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whirrsinwonderland

Thoughts from my brain – often about films

Silence for La La Rogue Monster… my first round up blog.

Due to there being a LOT of cinema trips recently, because of all the films for Oscar time, I am trying my first ROUND-UP blog of 4 films. Let me know if you like it or if it’s just too lazy!

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Rogue One

Saw it twice, finally the Star Wars prequel we all deserved. There are reams of reviews, discussion and debate out there by much cleverer people than me, so in one brief, possible SPOILERS, not very grammatically correct, sentence:

YES, brilliant characters, proper real stakes, lovely nods for the fans, Jyn was a GREAT lead, really not convinced by the uncanny valley CGI of Tarkin – Krennic was awesome baddie on his own, styling everyone 70’s yes yes yes, “I am one with the force, and the force is with me”, I love this sarcastic droid, original footage of red and gold leaders from the archive hooray, oh my GODS everybody dies that is awesomely brave WELL DONE, OH MY GOD DARTH VADER IS SO EPICALLY AWESOME WOOOOOOOWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

And one last thought, I didn’t mind the CGI Leia as it worked for that brief line, and it will be so much more poignant now we have lost the mighty wonder of Carrie Fisher, but please be careful with Leia’s legacy, Disney. She deserves the very best.

A Monster Calls

I wouldn’t have given this a full blog anyway, due to it being a bit too close to home. Just as an alert – if you know the subject, then you’re probably already aware it’s a film to bring tissues and a good friend to, but if you have nursed someone with cancer, be warned this film is strikingly accurate in that regard and can be a trigger for some things you may have forgotten. Anyway, I had reservations about it, having loved the book and worrying from the trailer it was going to be a bit too FEEL THESE THINGS FEEL THEM – where the book was subtle and brutal and beautiful – but the film was wonderful.

Lewis MacDougall as Conor is a triumph, even more so when you realise three things:

  1. Lewis is actually Scottish he never slips his accent once even when shouting
  2. He has lost his own Mum to MS in recent years, just makes your heart break a tiny bit more
  3. He spends a LOT of screen time acting next to tennis balls on sticks or Liam Neeson covered in funny dots

A brave, devastating performance showing us the best in young acting talent, one to watch.

The animation and incorporation of the stunning art from the books was quietly and deftly done. All praise to Liam Neeson for donning the silly lycra and performing motion capture rather than just providing a voice – it was worth it.

The supporting cast are solid and excellent, giving a nice framework for the two leads to play in: Felicity Jones as Mum – suddenly everywhere and deservedly so – delivers lovely work, Toby Kebbell (who I’d only previously seen in Black Mirror) is understated but entirely real as the distant Dad. Sigourney Weaver threatens the believability (I know that’s odd to say in a film about a tree monster) with her wobbly British accent but walks the line and holds us with a gorgeous performance as a Grandmother who thinks she needs to be strong and strict when really she is falling apart from losing her child.

A Monster Calls was film as catharsis for me, I had a long, deep cry – partly for Conor and partly for myself and partly for the what happens next after your ‘truth’ is spoken aloud. Visually astounding at times, the first story where the animation kicks in flips the film from starkly real to pure fantasy and I challenge anyone to find a more fitting visual representation of grief than the image of tiny Conor and the huge chasm of his nightmare as the graveyard falls away, it also delivers unexpected laughter and strength.

I would recommend seeing this on a big screen, or if you are on a small screen, please turn off your phone and the lights and immerse yourself. It is a mostly beautiful and strangely uplifting experience.

Silence

If anyone else has seen this let me know. Having studied Scorsese’s films, I was eager for this film. It was clearly going to be a personal project for him, Scorsese was lined-up to be a Catholic priest and even joined a seminary before leaving, so a film exploring the very essence of faith and the danger and power of organised religion was always going to be interesting if nothing else. My husband loathed it, declaring it over-long, boring and narrow in its viewpoint. Which I have to say is perfectly valid. I adored it for its stunning cinematography, Scorsese hallmarks (overhead shots, slow-tracking shots, voiceover) and I was genuinely hooked by the religious struggle at the centre of the film. I was immersed in the sharp contrast of long, slow, wordy scenes debating the nature of faith with the brutal, visceral torture scenes – never gratuitous but always real – and all framed by a soundtrack of nature or nothing.

The Japanese cast were uniformly excellent, particularly Yosuke Kubozuka as confession obsessed Kichijiro and the mesmerising Issei Ogata as the inquisitor. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver started well, their utter terror when landing in Japan, their shared bewilderment at the Japanese understanding of Catholicism and their clear bond was wonderful when they were together, but Garfield alone never quite convinced me. Despite every effort, I always saw his acting. Incidentally, for me he has never topped Never Let Me Go, but does seem to be in ALL THE THINGS at the moment so I watch with interest. Also a note that the Portuguese accents were pointless and really not required.

