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Colette

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By the 1890s, when this racy costume drama is set, the Belle Époque (or golden era) was in full swing. From the cancan of the Moulin Rouge to the bustling artistic Salons, Paris was enjoying a delirious rush to into modernity and new mores. It seems everyone was swept up in this enthusiasm. So, when we meet Colette (a perfectly-cast Kiera Knightley) languishing in her sleepy village we can see why she just has to make it to the metropole. Her ticket there is her handsome suitor Willy who sees her potential and soon introduces her to high society as his new young wife.

Willy (Dominic West) is already quite a player. He is an impresario/writer and general man about town. It turns out that he doesn’t so much write his works as employ a ‘creative team’ of ghost writers. It sort of works, the writers get published and Willy trawls for ideas and brings the work in.

Initially, shy young Colette colludes in this team effort and is flattered by the idea of being the power behind the throne. However, when she takes his suggestion of writing a frank account of her own journey from innocence to experience, things change.

‘Claudine’ – The character she creates – becomes the toast of Paris. The Sapphic and psychologically astute books fly off the shelves, a theatrical spin-off sells out, and she and Willy realise they have launched a city-wide phenomenon. (At one point the, mostly faultless, the script anachronistically refers to this as a ‘brand’. That is exactly what it has become but that is a very 21st century term for it.)

Willy continues to demonstrate his eclectic taste in amorous matters but when Colette decides to experiment a little herself, then the old double standard kicks in. Given that Colette is the real talent fuelling the whole enterprise, Willy has to tread very carefully in trying to assert his presumed masculine dominance.

Director Wash Westmoreland (who made the very different but utterly haunting Still Alice) is obviously having a lot of fun with this one and that exuberance warms the project. The script, co-written with his late partner Richard Glatzer, has some wonderful exchanges.

It’s Keira’s film though. She has blossomed into a fine actress in such period dramas (see for example her turn in the excellent Atonement). Here she once again grabs our attention and anchors the film with aplomb. The casting is perfect for a woman who is strikingly beautiful but so sharp that you underestimate her at your peril.  The highly versatile West is also a good foil, and he brings the right touch of pathos to the vain-but-not evil Willy. There are a couple of moments where the gender politics seem a bit unnecessarily didactic but, all in all, this is a delightful and finely-crafted piece of cinema.

 
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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

animation, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

There have been six Spider-Man movies since 2002, seven if you include Venom – not to mention Spidey’s various smaller roles in the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War – so it’s safe to say that the web-slinger has been well represented on the cinema screen. Taking that notion one step further, it’s perhaps fair to say your friendly neighbourhood arachnid chap is perilously close to becoming over-exposed. It’s something of a miracle, then, that the animated Sony film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels like not only a decent addition to the spider-library, but one of the best flicks in the canon.

The plot focuses on young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who, through a plot contrivance that would be a little mean to spoil, finds himself saddled with a 40-something slacker Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) from another dimension.

Dealing with his very new powers, a plot by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) that may result in the destruction of reality and yet more alternate dimension spider-folk including, among others, Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage!) and motherflipping Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) – not to mention his awkward relationship with overbearing father, Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Henry) – it would be fair to say poor old Miles has a lot to deal with.

In lesser hands this embarrassment of plot riches would swiftly become confusing noise, but happily screenwriters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman keep the tone light and breezy, with enough self-awareness to have you chuckling through some of the more absurd sections and enough heart to make you genuinely care about the massive cast of endearing misfits.

And all of the above is before we even talk about the animation! Put simply, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is quite possibly the best looking animated superhero film of all time. The juxtaposition of animation styles, comic book iconography and kaleidoscopic collages of vivid colour imbues every damn frame with a jaw-dropping level of detail and artistry that is impossible to look away from. This is the kind of creativity and effort a good animated movie should have and will hopefully raise the bar for some of the lesser entries out there (we’re looking pointedly at you, DC).

Ultimately Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a two hour-long explosion of joy and colour, brimming with laughter and heart, and the kind of film even the most superhero agnostic will adore.

