, as are the social issues McQueen chooses to explore in the course of the film.

Given that McQueen’s last film was essentially 134 minutes of factually-inspired historical misery, you may not be totally surprised to learn that his version of Widows does not shy away from the darker side of life. Quite the opposite: this is a film set in a thoroughly, horribly corrupt and nihilistic world where virtually everyone seems to have given up hope and abandoned any principles they ever held. It is all about getting ahead and staying there: at one point, the mother of one of the widows basically encourages her daughter to become a call girl, as this is apparently a fairly agreeable way of earning a living. Racism, political corruption, and police brutality all feature in the plot to some degree or other.

That said, this is still a very absorbing film, helped by the fact it has a smart, intelligent script and an excellent cast – quite apart from the people I’ve already mentioned, it has Robert Duvall as Farrell’s repugnant father and Daniel Kaluuya as Manning’s brother, both of whom are very good (Kaluuya is kind of playing the unpredictable-psycho-killer-brother stock character, but manages to find some new things to do with it). And it’s not even as if it’s totally bereft of lighter moments – at one point the widows realise they’re going to need an extra pair of hands to complete the robbery, and (in the absence of anyone else remotely qualified), end up recruiting Rodriguez’s babysitter (Cynthia Erivo) to complete the team.

On the other hand, it does almost feel as if the film itself gets rather absorbed in the world of its story, rather than the heist narrative. There are a lot of characters, and the plot is inclined to sprawl somewhat (even so, not all of the widows are developed as individuals to anything like the same extent, with Michelle Rodriguez being notably less well served than Elizabeth Debicki).

I was slightly surprised when Olinka, a couple of hours in, emitted a great sigh and asked (of no-one in particular) ‘Is this film ever going to end?’ – but in retrospect I can kind of see where she was coming from. If there is a flaw in Widows, it is that this is a film with an awful lot of middle, most of which seems to have been taken as an advance on the end: the actual climactic heist does eventually materialise, but it feels like a bit of an afterthought – curiously under-developed and not really as tightly written or directed as you would expect. It is as if the more dramatic, social-commentary elements of the movie have staged a sort of coup against the heist plotline which it started with.

I am slightly saddened to have to report that, despite it still more-or-less functioning as a thriller, Olinka was less than fulsome in her praise for Widows as we left the cinema. Personally, I enjoyed the performances and the script enough for the issues with the central plotline not to be a particular issue for me. This is the kind of grown-up, quality movie which usually does very well with both critics and audiences – I’m virtually certain it will be more of a popular success than the other Steve McQueen’s last film; the question is whether it can achieve the same kind of critical triumph as well. Whatever the answer proves to be, this is a solid, intelligent movie.

Read Full Post »

It is, as I have observed in the past, often difficult to ensure a new movie gets enough publicity to guarantee its success, even if you are a talented director and you have the resources of a major studio backing you up. It helps to have some kind of unique angle that jaded movie critics and other journalist can latch onto and discuss in their initial reviews of the film. Well, the good news for the makers of Outlaw King (presented on screen as Outlaw/King, which I’m not sure is necessarily a better title), an aspiring historical epic currently appearing at both a cinema and on a major streaming service near you, is that the forces of the media do seem to have found something in this film to get their teeth into. The bad news is that the item in question is star Chris Pine’s winky, which makes an appearance when the actor goes skinny-dipping at one point. The winky is ‘dazzling’, in the words of one usually reputable website, and ‘the belle of the ball’ according to Vanity Fair (a curious choice of metaphor to say the least).

I would imagine that all these winky-focused reviews are not what the makers of Outlaw King anticipated when they released their film into the world, for this shows every sign of being a seriously-intentioned costume drama, directed by David Mackenzie (who in the past has made films as diverse as the laboriously weird Perfect Sense and the rather good neo-western Hell or High Water). Things get underway and we find ourselves in Scotland in the early 14th century, where bad King Edward of England (Stephen Dillane) has seized control of the country after a lengthy struggle with the rebel leader William Wallace. Now all the local nobility are being forced to swear loyalty to Edward, amongst them dour, brooding, well-endowed claimant to the throne Robert the Bruce (Pine). Just to show there are no hard feelings, the King marries his god-daughter Elizabeth (the fabulous Florence Pugh) off to the Bruce.

An uneasy peace persists for a bit, but when Wallace is finally apprehended and bits of him are posted all over Scotland to deter other insurrectionists, the country is in uproar. Robert the Bruce decides that it is time for him, as an honourable Scotsman, to stand up and do the right thing. In this case the right thing is for him to break his promise to Edward, murder his rival claimant to the throne, and have himself declared King of Scots by the local church dignitaries. King Edward is as cross as two sticks at this act of treachery and dispatches an army under the command of his son (Billy Howle) to sort the situation out. Soon enough Robert the Bruce and his band of followers are forced into hiding, desperately trying to rally support for their dream of Scottish independence (hey, the more things change…), while the new king’s wife and daughter find themselves caught in the path of the advancing English army.