Silence was a proper dense film experience, and recommended for those with patience for Scorsese’s weighty films – when Garfield’s Jesuit priest is paraded into Nagasaki, I was instantly reminded of The Last Temptation of Christ – rather than his punchy, popular work, see Goodfellas, The Departed etc. If you like it you will get a story of an individual’s struggle with faith, stimulating questions about how religion translates, some beautiful cinematography and a feeling a claustrophobic wonder. If you dislike it you will get an overly long, fidgety film with no exploration of Japanese culture, Buddhism and Jesus appearing in the river and on the floor, hi Jesus!  I’m not sure I’d watch it again, but definitely worth it once I’d say AND husband and I talked about it for a good hour afterwards, which is always a good sign I think!

La La Land

Likely the most popular film on the list – you couldn’t mention La La Land without all those 5 STAR REVIEWS flashing through your head, and the Oscar nominations have fallen in line with the critics. And it IS a lovely film but I still don’t get the massive hype.

Good things: that sumptuous colour palette, the opening number, the closing ‘dream’ sequence, the bravery of starting as a big old school musical and then becoming a close-up, hyper-real relationship drama, the cleverness of casting only-OK singers and dancers so you never forgot they were real people, the use of real light over LA, the genius of the ending putting the reality on following your dreams but still managing to leave you smiling, Emma Stone’s costumes, Emma Stone.

Bad things: not enough big old school musical numbers, not casting true trained ‘triple-threat’ singer/dancers so we could relax and be whisked off away with memories of Fred and Ginger, Ryan Gosling.

So not really anything bad, Ryan Gosling was totally, totally fine and delivered a top class performance and my jolly word learnt all that jazz piano himself for the film #impressive –  I just don’t really GET him – please recommend me films that will change this – so that’s a totally personal one. By contrast I am deeply in love with Emma Stone and all she touches is gold as far as I am concerned, and like I wanted Natalie Portman to win the Oscar for Black Swan for one scene on the phone, I felt exactly the same with Emma Stone in this – her early audition when she is on the phone was sheer perfection and in one scene shows why she is so good.

I struggled between loving the fact that the two leads remained totally real during the musical numbers (and please don’t think I am suggesting they cannot sing or dance, because they clearly can and much better than me, but they don’t do these things as well as they ACT) and my yearning for the utter ease and joy of watching Fred and Ginger or Gene Kelly absolutely nail a complicated tap solo. In conclusion, I applauded La La Land for its real dancing, live singing and one take musical numbers, but just ONE more BIG number like the first one would have raised it way up for me.

However, I did come out humming the main song, I adored the total bravery of moments like in the planetarium, the wonderful film moments like her running from a date to the cinema, walking through the film lots, the absolute realness of the way a fight happens when they had the dinner scene, dreams coming true but not all of them. LOVELY.

I can’t think of anyone who would dislike La La Land though and maybe that is its genius – it’s enough of a musical for musical lovers and enough of a brilliant film for non-musical lovers and overall it makes you feel wonderful and open to possibilities. And you really can’t blame anyone for needing that right now, in a wicked world, some proper escapism is just the job.

Let’s have a little escape now shall we? 

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Moana: Is there something you want to hear?

I saw Frozen really late, when there were already lots of little girls in blue dresses and ‘Let it Go’ had become almost a parody of itself. I really loved it though, and having watched it again on Christmas Day I still think it’s a solid and good Disney that got over-analysed because all the parent’s wanted their daughters to like Anna best and all the children like Elsa best. I still think it’s cos she gets groovy ice powers and can produce sentient life and doesn’t have to marry the smelly moose guy but THAT’S NOT WHY WE ARE HERE.

We are here to talk about Moana. When I heard about it on my regular film podcast, I thought, this time I will not be late to the party, so I took myself STRAIGHT off to see it nice and early. There was me and two others in the cinema on a Monday 6pm showing just before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. Disney, you have not smashed it this hard for me since my Granny took me to see Aladdin in the early 90’s and then I got the cassette tape for Christmas and played it until it wore thin. I learnt the songs from Frozen so I could sing them to my 5 year old niece, the Moana songs I learnt for me, accidentally, because I can’t stop listening the soundtrack.

So why is Moana so good? Well the music is an integral part of it. The only film I ever walked out of was Lilo & Stitch because me and my friend were all WHERE ARE THE SONGS DISNEY? Lin-Manuel Miranda, the utter genius behind Hamilton*, wrote Moana before he wrote Hamilton. It has all the perfection of an Alan Menken Disney (catchy on the first listen and then with you for always) but with that innovative edge, the lyrical play, the time signature shifts, that is so unique to Miranda’s work with Hamilton. So we’ve got a gold standard soundtrack – tick.

Next source material, plenty has already been written on the refreshing and respectful use of another culture’s stories in Moana, and they nailed all the ancient South Polynesian cultural details by all accounts so props for that – but the key thing for me is that Moana’s character is invention. They could have made a film about Maui, the demi-god – perfectly voiced (and sung) by Dwayne Johnson- he can transform with his magical fishhook and is mischievous and hilarious – there could have been a whole movie about him getting his hook back – but they didn’t. They cleverly realised that Maui as part sidekick / part antagonist makes a much better tale. So a refreshing new tale with a brilliant protagonist to take us through – tick.

An aside on Moana as a character, stunningly performed by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, I will only briefly nod to the over-excited publicity given to Moana being a different shape to other Disney princesses, I think that part is irrelevant, it’s the personality that is interesting. I didn’t care that Merida in Brave had mad hair, I cared because she was a feisty, fully formed person with an opinion. I am not bored by Cinderella because she has a tiny waist, but because she is two dimensional and dull, thank the gods for the mice. We meet Moana in a montage, here is a little girl who is demonstrably kind to animals, brave and cheerful and fearless, character established. The scene where Moana meets the Ocean (who is a sentient character) is not only visually stunning but utterly joyful, you fall in love with this girl immediately. We then watch her grow over a song (in time honoured montage fashion) into a young woman, who is curious and capable, loves food and is getting pretty good at dancing. Moana is to be Chief, no asides about sons or how unusual that a woman should be chief. She just IS going to be Chief, a line in a song and we’ve accepted it. The way here was paved by Brave and Frozen, Disney has got to the stage where women lead they don’t just marry leaders, or have to marry leaders to lead appropriately. They can do it on their own. It seems small but seriously, that is a BIG STEP. The other big revelation is that there is not a hint of love interest, this is a story about a young woman discovering her place in the world, just like Brave, just like Frozen but this time we don’t even have to think about Moana and marriage, or even her sexuality because it’s not mentioned or part of the story. And to that I say HOORAY! And even better, she spends a substantial part of the film alone with a male character and SPOILER they don’t fall for each other or have any ‘moments’ or anything. Again, this seems small, but think about it, it’s a BIG STEP! One of my absolute favourite bits was when a villager was lamenting the leaky roof he couldn’t fix and Moana shimmies down from the ceiling and briskly says she has fixed the problem. This was presented with no ceremony or fanfare, no ‘what a tomboy’ undertone, just a throwaway. YES!

So back to why it’s great – the message. Disney now makes message films, at the end of the day we want a journey, ideally for the main character, or even two, and a lesson learnt. What’s great here is that it’s the messages aren’t black and white message. Moana’s village is lovely, she loves it there and there is a proper acknowledgment that you can have a great time at home, as Moana sings “Everyone has a role on this island maybe I can roll with mine?” but she has a need inside her, a niggle and a longing to explore and she needs to respond to that inner battle. For Moana it is the sea, the call of the horizon. For anyone who has ever had a true longing to try something or achieve something, especially in the face of doubt or even of common sense, the song ‘How Far I’ll Go’ will resonate. That feeling of being incomplete. And I think for children and teenagers, it will have the effect that Aladdin’s song had on me as he pulls back his curtain to look at Agrabah and sings “they’ll find out there’s so much more to me”’, to make them want to go out and grab the world with both hands, without really being sure why. At least I hope so! All the messages in Moana are shades of grey, Moana’s father wants her to settle on the island, not because of tradition or stuffiness but because of lessons he learnt, the fear he has and he must face external forces at work as well as Moana’s desires to leave. Moana’s grandmother imparts wisdom (and some great dancing skills) to Moana, but she is not considered wise, more of a kook, by everyone else.

Light relief sidekicks are a long held stable of Disney. Moana has a chicken sidekick and a pig sidekick. I personally wanted more of her pig friend as well, but Heihei the chicken did very well at the slapstick. Moana and Maui go on wonderful adventures, and there are numerous delights, which I will let you enjoy for yourself, including meeting a baddie that rivals Ursula the Sea-witch for having the best Disney ‘big bad’ song and some hilariously scary coconuts. And it is of course beautifully animated, lovely use of Maui’s tattoos and with some genuine scares that justify the PG rating, brilliant stuff.

So you’ve got all the ingredients, there and with Disney’s pixie dust you are away, But for me personally, Moana was so good because when the story reaches the climax, the ‘what will the hero(ine) do now when all hope is lost’ moment, there was just her to sort it. Yes, she seemingly has support (The “I chose the right tattoo” moment made me cry) but depending on your beliefs, I think she finds her way and her strength on her own, she is alone at that moment and she chooses to continue. She finds her place in the world and she finds the strength to fit everything together and as her defiant refrain becomes “That come what may, I know the way” you are in awe. Elsa’s “Let It Go” is often held up as a moment of power, of an anthem of freedom, but not 15 mins later she’s all terrified again, because Elsa’s moment of power comes too early without her knowing all the facts. With Moana, she realises everything at just the right time, just when she needs to and she has the strength to give that wisdom to another at Te Fiti “This is not who you are. You know who you are” and then builds on that climactic triumph to lead and inspire her whole village. It’s beautiful stuff.

And I hope there’s an 11 year old out there who sees Moana and downloads the soundtrack (RIP cassette tapes) and listens to it on repeat, without quite knowing why it’s so wonderful, but feeling a burst of power and confidence inside them. And I am so happy in the knowledge that the little girls and boys who go to see it, who at the moment just laugh at the chicken and need to sit on their Mum or Dad’s knee for the lava monster bit, are actually getting a Disney with all the right stuff. That it’s vital to follow your dreams and just as important to understand how that following of your dreams can benefit those around you, that you have to be able to look after yourself, but you’ll find that strength by learning from others. That it is not destiny or beauty that carry you forward but your body and your mind and your courage. And stories matter, keep telling them and (to paraphrase The Doctor) make yours a good one.

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* If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet and listened to the Hamilton soundtrack (or kneecapped for a ticket if you are in New York) I would highly recommend it. Start with My Shot and go from there. While I am gushing, if you are a musical fan check out Lin-Manuel’s surprise of his new bride at his wedding – JOY.

Where my Niffler at? Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

Over the festive period I ended up re-watching most of the Harry Potter films, out of order but with a lot of love, and I got to thinking about Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and how I’ve heard a LOT of people say they loved it “perhaps more than the original Potter films’.

For my part, I approached Fantastic Beasts with caution. I am changeable in my assessment of Eddie Redmayne, sometimes I think he’s just brilliant (The Theory of Everything) and other times I feel decidedly meh towards him (Les Misèrables, My Week with Marilyn) so I had reservations there, and, let’s be honest, wasn’t everyone a BIT worried about a three (now five) film franchise born out of a comic relief tie in book? Especially after the disgustingly cynical treatment of The Hobbit, I expected to see some good CGI beasts and a bit of the milking of the Potter cash cow.

How wrong I was! Fantastic Beasts is a great movie. Granted, my fears about Eddie Redmayne as Newt weren’t totally unfounded, he was too blinky by half and a pretty nothing character really, also I know the mating dance with the rhinobeastie was mostly there for a bit of tension relief and for the younger viewers, but it was a bit EDDIE’S COMMITING TO THE MOMENT / A-level Drama for me… or maybe it was just because I saw this picture and it’s more Eddie’s annoying public schoolboyness than Newt’s dancing…

Image result for eddie redmayne mating dance

Anyway – otherwise I was totally WRONG, hats off and apologies to JK Rowling, I should have known the writer who had the integrity to keep Haley I see dead people Joel Osment from playing Harry Potter and insisted on British and Irish actors be cast, wouldn’t let her franchise go to the dark side. She has got a really exciting new series on her hands here and I think the further films can only get better.

Aside from Redmayne as Newt – he was fine nothing exciting really, the rest of the cast were uniformly excellent. It took me a good two thirds of the film before I recognised Ezra Miller (I silently said ‘Isn’t that KEVIN?’) as creepy, abused Credence, he really is brilliant and perfectly cast. New to me (new to everyone?) Katherine Waterston was lovely, totally believable as fallen-from-favour witch Tina, we cared because she cared and I particularly enjoyed the contrast between her and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), their dress, manner and ambition were polar opposites, but we absolutely believe they are family. It’s so heartening to see more and more properly written roles for women. Talking of women, massive shout out to the always excellent Samantha Morton, I so wanted more of the Second Salemers – this society is an example of where you can feel Morton and JK’s work behind the scenes, with very little screen time we can imagine a whole history for this woman and for the society – perhaps we might see this history in future films – fingers crossed. I enjoyed Colin Farrell, managing to keep his 20’s wizard-in-spats on the right side of dark and last, but by no means least, wonderful work by Dan Fogler, as our guide through the American wizarding world, the hapless no-mag Kowalski. The gorgeous electrical attraction between Kowalski and Queenie was one of my favourite scenes.

And of course the beasts – I must give Redmayne recognition for making me totally believe in the Niffler and the Bowtruckle particularly – all beautifully imagined and realised and the CGI never feeling like a computer game (yes I am looking at you The Hobbit). I really LOVED the Niffler, capturing all the reasons we love our pets, a creature with a full personality.

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The twists were good, the dark bits were PROPERLY dark and like the unfurling darkness in Harry Potter, kept you thinking after the film was over, JK has big ideas and the more you think about them the bigger they get. If you buy into them (and if you don’t why are you here) part of the reason the Harry Potter universe endures is down to these deep ideas. For example, the horcruxes in Harry Potter, on the surface are there to explain Voldemort’s immortality and to give a nice framing of ‘quest’ for our 3 protagonists,  but if you stop and just consider the actual premise, that when you kill your soul splits, that’s wonderful stuff. Not to mention all the exploration of themes from slavery, bullying to prejudice, fear, segregation etc. This was the other thing I really liked about Fantastic Beasts, the THIS IS AMERICA feel to it, I thought Newt’s seemingly throwaway comments on the differences were JK at her best, comedic or throwaway lines that actually have a huge message. When Newt questions ‘no-mag’ as a term, muggles suddenly becomes so wonderfully British and affectionate, and the incredibly clever line that implies the US wizarding is deeply prejudice, when Newt says how silly it is that wizards and witches don’t marry outside their own.

So in sum I really enjoyed it, BUT is this film better than the original Harry Potters? Only time will tell, but I think there are three reasons Fantastic Beasts FEELS better and why people are coming out of the cinema going ‘I enjoyed it more’.

Reason number ONE:

No bad child / tween / teen actors. Let’s be honest, Harry, Ron and Hermione all have beautiful moments of acting across the Harry Potter films, but they also have a lot of utter awfulness. Forgiveable when they are delightful little moppets but some of Daniel Radcliffe’s hungover faxing it in performances of Harry in the later movies is really dreadful. And the surrounding cast, Ginny really does make you want to stick sharp spoons in your eyes, although as my husband pointed out she does have dreadful script to work with… ANYWAY. In Fantastic Beasts you have an adult cast of excellent actors and they are all properly enjoying themselves at the top of their game. Imagine Harry Potter with just the adults, Rickman, Smith, Oldman etc all doing some stellar work with no wooden snogging exposition scenes – picture that and you’re getting Fantastic Beasts.

Reason number TWO:

We already know the universe. Newt has a suitcase that has a whole world inside. Not a problem, don’t explain it to us, just show us and we understand. The Harry Potter films have laid all the ground work for us buying in and understanding everyone saying silly words and waving sticks around, so we can just jump straight in with Newt doing magic and apparating all round the bank, no problem! Just like The Prisoner of Azkaban was the first Potter film where they did away with the ‘repetition of the plot in case you forgot what you watched’ scenes, Fantastic Beasts gives you a few newspaper headlines (I still adore this as a method of introduction, never change David Yates) so you know WHEN you are and then we are off. Having an established universe to play in is so much more fun and arguably makes for a better film.

Reason number THREE:

We don’t know what is going to happen. I know, I KNOW, there are many people that only saw the Harry Potter movies and did not read the books, BUT there are many SURELY more that read, re-read, read to others and talked about the books in great detail long before the films were made. This will always affect enjoyment of a film, especially films of the blockbuster variety. Watching a new version of a Jane Austen we are excited for what a particular actor will do to a well-known character, it’s like watching Hamlet.  But imagine SEEING some of the gasp moments in the Harry Potter books for the first time on a big 80ft screen. The ‘oh I liked how they did that moment on the astronomy tower’ becomes ‘WHAT THE VERY… I KNEEEEEWWWW IT SNAPE YOU BASTARD’. And that element of surprise and reveal is why Fantastic Beasts feels better.

A genuinely great cinema experience, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, also promises a great re-watch to come and the birth of a very exciting franchise. Enjoy! #nifflertillIdie

“In war, there are no winners. Only widows” – Arrival.

Well it’s been a while, life got in the way of the cinema brain, still been going but not blogging. But I just saw a film that switched cinema brain back into gear.

Arrival.

This blog will be short, because I will not do spoilers and it’s not a film you can write much about WITHOUT spoilers. So without further ado…

I hadn’t seen any of director Denis Villeneuve’s work before this, though Sicario has long been on my list, and of course we all know he will be taking the helm of the upcoming Blade Runner 2049 (no pressure) but judging from Arrival, he is tremendous. The improvements in CGI and visual effects, as well as an increasing need to market to the chinese movie market, have seen Sci-fi as a genre, stray into nonsensical, loud, disaster-movie territory. These blockbusters make you weep for the quiet tension and subtly of films like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Even recent efforts to bring the genre back to a grounded and intelligent base, Nolan’s Interstellar for example, are still executed on a massive scale and employ huge showy set-pieces to sell the story.

IMDB quotes Villeneuve as saying he wanted Arrival to feel like “This was happening on a bad Tuesday morning, like when you were a kid on the school bus on a rainy day and you’d dream while looking out the window at the clouds.” In some ways, Arrival moves at a fast pace, dropping you straight in with a devastating opening montage, and only minutes later putting us on board the Chinook, seeing our first proper view of the arrived ship. However,this pacing allows acres of space for some chest-tighteningly good sequences of film, all based firmly in the real world, allowing the alien to be just that. The initial reveal of the arrival of the title is given through news footage, half glimpses of the alien craft from mobile phones, this means that the pay off of the long, Chinook-eye first view of the craft is wonderful. Cinematographer Bradford Young’s work is stunning – long, slow shots that capture the inherent uncomfortable feeling that only good Sci-fi gives you, like the real world but somehow not, quite, right. This film is intensely intimate and yet vast, ambitious yet personal.

The best Sci-fi has to be lead by someone the audience cares about, and the central character, Louise, is only topped by Ripley as Sci-fi lead for me. This is very much Amy Adams’ film, as Louise she brings us a subtle, quiet performance (Oscar surely!) she is always utterly convincing and never over the top. It is her performance that keeps the audience grounded and interested, without her this film would not work. Though ably supported by Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and a host of minor male characters (seriously Hollywood where were all the women, I know there are more women in the military than exactly zero) the film remains squarely on her shoulders, a task Adams embraces and delivers with all the skill you’d expect of an actor at the top of her game.

I found myself holding my breath a lot throughout the film, the claustrophobic feel of the opening encounters and the slow reveals used to unfold a story that will leave you breathless as the connections are made. For me, I was left profoundly moved, suddenly aware of tears falling and left with the same feeling of shell shock you get after closing an utterly absorbing book, where you sit and stare into space, only to open and read the last page again, to check.

The walk home left me with more questions unfurling in my mind, making new connections and wondering what if. The beauty of excellent Sci-fi is when you pay attention to the details, the science and linguistics in the film have been praised as accurate and the film captures the essence of what makes us human, when held up against something so literally alien. This is an absolute gem of a film, the best I have seen for a very long time.

 

 

Who let the goat out? Reviewing The Witch

The first film I went to see at the cinema that genuinely, properly scared me – like all the hairs on your body on end scared me, so shot with adrenaline I couldn’t sleep scared me – was What Lies Beneath. I was 18, had just left home and went with some pals to the local cinema and when I came out I was petrified and it was BRILLIANT. I felt so alive dammit. I don’t know why it scared me so much. Maybe it was because every time Michelle Pfieffer screamed my friend had screamed milliseconds before (that’ll rack up the tension). Or maybe it was just so bloomin’ tense already,  it combines creepy, creeping tension with old fashioned JUMP tactics, this makes you so on edge that you jump 3 feet when the scare comes and a little bit of wee comes out. Or maybe it was because it has (spoiler alert  for a 16 year old film) HARRISON FORD as the baddie.  I mean Harry was like my Dad growing up, always the lovable rogue – Indiana Jones (You no mess with Dr Jones, lady), Han Solo (Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited), Jack Ryan  (You get him, Jack. I don’t care what you have to do. Just get him.) I mean, it’s Harrison Ford, he always just wants his family back – how was he the bad guy?? It was SUCH genius casting.

I’ve been chasing the thrilling fear that What Lies Beneath gave me ever since, it’s happened on DVD –  Ringu (watched alone in a dark house late at night in the country – shut the front DOOR that was horrifying), Don’t Look Now (the dated quality just makes it creepier), The Orphanage (creeping creeps) all got me at one point or another, but I was never THAT scared again. And I’ve always thought it’s because I don’t see horror at the cinema, not really on purpose, but I often wait to see at home because I just like to check it’s the right KIND of scare. Because HORRIBLE horror just makes me go MEH. Yes I am looking at you Eli Roth.

So when I heard about The Witch I thought oooooh I am going to go and see that IN the CINEMA and that will be creepy and brilliant and I will feel as I did in 2000.

How wrong can you be?

Because I LOVE films, and love the cinema, it’s rare that I feel so utterly cross after a cinema trip. I usually just enjoy the experience of being in the dark, totally away from current life, even if afterwards I go to the pub and find all the plot holes and tear it all apart, when the film is actually on this is me:

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But watching The Witch I was already  annoyed about halfway through. I went on opening weekend so I could be totally uninfluenced by other opinions – and maybe I am missing something, because in the reviews I’ve since heard it’s getting a lot of praise, but overwhelming they are saying it relies on what you bring to it. I don’t want to bring anything to horror / suspense – I want to be horrified and frightened dammit!

Director and writer Robert Eggers spent a lot of time on this movie, and much respect let’s start with what was good. It was beautifully shot, gorgeous use of wide open space vs small period living space, fantastic P.O.V shots, slow, unflinching long shots, beautifully lit making great use of candle-light and natural light. The cast were mostly strong – the twins were my favourites though, lovely and natural, while everyone else was doing their VERY BEST ACTING. The attention to detail is exquisite, I read a whole article about how zombies on screen are let down by perfect hands, everyone in The Witch had dirty fingernails, worker hands – nice one Eggers. The language was all period perfect too ‘Thee, thy, thou, lass’, creating a fabulous atmosphere.

Here’s the thing though – if this was a good suspenseful thriller / horror / creepy movie I wouldn’t be listing these lovely details first, because I wouldn’t notice them. Famously, in The Exorcist, Father Karras reaches out to turn the recorder on with his left hand, camera cuts to close shot and it’s his right hand. This error was deliberately put in by director Friedkin to see if the audience were frightened enough – because if they noticed the error, they weren’t. Of course no one noticed – The Exorcist was pants off scary when it was first released, even if now it has been parodied into oblivion. So my admiration of the lovely details of The Witch just meant it wasn’t working on the level it should have. And because I got cross with it, I then started to be mean…my brain was all.. ‘You can totally see the wig line on Ralph Innes – they should’ve had him grown his hair out’ ‘Hah, period accurate but that teenage girl has pierced ears’. When the film isn’t gripping enough, you notice all the anachronistic bits.

The Witch has a LOT going on, I did a summary of my experience of the themes, ready?

First there’s a WITCH. She’s quite witchy and robs and kills a baby, nasty witch. Sometimes the witch is a bunny rabbit, or maybe a hare – but they are NOT SCARY and sometimes a sexy lady (also not scary though I liked her ‘could be a gingerbread’ house). But then she vanishes and you go wait, IS THERE A WITCH? Is this a Blair Witch type thing, maybe there isn’t a real witch? But I saw her and she had the baby. Hmmm.

Hee hee twins. Look at the little moppets dancing with that goat. BLACK PETER BLACK PETER la de la le laaaa. Ha ha. Ralph Innes fell over in the poo.

Oh OK I’ve got it, it’s about RELIGION and the extremes of religion AND the extremes of living in a wild and harsh landscape, man trying to order nature with his religious rules. Yeah. No wait, now it’s the cabin fever of all living closely and RELIGION, let’s all accuse everyone – so it’s The Crucible right? I SAW GOODY PROCTOR WITH THE DEVIL. Wait no?

Why is he looking at his sister’s boobs. Is this an incest thing? Oh now he likes the witches boobs – so it’s a I’m becoming a man thing. OK then it’s about a SEXUAL AWAKENING – oh he’s dead. Right then it’s her – a teenager leaving childhood behind and forging her own way. METAPHOR. Oh that IS a nice shot lighting wise. Wait where are the twins? Sad they didn’t get a proper ending. #bestthinginit

SO SHE’S THE WITCH? Argh GOAT LOOSE. Gooorrrrrrrre. OMG  did you just kill your own Mam? Why don’t you care that literally everyone you know is dead. You’re weird sister.

Oh because YOU ARE A WITCH. Maybe? GOAT.

Oh dear. Somebody has seen Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. WITCHES BE CRAZY (and naked). Ooh wait, let’s add some flying. It’s like the end of Grease. But altogether LESS FUN.

So, to conclude, I wasn’t scared at all. If it was a film about a witch there wasn’t enough witch. If it was examining the extremes of living with strict religion and the way a casual remark can turn everyone against each other – then well just go and see The Crucible. Preferably on stage, because Daniel Day Lewis’s teeth are WAY too white in the film. If it was about her sexual awakening / rebellion I didn’t care and it wasn’t that convincing. I almost cared at points, and I can’t say anyone in it was a bad actor (it fact they are all very good) it just felt all a bit EARNEST and worthy and not, remotely, scary. Sigh.