 
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Anna and the Apocalypse

Horror, Musical, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The zombie comedy sub genre has become almost as stale and overused as the very zombie genre it seeks to parody/pay homage to. The high-watermark remains Edgar Wright’s wonderful Shaun of the Dead but other flicks like Zombieland and Dead Snow have their slight charms as well. The problem is it’s all been done before. Over and over and over again. To be a memorable zombie comedy in this most crowded of markets a film really needs to add something new. Anna and the Apocalypse from director John McPhail asks ‘what if it was a musical?’ to mixed, but mostly engaging results.

Anna (Ella Hunt) is a teenage student in her last year of high school. She wants to travel and see the world, much to the chagrin of her sensible dad, and has a close group of fellow misfit friends all obsessed with their own minor problems and triumphs. Everything goes tits up when a zombie apocalypse breaks out on Christmas and Anna and her mates must reach their nearest and dearest before it’s too late. And, of course, they’ll belt out a few songs along the way.

Anna and the Apocalypse is at its best when it plays to the angst and self involved myopia of being a teenager. One particularly striking number features Anna and her best friend (who would like to be more) John (Malcolm Cumming) singing about a brand new day, blithely oblivious to the fact that they’re prancing through a neighbourhood beset by zombies. A lot of the early moments ring true, authentically portraying the real concerns of adolescence without becoming cloying and twee. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t quite sustain this and in the second half becomes a much more familiar zombie romp, replete with gore gags and undead humour you’ve seen before, done better.

Still, charm goes a long way and Ella Hunt is an extremely watchable screen presence, managing to convey genuine pathos even while singing and dancing. The songs, overall, are a bit hit and miss – and there’s possibly one tune too many – but if you’re sitting within the venn diagram of “millenial”, “loves zombies comedies” and “lives for musicals” you’re likely to have a spectacularly good time with Anna and the Apocalypse. And the rest of us can, at the very least, admire a zom com that attempts to gnaw on something a little different.

 
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Normandy Nude

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As globalisation and urbanisation march on, there is an inexorable weakening of the rural sector. Such weighty sociological considerations are, of course, a merely sketched-in backdrop to this slightly by-the-numbers French comedy.

Not that it is without charm. How could any film starring François Cluzet be accused of that? Cluzet (who was so brilliant in The Intouchales opposite Omar Sy), is one of France’s favourite actors and it is easy to see why. He has Gallic charm to spare and that rare ability to make each character he inhabits believable and likable.

Here, he plays village mayor Georges Balbuzard. He is a farmer and a man of the people, but the village has slightly turned against him as they blame him for recently losing a big commercial contract. Now in the middle of a crisis related to the falling price of milk and beef, the locals are out in their tractors observing the time-honoured French tradition of flexing their agricultural muscles and holding the state to ransom.

Into this tense atmosphere drops the inciting incident in the form of famous international photographer Newman (based on eccentric arthouse snapper Stanley Tunick). Newman (the reliable but here miscast Toby Jones) wants to stage one of his famous photos where a lot of naked people are piled up in a landscape, and the field he insists on having happens to be the subject of long-running dispute. Will the shy and/or non-plussed villagers get their kit off to save the village’s finances? Will the dispute over the field be amicably resolved? Can we get invested in such contrivances?

The problem with Philippe Le Guay’s (The Women on the 6th Floor) amiable effort is that it feels like it was designed on paper (hey, let’s cross Calendar Girls with Manon Des Sources). It is fair to point out that there are good elements; the bit part players are all reliably good, and relative newcomer Julie Ann Roth looks like she could be the next Cecile de France. That said, the film is coasting a bit. Perhaps there is more to cooking up a perfect country stew than just having good ingredients.

 
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Lean on Pete

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Andrew Haigh’s poetic vision of growing-up poor and neglected is a haunting and deeply moving look at a side of American life rarely given such detailed attention.

The film is a slow-burn of intense emotional upheaval, and brings a studied approach to its subject that makes the impact of the experience even more rewarding.

Going for careful and deliberate dramatics, rather than overplayed fireworks, the story is reserved, contemplative and, ultimately, heart-rending.

Featuring a powerful central performance from Charlie Plummer as the 15 year old Charley, Lean on Pete is a coming-of-age story delivered in the most compassionate of tones.

Charley, a likeable innocent, is tasked with survival on a daily basis. His father Ray (Travis Fimmel) loves his son, but is not exactly reliable. He has a habit of going from job to job and shacking up with new partners – including the married Lynn (Amy Seimitz) – as and when it happens.

As we are introduced to father and son – and Haigh deliberately allows us a semi-documentary view of their hand-to-mouth lifestyle – we see the ramshackle rooms, missed meals and unhealthy living arrangements that make up their life. It’s not played specifically for sympathy – although that is there in abundance – it is more about showing the reality of young Charley’s existence.

This reality makes the discovery of a local horse track and the appearance of irascible trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) more of a bright note in Charley’s disjointed life than it otherwise might have been. The cantankerous old Del shows the boy how to work the stables and get the horses ready for racing.

It’s here that the eponymous horse Lean on Pete connects with Charley. The relationship between ageing animal and young human is showcased beautifully and simple scenes of the two walking back and forth with the boy intoning softly about whatever’s on his mind is quietly emotive.

Chloë Sevigny also has a role as a jockey who candidly warns Charley about getting too close to Pete. Both she and Del see the horses as little more than tools to make use of. When they become too old and too slow, they are cast aside and replaced. For them there is no other connection to make. Not so for the adolescent in need of a friend.

Plummer is on screen for nearly the entire two-hour feature, and manages to hold the episodic story together with his brilliant portrayal of youth in search of answers. It is his character and the cruel effects of impoverished despair that lend an epic struggle to the plot. This, plus the fantastically shot views of the American countryside help to put everything into clear perspective. The film offers a memorable viewpoint of a world seldom shown in such heightened and vivid colour.

 
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Creed II

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From all outward appearances, Creed II is a rather cut-and-dry sequel. There aren’t any new tricks up the filmmakers’ sleeves, sticking closely to both the Afrocentric aesthetic Ryan Coogler brought to the franchise with the first entry, and the tested sports melodrama tidings of the old guard.

However, what this film lacks in outright originality, it makes up for in drama. And to make things even better, it even redeems one of the franchise’s silliest moments.

Rocky IV is remembered by most as the most bombastic and profoundly goofy entry in the Rocky canon. Birthday robots, Russian super-humans, ‘Hearts On Fire’; it’s the epitome of ‘80s cheese. But in the hands of director Steven Caple Jr., and Sylvester Stallone returning to the writer’s table (with Juel Taylor], it becomes the groundwork for a surprisingly gripping tale of fatherhood, loss and human ego.

Through Adonis, played once again with mesmerising efficacy by Michael B. Jordan, we see how the greatest thing that connected him to his late father is also what made him late to begin with. This adds another layer to the musings on legacy and living up to one’s roots that made the first Creed so effective.

And through Viktor Drago, we see shadings of the humanoid robot that Dolph Lundgren imbued Ivan with all those years ago, but here, it’s shown as a machine of vengeance – a vessel for Ivan to reclaim the glory that he once lost. While Florian Munteanu as Viktor largely works as the shell that his father can live through vicariously, that is evened out by just how good Lundgren is here – both when exuding his own air of raw regret, and in his scenes opposite Stallone, who gives an astounding performance in his own right.

Rather than going for easy relevancy points in reviving a piece of American/Russian tension in the series’ history, this film instead looks into how trying to reclaim and reiterate the past, rather than operating under one’s own wishes, can be both fruitless and dangerous. It adds a heavy emotional punch to the excellently-captured boxing matches, connecting both as visceral sports action and heart-squeezing emotional drama.

It’s the balancing act that made for the best in the Rocky series, and here, it’s used to bulk up one of the more unfortunately maligned parts of that series. It even keeps some of the cheesier elements that the series is known for; only here, its genuine heart makes the sense of humour ring through a lot clearer and feel less jarring in context with everything else.

Going from a story where the supporting black character dies just to prove to the white lead that the situation is serious, to this, is a seriously commendable step forward.

 
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Overlord

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Movies that mash different genres together are increasingly rare at the cinema these days, which is a pity. Some fantastic films have pulled off this trick, like John Carpenter’s The Thing (sci-fi and horror), Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk till Dawn (crime and horror) and Pan’s Labyrinth (fantasy and war) to name but three. It’s a trick that looks deceptively simple, but in reality is a complicated balancing act. It’s also one of the best aspects of Overlord, a cracking yarn that meshes the war and horror genres and comes up with an absolute belter of a flick.

Overlord tells the tale of a squad of paratroopers tasked with destroying a German radio tower on the eve of D-Day in WWII. Naturally, the jump goes badly – shot in a stunningly effective sequence – and the handful of survivors must work out how to complete their mission, with the D-Day deadline looming ever closer. This plot alone would have made for a taut, effective war movie but when it’s clear that the Nazis are working on some nefarious shit nearby, the movie moves into horrific territory and before you can say “Nazi zombie super soldier”, Overlord kicks right the hell off.

What’s most pleasing about Overlord is how effectively it manages both genres. The war stuff is genuinely tense and effective, but the horror is well-handled too, never descending into empty schlock or becoming a splattery dirge. The skillful direction by Aussie Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) is further buoyed by excellent performances, including Jovan Adepo as wide-eyed protagonist Ed Boyce, Wyatt Russell (Kurt Russell’s son!) as grizzled bad arse Corporal Ford, and Pilou Asbæk as villainous Nazi scumbag Hauptsturmführer Wafner. Add to this gloriously grotesque creature effects, genuinely shocking acts of violence and a rip roaring never-say-die third act and you’ve got a joyously entertaining, rollicking adventure on your hands.

Overlord is an old-fashioned movie in a way. It’s not based on a comic, or a reboot of an existing franchise; it’s a fun, self-contained, well written, acted and directed cross genre movie and a hell of a good time.

 
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Jessica Leski: Making Us Normal

The talented documentary filmmaker finally follows up 2010’s poignant, disability themed The Ball with the feature documentary I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story.
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Sorry to Bother You

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How do you categorise a film that mixes low-brow comedy, social commentary, anarchism and sci-fi? That is the strange universe of Sorry to Bother You from writer-director/Oakland rapper Boots Riley; who also performs and writes the film’s score with his hip-hop group The Coup.

In an alternate present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out, Short Term 12) is struggling through his 20s, living in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews). Whilst he doesn’t live on much, and can’t get a job, he is loved by his artistic and political girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, Portlandia, Dear White People), who also doesn’t have a job, and makes provocative sculptures and exhibits.

Detroit is part of a radical group called “The Left Eye”, whose primary adversary is a controlling corporation called Worry-Free, a company who offer an existence free of rent and bills – in exchange for a lifetime work contract.

Worry-Free, worth billions and gaining ever more popularity, is headed by maniacal millennial CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer playing any Silicon Valley head).

Feeling worthless and wanting to avoid working for the nefarious Worry-Free, Cash gets a job at the only place he can – as a telemarketer at firm, Regalview. Initially struggling with his job’s ethics, he soon rises to the top of the chain – impressing bosses by selling out consumers, friends and co-workers alike.

Cash is assisted by a youthful Danny Glover, taught to use his “White Voice” – and sound reassured, calm, privileged. (Actually, the voice of Arrested Development’s David Cross).

Trying the trick, Cash is suddenly rolling in money, out of his uncle’s house and promoted ‘upstairs’ as a “power caller” – advanced to an exclusive, gold suite where a select few make thousands a day.

But finding its groove as a pointed, if not exactly subtle satire of aspirational and corporate America (as Cash also finds his groove), Sorry to Bother You suddenly and abruptly abandons this tack.

Having more money than ever, Cash’s co-workers, including his friends and girlfriend – protesting their poor conditions – are all fired. Finding success for the first time, Cash stays and deserts all of them – including Detroit.

Enjoying the trappings of success, Cash is taken to a party where he meets eccentric Worry-Free CEO Lift, who offers him the opportunity of his life. And then he finds that the billionaire is turning employees into half-horse half-humans…

Yes. It goes there. And it only gets zanier from there.

While all of this is unfolding, and the aptly named Cash tastes success, the film tackles racism, slavery, class, consumerism, political interference, the American Dream, among myriad topics. Riley himself is an activist whose lyrics have been called revolutionary.

It is hard to describe the nature of the musician’s work, which mixes many elements, themes and concerns.

Is Sorry to Bother You an absurdist fable? An exercise in animal jokes? A parable for slavery? A trivial takedown of consumerist culture as silly as what it satirises? At times it is many of these, other times it seems it has less to say. Meshing and jam-packing multiple genres, the $3.2M budgeted film which premiered at Sundance is hard to classify.

What begins as a comedy degenerates into a bizarre, sci-fi dystopia – a doomsday scenario with apocalyptic humour. At times, it almost hits a John Carpenter tone.

Riots are everywhere, Oakland becomes a scene of mass-protests, violence; a warzone – and a vehicle for everything from the current US political state, police brutality, to the greed of the 1%.

Blood is shed. Horse-people beat police. America goes up in flames.

The humour in Riley’s work isn’t always subtle, or fresh. Some gags are overused and run long. Cash in real-time enters a 50-number password to get into his new suite, multiple times. Inevitable horse jokes are made.

While aiming for sheer lunacy and achieving it, the film may not offer much of substance, but will provide laughs along the way.

Mixing many concerns into a potent mix but offering more laughs than thought starters, Sorry to Bother You is a hodgepodge capitalist critique filled with hijinks, which asks: who are ultimately the slaves, and who are the masters?

 
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The Children Act

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The Children Act is a class act. As you might expect, given the range of Brit talent behind it. The actor who will steal the limelight is the ever-excellent Emma Thompson in the lead as High Court judge Fiona Maye, but the film as a whole depends on all the support cast turning in finely honed performances.

Firstly, it is directed by Richard Eyre. People think of Eyre as primarily a stage director, but he has in fact helmed and written for the screen about 20 times (see, for example, the biopic Iris, and his elegant and tense Notes on a Scandal with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett). The source material here is the backbone. It is a close adaptation of the recent novel from seasoned British novelist Ian McEwan (On Chesil beach, Atonement).

As noted, Thompson’s character is a senior judge. Most of her day to day work life – from running her diary to laying out her ermine robes – is carefully curated for her by her super-loyal sidekick Nigel (a selfless performance from Jason Watkins). Her head space needs to be freed up so she can concentrate upon the weighty matters of laying down legal precedent in some of the very hard cases that make their way up to her agenda-setting level.

One such case forms the heart of the film’s moral dilemma. Two parents who are devoted Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t let their 17-year-old son Adam (Fionn Whitehead) be given the blood transfusion that will help relieve his leukaemia. Thus, the judge must weigh up the sacrosanct rights of the parent against the hospital’s duty to actually cure its patients.

There are many engaging and thought-provoking trial scenes, but the film doesn’t want to be merely a courtroom drama.

There are other dimensions woven through this core theme. Firstly, there is Fiona’s deteriorating home life. Constant exclusive concentration upon her cases has hollowed out her marriage, and her lecturer husband Jack (the redoubtable Stanley Tucci) informs of this with a strained but dignified insistence. The irony of someone who fixes up family relations in one way, having such an un-repaired home life is not lost on either partner.

Then there is the judge’s relationship with young Adam (a fine performance from relative newcomer Whitehead (Dunkirk)). This is perhaps where the film gets closest to the subtle and haunting quality of McEwan’s writing. As usual he is interested in the important things that always hover unsaid but by which we actually set our course. There are scenes between the judge and the boy that stretch credulity, but the film makes up for that in other ways. There is one scene in particular, which compacts all the ambiguity of these lives in a way that only great drama can. This element alone is worth the price of the ticket, and it is a bonus that almost every other aspect of the film is done so well.