This, you would have thought, would be a good place for the scene where Robert the Bruce learns the value of persistence and determination from watching a spider trying to spin its web under difficult circumstances. I would hazard a guess that this is the one and only thing most people outside Scotland know about Robert the Bruce, and yet while the story is alluded to (very obliquely) it doesn’t make it into the film. This is not the only interesting omission from Outlaw King: filmed, but not included in the final version, was an encounter between Robert and William Wallace.

I find this rather significant, because Outlaw King is clearly pitching itself very much as a film in the vein of Braveheart (Bravewinky, perhaps), with some of the same historical figures appearing in it. I might even go so far to say that this is the work of people who liked Braveheart so much they decided to make their own version (which is what this is). Obviously comparisons are going to be made, and actually having Wallace show up in the movie would only add to this.

Nevertheless, Outlaw King‘s mixture of gritty mediaeval detail and gory battlefield violence (the ‘arterial splatter’ CGI function gets a lot of use) can’t help feeling a bit familiar, and there are a lot of faces in the supporting cast who are exactly the kind of actor you would expect to find in this kind of film – James Cosmo, Tony Curran, and Clive Russell. That said, some younger faces are more prominent – as well as Pugh and Howle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is second-billed as one of Robert the Bruce’s more homicidally zealous followers. Most of the performances are pretty solid, although the actors are somewhat hindered by the fact that they are essentially playing stock types – the ambitious young man chafing for recognition from his father, the young woman forced into an arranged marriage who slowly finds her feelings for her husband deepening, and so on.

It must be said that Florence Pugh is customarily excellent in this film: she is one major role away from global stardom, I would suggest. That said, she is excellent in a rather underwritten and unrewarding part. Her character’s role in the film feels rather like an afterthought – she’s there not because it’s particularly important to the plot (she isn’t), but because it seems to be received dogma that you can’t do a big movie like this one without at least one significant female character.

If we’re going to talk about the acting in this film, however, we should probably spend some time considering Chris Pine’s contribution. Now, regular readers may know that I am far from an unconditional fan of this particular actor – I believe in the past I may have said that on those occasions when I enjoyed a Pine movie, it’s been despite rather than because of his presence. So I may be a little biased. However, the problem here is that Robert the Bruce is a dour, internal sort of character, who spends a lot of the film brooding (he’s also arguably an ambiguous and compromised figure, although the script works hard to finesse the murder of John Comyn into an act of self-defence). Chris Pine is not a natural brooder. He is a smirker, a swaggerer, a schmoozer, and a wise-cracker. Rough-hewn Scottish monarchy is well outside his comfort zone and his performance is really only functional, which means there is an absence at the heart of the film.

Dedicated Pine watchers may feel there is an absence in other ways as well. Yes, I think the time has come when we must address the issue of Chris Pine’s winky (and those are words I never thought I’d type). Well, the first thing I must say is that the prominence of Pine’s masculine appendage seems to have been rather overstated by excitable hacks. The appearance of the winky definitely falls into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it category, to say nothing of the fact it only appears in long shot. I would also suggest that this whole winky-related fuss only serves to highlight a rather quaint double standard in how we treat screen nudity. Florence Pugh’s exposed knockers get much more screen time than the Pine winky, but no-one’s talking about them at all – and, in the age of the Unique Moment, I imagine I would get flayed alive if I even mentioned in this review the fact that they look superb. Yet someone can go on about the ‘dazzling’ winky and the response only seems to be a mixture of amusement and bemusement.

With the Bruce himself not a particularly compelling character, and the plot being a fairly uninspired mixture of action sequences and political wrangling, the result is that Outlaw King is just not that gripping as a piece of drama. It looks great, with all the usual Scottish scenery, armies of extras, and some deft special effects. Mackenzie does a slightly showy-offy very long take at the start of the film, but on the whole he marshals the film very competently, and the climax – a recreation of the battle of Loudon Hill – is genuinely very good, really giving you something of the sense of what it was like to be a peasant infantryman facing a cavalry charge by armoured knights.

There are many good things about Outlaw King, and it passes the time fairly agreeably (I imagine many people may have issues with the violence and gore that punctuate the movie, however). I am also fully aware that many people like Chris Pine and this kind of mud-and-chainmail movie rather more than I do, so I expect the film will probably be quite successful. Nevertheless, I think it wears its influences a bit too openly, and is much more impressive in terms of its production values than its actual storytelling.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »