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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

There’s a moment towards the end of Fernando Meirelle’s The Two Popes when Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) decides there is something he really has to get off his papal chest. ‘I’m going to retire,’ he announces.

His companion, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is slow on the uptake. ‘Retire? Retire from what?’ he asks, bemused.

(Look, if you think that counts as a spoiler… well, I don’t know what to say, except that I hope that being in the coma hasn’t left you with too many long-term health issues.)

It’s one of many funny moments in the film, which is consistently much lighter on its feet than you might expect. We’re getting to that time of year, after all, when the slower, heavier, and more respectable films start to show up. The Two Popes is a Netflix production, and presumably forms part of the company’s strategy of attracting viewers by being the only place where you can see prestigious, award-winning productions. Of course, in order to win the awards, the film has to get into actual cinemas, which is why it is currently enjoying a brief theatrical run before becoming exclusively available by streaming. I find it hard to find many positive things to say about this way of doing things, but this is an undeniably solid, classy movie.

As noted, the film presents itself as a dramatisation of various events which might very well have happened in recent years. The story proper gets underway in 2005, with the death of the incumbent pontiff, John Paul II. As usual, there is a good deal of politicking about who will take his place, with the hot favourite being the previous pope’s doctrinal enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins – the thing with the papal names means that the two lead characters have multiple names across the course of the movie). Mounting an unexpectedly strong, if rather reluctant challenge, is Argentinian cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce), a man of an entirely different character.

Ratzinger is duly elected, and a somewhat disenchanted Bergoglio, anticipating the rigid conservatism of the incoming pope, returns home to Argentina to plan his retirement. Years pass, and relations between the two men do not improve. However, the problem is that Bergoglio can’t retire to a quiet life in a parish without the Pope’s permission, which Benedict is very reluctant to grant in case it is interpreted by vaticanologists as an implied criticism of his papacy. The Pope summons the cardinal to discuss the problem – and some other things he has on his mind.

What follows is essentially a two-hander between Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as the two men talk about theology, their upbringings, the role of the church, and many other issues. Mixed in with this are various flashbacks to the earlier life of Bergoglio, depicting his discovery of his vocation, and other key moments from his past (the young Bergoglio is played by Juan Minujin). It does sound like quite a dry and heavy film when you put it like that, which may be why Meirelles goes out of his way to keep things unexpectedly light: the film starts with a jokey scene with the Pope having trouble booking a plane ticket, and things begin to verge on the downright off-beat as the college of cardinals commence their ruminations on who is to be the new pope with Abba’s Dancing Queen playing majestically on the soundtrack. He manages to maintain this throughout: any film which depicts the two popes watching World Cup final together (Germany vs Argentina, of course) is clearly not likely to be accused of over-reverence towards its subjects.

That said, it’s not afraid to pause and reflect on some of the issues it raises. The difference between the two men is dramatically useful – Ratzinger is cold, inflexible, unworldly, not especially imaginative, while Bergoglio is warm, compassionate, engaged, charismatic. And, of course, they are being played by two extremely fine actors. I don’t think the film-makers need have been too concerned about the fact that this is quite a talky film – when you have performers of this calibre working with an interesting and intelligent script, long dialogue scenes become entirely engrossing.

Now, I’ve enjoyed watching Jonathan Pryce ever since his performance in Brazil, but even so I would admit that he is obviously not as feted an actor as Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins does indeed seem to be reining it in and rather underplaying things as Benedict, but then he has also to contend with the fact that the film is rather making him out to be the bad pope in this relationship: a much less appealing figure than Bergoglio, certainly. The film’s partiality isn’t just limited to the present day scenes, either – we do learn a lot about how Bergoglio came into the church, and his travails under the military junta that seized power there in 1976. You initially think the film is doing Benedict XVI no favours by not exploring his past and character in anything like the same way.

But then you think about it a bit and you realise that, actually, not exploring Benedict XVI’s past is possibly one of the kindest things you could do for him in a movie, because there are many big question marks here. I don’t refer to his time in the Hitlerjugend, but the topic which inevitably surfaces in any discussion of the modern Roman Catholic Church: the child abuse scandals and the suggestions of a systematic, institutionalised cover-up. It has been suggested that Ratzinger’s involvement in this, and the damage its exposure could do to the Church, is the main reason for his retirement as pope.

Obviously the film has to address this, or at least touch on it – and it duly does so. I enjoyed this film a lot and found it to be mostly intelligent and well-made, but you could certainly argue it tries to dodge the issue here – or if not dodge, then certainly fudge. The resulting scene, where Benedict intimates to Bergoglio the extent of his knowledge of what’s been going on without going into too much detail, doesn’t just feel like a cop-out – it makes you suddenly realise the extent to which this film must be fictional, a what-if presentation of possible conversations between invented versions of the two men. Prior to this point the film has been plausible enough to win you over.

Well, it’s never a completely terrible idea to be reminded that a piece of fiction is a piece of fiction, and this at least is an interesting and often amusing one. And The Two Popes is well-enough written, played, and directed to give the impression that there may be a few grains of real truth sprinkled in amongst the invented sparkle, even if that impression may be completely unfounded. Worth seeing just for the performances, anyway.

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Time was, when the films that were made in expectation of their being possible awards contenders started to appear round about New Year. That hasn’t been the case for a while now (though there is still usually a glut of serious and improving films starting in January), but it still feels a bit odd to come across a film quite as staunchly… what’s the word? …worthy as Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet.

I know, I know, it’s one of those odd things, isn’t it? Call a film worthy and instantly you start thinking about making your excuses and finding something else to watch. It implies a sort of self-conscious seriousness, the cinematic equivalent of the kind of book you were forced to read at school, all the while having its importance and quality drummed into your head. Call something worthy and you’re basically implying it’s not going to be any fun.

It may be the case that I have just shot my bolt as far as this particular movie is concerned, for Harriet contains all the irreverent, high-spirited fun and subversiveness you would expect from a studio costume drama depicting the life of a revered black female folk hero of the Civil War period. I must confess that until the trailers for this film started rolling, I was vaguely aware of the name of Harriet Tubman (she’s the sort of person Lisa used to name-check back when I still watched The Simpsons) but I could not have told you anything specific about her life. So I suppose the film is educational as well. Worthy and educational – that’s not the kind of quote that ends up on a movie poster, more like the sort of thing that drives film producers to hire hitmen. Hey ho.

Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, who doesn’t actually acquire that name until well into the movie. It opens in Maryland in 1849, where she – under her original name of Araminta Ross – is a slave owned by the Brodess family. It soon becomes apparent that she and her family should have been manumitted some years earlier, but her owner refuses to recognise the will stipulating this, and it seems she is unlikely to ever be granted her freedom. With the threat of being sold to a buyer somewhere in the Deep South looming – something no-one ever returns from – she decides to make a run for it, and with the assistance of a few sympathetic allies makes her way to the border with Pennsylvania, over a hundred miles away. The people she encounters there are, perhaps understandably, sceptical when they hear the tale of an illiterate woman making this journey without any supplies and very little guidance.

Nevertheless, she takes a new name to mark her freedom and initially settles down there, but finds she is unable to entirely put aside thoughts of friends and family who are still enslaved in Maryland. And so she embarks on a series of hazardous journeys back into the slave states, made all the more hazardous by the fact that her former owner’s son (Joe Alwyn) has refused to relinquish his legal hold on her and is still looking to reclaim his property…

The last high-profile film to deal with this sort of material and milieu was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave five or six years ago. I was quite lukewarm about that one, not least because its relentless, unmodulated bleakness and horror eventually became desensitising and alienating rather than genuinely affecting. You need a bit of light and shade, or you just end up grinding an axe – even if that does happen to be a worthwhile axe that deserves to be ground. One of the achievements of Harriet, in the first act at least, is that it doesn’t go pedal-to-the-metal on the grimness, while still managing to evoke the reality of life in slavery.  As a result the film does produce a genuine sense of anger and outrage, at least as great as in the McQueen film (your mileage may differ, of course). The film’s other strong point is its depiction of life in the slave states, which is slightly more nuanced and complex than you might expect from a studio movie: for instance, Tubman was born into slavery, but her first husband was a free man; while later in the film, one of the main antagonists is a black slave-catcher played by Omar Dorsey.

So far, so good, but the problem is that once Tubman completes her initial journey to freedom and re-invents herself as a staunch and fearless abolitionist, the film kind of loses the plot a bit. I mean this in a literal sense: the story becomes disjointed and rather repetitive as Tubman rattles up and down the Underground Railroad, eventually bringing dozens of others to freedom as well. You kind of start looking at your watch, waiting for the Civil War to start, but it really makes up only a small part of the film.

In the end it’s not so much a story as much as a selection of scenes from the life of someone effectively regarded as a secular saint of American history – and indeed, Tubman is explicitly likened to Joan of Arc at one point (albeit by one of her enemies). As a result, the tone of the thing is about as dry and reverential as you might expect – Harriet Tubman emerges as an icon rather than anything approaching an actual human being, and the rest of the characters are equally sketchily drawn. I expect this won’t trouble some viewers, for whom the mere existence of the film will be an unqualified positive, and things could possibly have been much worse (there was a possibly-apocryphal story floating around last week alleging that at one point in the early 90s a studio executive wanted to cast Julia Roberts as Tubman). The Progressive Agenda Committee should find little to gripe about here, and neither should viewers of a strongly religious disposition, either: the film takes the stories that Tubman was prone to receiving prophetic visions from God at face value (the closest it gets to scepticism on this topic is the suggestion these are the result of abuse by her master leaving her with possible brain damage).

Erivo’s performance is good, though, even if it eventually just boils down to her making inspirational speeches while the music swells around her, and for those of us not especially well-versed in American history the film has some points of interest. However, the life of a great and important person doesn’t automatically result in a great and important film – regardless of the subject matter, you don’t get a pass when it comes to things like structure and script. This starts well but by the final act it has turned into a clumsy historical melodrama. Not unwatchable, by any means, and not without some successful moments and sequences, but it’s often rather hard work.

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We seem to be going through a period notable for an unusual number of a films supposedly based on true events, and also quite a few for which the paying customer certainly gets their money’s worth (and I’m not even talking about insanely long Argentinian art-house movies which no sane person would contemplate actually watching). These two trends come together for Emmerich’s Midway, and perhaps even more so for James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 (also trading under the title Ford v Ferrari in some territories). These two films share something else, in that they both seem to be firmly aimed at an unreconstructedly male audience. Fighter pilots! Racing drivers! Can things get any more hetero-normative?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I hasten to add. I am guessing that Mangold has been allowed to indulge himself with a two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time more because his last film made over $600 million than on the strength of his track record as a director (which is generally pretty decent, albeit with the occasional significant wobble), but this is – for the most part – one of his more impressive movies.

It must be said that he takes his time setting up all the pieces, though. The film opens in the early 1960s, with the Ford Motor Company experiencing a significant drop in sales. Sales executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has the idea of making the brand more sexy and alluring by orchestrating a merger with the legendary Italian manufacturer Ferrari, but the wily Italians outmanouevre the American company. In the end the decision is made to boost Ford’s profile by attempting to win the famous endurance race at Le Mans.

To run the new team they recruit Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racing driver and Le Mans winner forced to retire on health grounds. Shelby is a bit dubious about where Ford fully understand just what it is they’re attempting to do, but this is nothing compared to the outright skepticism of the man Shelby brings onto the team as a driver and engineer: Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a fiercely individualistic and contrary British racer.

Development of the new car goes reasonably well, but soon tensions become apparent within the project: Miles views it solely as a racing endeavour, and is his usual uncompromising self, while the suits in the company retain their usual attitude of corporate groupthink and treat it solely as a marketing exercise (which to some extent it is). Shelby finds himself caught in the middle of these clashing worldviews, attempting to reconcile them. And this is before they even go to France…

As noted, this is a film pitching for a certain demographic, concerning as it does motor racing and male friendship (the relationship between Shelby and Miles is at the centre of the film). The only significant female character is Miles’ wife, played by Caitriona Balfe, who to be fair does a good job with the material she’s been given. On the whole the film is quite successful in hitting the targets it sets for itself – the racing sequences are often genuinely thrilling, and the warmth between the two men certainly rings true.

In a sense it kind of reminds me of The Fighter, from 2010 (I qualify this because that’s a film I’ve never actually seen) – Bale was widely acclaimed for the very bold and committed performance he gave in that film, for which he himself gave credit to Mark Wahlberg: without a solid performance at the centre of the movie, Bale wouldn’t have been able to push his own turn quite as far as he did. So it is here as well: Matt Damon, as the world has come to know well, has developed into a very reliable and capable leading man, with impressive chops as both an actor and a movie star. He is on his usual good form here. Bale is also doing his thing to great effect – on this occasion he is almost off the leash as Ken Miles. Never before have I heard the Brummie accent deployed quite so forthrightly in a major studio picture, and Bale finds humour and pathos in his depiction of an immensely talented man who just hasn’t got it in him to play the game in the way he would need to in order to achieve the success he deserves.

Here we come to the crux of the film. You might expect this to turn out to be a fairly grisly 152 minute commercial for Ford Motors – the focus is very much on them, with Ferrari only really touched on despite their prominence in the international title of the film. However, the central conflict isn’t so much Ford against Ferrari as the Ford suits against the drivers and mechanics running the company’s racing team. This is not a very flattering portrayal of Ford management, with the possible exception of Iacocca (that said, for all his prominence in the advertising, Jon Bernthal doesn’t get a lot to do a the film goes on): there’s a real sense in which Ford executives are the bad guys in this film. The message of the film is that individual genius and eccentricity is good, and focus-grouped management-speak group-think is bad.

Well, that would be fine, but I do find the film a little disingenuous on this front. Why is this film called one thing in the UK and another in the US? I am guessing it is because Ford vs Ferrari tested badly with British audiences and has been changed to something perceived to be a bit more appealing. It’s all very well for the film to present itself as being all anti-corporate, but this is just the same as in all those films where stressed out city slickers discover the secret of true happiness is living a quiet bucolic existence out in the countryside. I don’t see many Hollywood studio executives or movie stars chucking it all in to live on a farm, and I imagine we won’t see many Hollywood studios taking the kind of bold risks and employing unpredictable, temperamental talents the way this film suggests motor companies should. It’s just a pose, but I should say the film-makers have cracked how to fake sincerity.very convincingly.

And it is, I should stress, very entertaining stuff, though it feels like many of the best bits have ended up in the various trailers. This is a big, meaty movie, with some good performances, a smart script, and a good sense of time and place. My only real issue with the movie itself is that after being knockabout comedy-drama stuff for the vast majority of its running time, there’s an attempt at a shift in tone right at the very end that feels like it’s trying to edge this film into quality drama territory and potentially turn it into an awards contender. I’m not sure it pulls it off quite well enough, but then I’m not sure it really needs to do something like that anyway. There’s no shame in being a crowd-pleaser, and I think that’s what this will prove to be.

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Cinema is an emotional art form, and it can make you feel many things: awe, excitement, wonder, anger, compassion, terror. What doesn’t happen quite so much is a trip to the movies making you feel young, but I am happy to report that this is the effect that going to see Bill Condon’s The Good Liar had on me. I should make clear that this has relatively little to do with the quality of the film itelf, and much more to do with the fact that I went to a weekday matinee showing. It’s very unusual, these days, for me to be the youngest person at the showing of a movie (unless I’m the only one there), but I felt positively spring chicken-esque on this occasion. There was a very good turn-out for the movie (far more people than were at the teatime showing of Midway the previous day), and all in all it was an interesting opportunity to see how the more mature generation approach film-watching etiquette. So it was that I settled down to enjoy the new movie, doing my best to ignore the faint whistle of hearing-aid feedback, the less faint murmuring of people attempting to explain the plot to each other, the flashing and buzzing of un-switched-off smartphones, and the flagrant disregard of the allocated seating system.

Why so many oldies at this particular movie? Well, I suspect it’s mainly because of the two leads, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, who are both there or thereabouts when it comes to much-loved national treasure status, in addition to knocking on a bit themselves. One of the many slightly odd things about this film is that it does appear to be pitching very much to the older generation, but on the other hand it also contains a lot of things that this same generation reputedly have issues with, specifically graphic violence and fruity language.

The Good Liar opens with both McKellen and Mirren joining an online dating website for older folk, and it is almost immediately made clear that neither of them is being absolutely honest in their responses. But they seem to hit it off, even after they both come clean about the fact that they are not, as advertised, Brian and Estelle, but actually Roy and Betty: he is a distinguished gent with a vague, military background, while she is a former Oxford academic now enjoying life as a rich widow. They have a very pleasant lunch together and then go their separate ways, Betty leaving with her grandson (Russell Tovey).

The movie stays with Roy, however, which if nothing else allows us to enjoy more of McKellen’s performance. This is shaping up to be something really quite special, with the actor at his most sly and impish. Rather than toddling off home, he heads to Stringfellow’s nightclub, where it soon becomes apparent he is a professional fraudster engaged on a very slick long con with his partner Vincent (Jim Carter). His involvement with Betty is obviously also part of the build-up to another swindle.

But as the con proceeds and Roy does his best to dispel the suspicions of Betty’s grandson, it almost seems that he is starting to have genuine feelings for his intended victim. Could it be that the old rogue is finally growing a conscience and beginning to have second thoughts about his plan…?

Well, you know, Bill Condon is one of those people with a shockingly variable track record – he wrote and directed the rather good Gods and Monsters, back in the 1990s, and more recently was behind the camera for The Fifth Estate and Mr Holmes, both of which I thought were pretty decent movies. However – and here you must imagine the authorial voice of the blog taking on its gravest and most sombre tone – the case for the prosecution is arguably much more significant. Not only was Condon the perpetrator of the final couple of Twilight movies, he was also one of the writers of the bafflingly popular diversity barn-dance The Greatest Showman. So the question must be: which way is this particular movie going to turn out?

Confusingly, the answer to this may be ‘both’, as while The Good Liar is utterly ridiculous, it is also highly entertaining, although probably not in quite the way the film-makers had in mind. Condon and his associates were probably aiming to produce a gripping and unpredictable thriller, with quite a hard, dark edge to it. This they have not managed to achieve, because you would have to be a fairly undemanding viewer not to figure out which way this film is going well in advance of the denouement. On the other hand, the film does feature a lot of very good actors who are clearly having a whale of a time having fun with some rather ripe material. McKellen, for instance, is front and centre for most of the movie, and his twinkliness and smarminess are both set to maximum throughout. This is such a big performance – I would say he was overacting, without actually being hammy – that it does almost unbalance the movie.

Of course, I suspect the reason McKellen is being quite so extravagant with his performance is because he realises the film needs it in order to function. The film, as mentioned, does aspire to a considerable level of twisty-turniness, but the twists and turns are generally quite absurd and impossible to take seriously. There’s no point trying to be subtle and naturalistic in a story as daft as this one: you may as well go all in and at least try to have some fun with it. This is the approach that McKellen (and, eventually, Mirren) appear to be going for.

As an exercise in outrageous camp, The Good Liar passes the time very entertainingly, although I must say again that some key plot developments are very predictable. There is also the issue that the film was obviously conceived as a serious drama with a dark and quite vicious edge to it: there are moments of significant violence which jar very strongly with the overall tone of the movie. (I should also mention that the film indicates that the British obsession with events during and just after the Second World War also shows no signs of abating.) There is also something which feels a little incorrect about the structure of the climax: the thing about a good twist is that you should really be able to work it out in advance, and in this case that simply isn’t true.

Nevertheless, it’s a spry and fairly slick movie, and I suppose the nature of the story means that the predictability of some of the plot isn’t really a problem (it also compensates for the absurdity of much of the rest of it). I enjoyed watching the actors do their stuff, even if I was probably laughing in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons most of the time.

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Here’s a genuinely weird piece of promotion for a new movie: people going to see Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts at my local multiplex receive a free chocolate bar (it’s an Aero, in case you were wondering). The logic behind this seems tenuous at best, if you ask me, although it did get me thinking about what other films could potentially benefit from a similar strategy. Maybe the makers of Lion missed a trick (are Lion bars still made?). I’m not sure even a lifetime’s supply of free Twix would tempt me to see any more Twilight films, but I suppose the option is still there if they ever decide to remake Galaxy Quest, Red Planet Mars, or Marathon Man (they’d probably have to rename it Snickers Man, though). I can imagine a hook-up between a new version of Cabaret and the makers of Kit Kats, too.

The weird promotion is perhaps a sign that the makers of Aeronauts are worried about their film finding an audience, something only compounded by the fact they opted to release it into cinemas on a Monday, thus effectively giving it a seven-day opening weekend (conventional wisdom is that the more money you make on that weekend, the more people will go to see the film subsequently). Are they right to be so worried about its prospects? Well, constant reader, occasionally a film comes along which isn’t actually bad, and has points of real quality about it, but is still obviously going to struggle to find an audience. And The Aeronauts is very likely one of these.

The bulk of the film is set in and above London in 1862. Tweedy boffin James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne, ensconced securely in his comfort zone) is widely mocked by his fellow scientists and other parties for his belief that the English weather can be predicted (hmmm), and in order to prove this he needs to go up into the sky in a big balloon. To help him with this (ad)venture, he retains the help of experienced balloonist Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). However, she has been in a bit of a slump since her husband (Vincent Perez) passed away at the end of their last balloon trip (let us just say that the marriage experienced an abrupt vertical termination) and isn’t sure she wants to have anything more to do with that sort of thing.

Needless to say, Amelia is talked round, investors are found, and on a fairly bright day the two of them (and a dog) clamber into their basket and set off into the wide blue yonder. (Slightly worryingly, only the dog has a parachute.) Glaisher is dry as an old biscuit and seems only to be concerned about his meteorological readings; he regards Amelia as being excessively frivolous and perhaps a bit foolhardy. Is there going to be a mighty falling-out at 30,000 feet? (Hopefully not a literal one.)

Well, the film has perhaps achieved something of a coup by getting Redmayne and Jones back together again, but I’m not sure this is quite a charismatic enough pairing to get people to turn out to see the movie. It has to be said, though, that much of the movie is just the two of them in and around the basket of a balloon at various altitudes, occasionally with a spot of jeopardy in the mix, though no more than you would expect from a PG-rated movie.

The movie works hard at tricking you into thinking this is a dramatisation of true events, and indeed James Glaisher was a pioneering meteorologist who went on a very important flight in 1862. However, the Amelia Rennes character is, not to put too fine a point on it, entirely made-up: the actual pilot who accompanied Glaisher and saved his life, a chap by the name of Henry Coxwell, has been written out of the film’s version of history, presumably for being just too male and heavily bearded and not facilitating the kind of empowering feminist subtext which apparently is the most important element of the film. The Progressive Agenda Committee really are very, very busy these days; I’m guessing it was also one of their ideas to make Glaisher’s friend and fellow scientist John Trew Asian. Obviously this is well-intentioned, but I’m not sure what it achieves or how well thought-through it is; it mainly just succeeds in feeling like an exercise in box-ticking and kicking me out of the story as a result.

I’m not entirely sure how long the actual flight (sort of) depicted in the film lasted for, but I get a sense it may have been less than the 100 minutes The Aeronauts lasts for. Certainly this is a film of two halves: much of the film concerns the two of them in the balloon together, as noted, but to fill in the less-eventful stretches of the journey, the film has laid in a good supply of filler (perhaps ballast would be a more appropriate term), in the form of lengthy flashbacks to how they ended up in the basket together.

To be honest, this is quite average bonnet-opera stuff, and any interest that might be stirred by Glaisher’s struggles to be taken seriously, his relationship with his parents, and so on, is sabotaged by the suspicion that, as the entirety of Wren’s back-story is completely made up, so might Glaisher’s be as well. As a dramatisation of true events, this would just about pass muster; as pure fiction, it is just a bit underpowered.

Nevertheless, the film is visually striking, with some lovely vistas as the balloon rises higher and higher – there’s a fine score, too. There are likewise some stomach-churning moments as the characters find themselves falling in and out of the basket and having to clamber around on the balloon envelope itself – the film is an unqualified success when it come to generating these kinds of queasy thrills (my companion got a bit alarmed until I told her that Felicity Jones never, ever dies in movies). But even so, they’re only one quite small element of a strange mixture of costume drama and special-effects movie. Redmayne and Jones are perfectly acceptable, but given this is not really based on a true story, and not really an action adventure, and not really especially surprising or dramatic as a drama, all The Aeronauts really has to commend it is the fact that it and its stars are generally pleasing to look upon. And you get a free chocolate bar, of course.

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Modern marketing being what it is, it’s a safe bet that you can tell a lot about the target audience for a movie from the trailers that run in front of it: to put it another way, horror movies are preceded by horror movie trailers. I think most people, given a list of the trailers showing before an unidentified movie, would be able to have a decent stab at the genre of what was to follow, unless it was some kind of weird genre-mashing oddity.

So let’s have a go: the four trailers are as follows. A ‘quality’ drama about an idealistic lawyer confronting racial inequality in America. A ‘quality’ drama about an idealistic lawyer confronting corrupt big business in America. A low-key, character-based film about ordinary people dealing with potentially terminal illness. And something about racing drivers. (By ‘quality’ drama, by the way, I mean something intended to win kudos and potentially awards as well as simply making money for the studio.)

What would you think these were running in front of? Clearly something aimed at bien-pensant grown-ups (all that social comment and political idealism), along with people who appreciate authentic drama (the focus is on character rather than genre). The thing about racing drivers is obviously an outlier and a bit of a red herring, but you do tend to find this kind of blanket advertising appearing when a studio has spent a lot of money on a film and is slightly worried about getting it back (the film in question is the forthcoming Le Mans ’66, aka Ford v Ferrari).

I think my thesis does hold together, as all these trailers preceded Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, a film using a low-key character-based drama to make very serious social and political points. (It also features people driving quite quickly, but I doubt there’ll be a significant cross-over audience between this and Le Mans ’66.) Loach has been doing this sort of thing for well over fifty years now and shows no signs of losing his fire or commitment: this doesn’t feel like the work of a director in his eighties.

Kris Hitchen plays Ricky, husband and father of a family who fall into the ‘just barely managing’ category. (It is mentioned in passing that they lost their chance to own their own home as a result of the financial crash, and that things have been difficult ever since.) Formerly in the building trade, Ricky has decided to make a career change and is signing on as a ‘franchisee’, driving for a big delivery company. Ricky is keen, clearly desperate for the work, and perhaps not all that bright – he either disregards or doesn’t understand the ominous barrage of management-speak his supervisor, Maloney (Ross Brewster) hits him with as part of the recruitment process. He is not being hired, but onboarded; he doesn’t work for them, he works with them. None of this seems to matter to begin with, but already you fear for him.

His initial problem is raising the money to buy a van, which entails selling the car of his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood). She is a home carer, visiting the sick and elderly in their houses, and the lack of her own transport is a major issue, but she reluctantly agrees in the hope it will lead to something better. She is on a zero-hours contract too, of course. Things are all right to begin with, although the relentless grind of working thirteen and fourteen hours a day, six days a week, soon begins to take its toll. However, their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) is talented but has no prospects, and his restlessness and frustration soon begins to get him into trouble with the authorities. The fact that Ricky and Abbie never see him properly only compounds this problem, and this is before Ricky is obliged to confront the realities of his new position: he has no entitlement to time off, is liable for hefty fines if he misses his delivery deadlines, and is personally liable for what happens to the contents of his van. The job that was supposed to give the family security is tearing it apart.

Well, it’s a Ken Loach movie, so you know what to expect before turning up: Loach isn’t going to entertain you, he’s almost certainly going to get political, you’re going to be made to think, you’re probably not going to emerge skipping and whistling when all is said and done. You know this is not going to be a heart-warming slice of life, but something which will most likely become extremely bleak well before the end. And so it proves, broadly speaking. You might expect the fact that Loach’s M.O. is so predictable to start working against the movie and make it less effective – I went in with my shields already raised, so to speak – but the remarkable thing about Sorry We Missed You is that it managed to get to me anyway. Loach’s thesis is very clear from the start – zero-hours contracts and the ‘gig economy’ are just devices to strip the most vulnerable members of the workforce of their rights, allowing their de facto managers to retain authority while disclaiming any responsibility for the people who work for them. (I have spent most of the last ten years on zero-hours contracts, but I’ve been lucky enough to (mostly) work for managers who treat people as people; this film has made me all the more grateful for that.)

However, the punch of the film doesn’t come from this (although some may still find the film a bit too didactic and self-righteously on-the-nose), but the simple, domestic scenes of the family together, snatching moments of happiness, but slowly beginning to turn on each other out of sheer exhaustion, frustration and stress. It is heartbreaking to watch: I have seen films about homeless children in Syria which felt less emotionally wrenching than this one. This is raw, no-frills film-making – it is all about content, rather than style – and in places Loach’s decision to cast non-professionals in some of the roles looks a little questionable. But he has discovered, amongst others, Debbie Honeywood, who gives one of the most affecting debut performances I can remember seeing.

The decision to focus on the domestic effects of the family’s situation does give the film its power, and keeps it from being too obviously a piece of agitprop – but on the other hand, it also prevents it from discussing the root causes of the situation and possible ways of ameliorating it, as this would involve being much more overtly political. Strip away the family drama – and, to be honest, some slightly contrived plotting does threaten to tip it over into melodrama here and there – and you are left with a film about workers’ rights. The main ongoing threat to these is surely the ongoing act of national self-harm this country is currently embarked upon, but Sorry We Missed You never addresses this, or even refers to the issue. As a result it feels like a film cursing the darkness with great passion and intensity, not one which even suggests there might be candles we could light. Still, an extremely powerful and moving drama.

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What’s that you say? A challenge? You want me to go and see a South American art-house film with an unconventional narrative? Well, let me just stop you there, for I am way ahead of you. In fact I am probably much further ahead of you than you might think, as (fingers crossed) in a couple of days I shall be attempting the pretend-film-critic equivalent of doing an ultramarathon, in the form of writing about Mariano Llinas’ colossal art-house oddity La Flor. But for now, I shall restrict myself to something relatively more conventional, by which I mean Alejandro Landes’ Monos.

Landes is part-Colombian, and the movie is set in the wilderness of that country (which, it must be said, often looks stunningly beautiful). On a windswept and often very muddy mountainside, a group of teenagers engage in a game of blindfold football and various other pastimes: they are the Monos, and it soon becomes apparent they are child soldiers for an unspecified paramilitary organisation. The group refer to each other exclusively by their nicknames: the leader of the squad is Wolf (Julian Giraldo), amongst the others are Lady (Karen Quintero), Bigfoot (Moises Arias), Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Boom Boom, Swede, and so on. When they’re not training, their main mission is to guard a captured American hostage (Julianne Nicholson), whom they nickname Doctora – she is much older than any of them.

Other than a radio, their only contact with their superiors comes through their contact, a sadistic dwarf, who occasionally visits to shout at them and ensure doctrinal purity. On his latest visit, he gives his sanction to a relationship between Wolf and Lady, but also charges them with another important mission – someone has decided to favour the cause with the loan of a valuable milk cow, named Shakira. The Monos are to look after the cow, who is possibly even more important than Doctora.

Well, Wolf and Lady enjoy a spot of the old consummation, which is just another excuse for a wild party as far as the rest of the squad is concerned. Unfortunately, excitable teenagers and high-powered semi-automatic weapons are not a recommended mix, and one which proves to have negative consequences for Shakira the cow. Wolf knows he will be held responsible, and finds the pressure and guilt impossible to cope with, setting off a chain of events which will lead to the disintegration of relationships within the group. But will anyone be able to get out of this situation in one piece?

My mastery of many tongues, not to mention my ability to use Google Translate, tells me that Monos is Spanish for – basically – apes. The implication is that the characters in this film are really little better than animals, and it’s one which its events basically support. Does that sound bleak? Well, I suppose it must – but considering that this is a film about child soldiers, one wouldn’t really expect anything else. There is, I suppose, a little black humour in the role played by Shakira the cow, but apart from that this is a thoroughly serious and intense film.

That said, it is a diffuse kind of intensity. The tale of children running violently out of control, away from the presence of adults, inevitably puts one in mind of Lord of the Flies, a similarity which only becomes all the more pronounced when the characters relocate from the mountains down into a rainforest. And, to be fair, the prominent appearance of a pig’s head on a stick (a key piece of imagery from Golding’s novel) suggests it is one the film is happy to acknowledge. But Monos is less specifically allegorical than Lord of the Flies – it is clearly inspired by the long-standing armed conflict troubling Colombia, but if it has any particular message to offer with respect to this, it is presented obliquely.

Nor is it a conventional thriller in the way that some of the publicity for it suggests. There is an unfolding narrative as the film progresses, and it does incorporate moments of violence and tension, but this is not a film with conventional heroes or villains, or goals, motivations, reverses, triumphs and closure. In a strange way it is almost a character study, but if so it is a study of the entire squad. As the film opens, they are recognisably teenagers in many ways, at that stage where everything is still essentially a game to them – politics, training, sex, killing. But they show little sign of being aware of their own lack of maturity, which is one of the drivers of the plot. When any of them is forced to confront the prospect of taking genuine responsibility for their actions, their only response is a violent one. One of the unsettling things about the film is the way it contains many scenes where they behave like genuine adolescents – enjoying the illicit thrills of stolen kisses, or a brief experiment with hallucinogenic mushrooms, for instance.

If most of the film concerns a group of teenagers struggling to come to terms with adult responsibility, then the subplot concerning Doctora is something quite different. She is the adult in the group, to begin with – but the same kind of deterioration that afflicts the Monos also consumes her, as she is slowly but inevitablity brutalised by the nature of her captivity, leading her to actions which would be unthinkable in civilised society.

All of this works as well as it does because of a strong ensemble performance from the young actors. I would almost have guessed that most of them were making their first movie here, which only goes to show what I know: this is the fifth film to feature Moises Arias to get reviewed on this blog. He, along with the rest of them, gives an impressively assured and convincing turn.

But the real strength of the film is its visual style and energy. There are some striking visual compositions throughout the film, and moments which show real cinematic vision and power. The deployment of a striking, unsettling soundtrack is also very well-handled. This is a proper piece of powerful cinema – not especially comfortable to watch, and not offering an easy or trite message to the viewer, but engrossing and rewarding nevertheless.

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