So you know what I did? Yep, I watched Fury Road again and that made my heart beat faster. WHO KILLED THE WORLD?

Max

 

Spotlight: God don’t run the bingo. I do.

There are many films that people describe as ‘heavy’. Where you have to psych up to watch them because they leave you feeling so bleak, drained and miserable afterwards you just want a big overdose of feel good to cheer you up. I remember the Sunday afternoon I watched the stunning but entirely bleak Shame, I was utterly relieved that my second film of the afternoon was Disney’s Tangled. Turns out that’s a perfect film combo – try it.

Then you get ‘heavy and important’ where the subject matter is bleak, but you so want people to watch because these are films that can bring an understanding of a moment in history or raise awareness of a situation or make sure you never, ever touch heroin (yes Requiem for a Dream, you). However, these films have a tough time, because when you’ve had a crap week at work, or you’re tired or feeling sad, you don’t want educating or someone else’s horror played out in front of you. You just want entertaining, so you reach for a blockbuster with some explosions, a touch of romance and a bit with a dog. And fair play.

So, how do the movie makers get films with a ‘message’ to be watched by the masses? Well, in the case of Spotlight, take a sidestep from the bleak subject matter and look from a different angle. Like the wonder that is 2013’s Philomena did. Rather than making another The Magdalene Sisters (which while excellent , really needs 2 Disney films and a 60’s musical to recover from), Philomena leads in with a journalist and focuses on the central relationship, rather than just the horror. So we get to laugh as much as we cry. Spotlight doesn’t really let you laugh much, but it does pick you up and grab you straight away and it doesn’t put you down until it’s done. You never feel you want to turn off because it’s just too horrible  or find yourself going ‘yes I GET it, you can cut now’. Spotlight is a thriller, it’s about journalists hunting a story, it’s just the story happens to be the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal in Boston. Which is bleak.

Spotlight’s blend of the journalistic race to the presses and the uncovering of the extent of the abuse has drawn inevitable comparisons to All The President’s Men. The brilliance of both films is that they make the business of uncovering the story exciting, even though the audience knows what the story is. By the time ATPM came out in 1976, Nixon had resigned, been pardoned and all of the juicy details of Watergate were known by all. But it’s still an extremely exciting film. Spotlight manages to produce the same excitement by keeping the focus on the team of journalists and letting us re-discover the story through their eyes. The most important thing Spotlight has to convey is just how powerful and all pervasive the Catholic Church is in Boston. If you are a non-Catholic, non-Bostonian viewer it has to get this across to you without using lots of exposition. Spotlight achieves this by bringing in an outsider, the new editor of the Boston Globe is here – Marty Baron – played by the brilliant Liev Schreiber. Baron is our navigator through this close-knit community, he is also not Catholic and not from Boston. He doesn’t even like baseball (the other church of Boston) and Schreiber plays him so subtly, so quietly, his character just quietly tugging at the loose threads, breathing on the house of cards, but showing no pleasure when everything unravels, when the house falls down. It’s not the showy role of the film, no big emotional moments, but Schreiber is magnificent throughout. Baron is established as the outsider from the outset, using the device of the central characters comments and observations of him and his importance in uncovering this community wide silence, is revealed to us slowly and quietly. With the other ‘outsider’ character, Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian,  the character declares his own status and it’s importance in getting answers  in one memorable, soup-eating scene. Ending with the line: ” If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

The central titular team, are all from Boston and are all Catholic (or lapsed), which makes the story utterly compelling, because we get to see their daily struggle with maintaining their journalistic professionalism and enjoying the thrill of the chasing of the facts in the face of a slowly unfurling horror, and moreover a horror that was right beneath their noses the whole time, happening to their friends and being covered up by other friends. Great stuff for any actor and Micheal Keaton, Rachael McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James are all wonderful, truthfully playing these real people, with a pace and performance usually reserved for stage. They did some serious ground work that pays off. As an aside, Keaton panicked about the Boston accent, but on meeting the real Walter Robinson, realised to his relief, that Robinson’s accent wasn’t very strong. A mention too for John Slattery, comfortably playing the disbelieving, naysayer role, who wants to stop the story that he never dreams will be as big as it is.  And of course Mark Ruffalo, who got the Oscar nod, and I can see why, against the other players, if you had to pick someone, his character has the most interesting journey. Ruffalo is a stage performer, he has the training to fully immerse into his character. He brings a beautiful, nervous energy to his portrayal of Mike Rezendes, slight hunch, totally believable fidgets and habits and delivers a quiet performance of a professional hunting the truth. What is interesting about Rezendes, is unlike the rest of the central characters, he seems mostly unaffected by the revelations, only emotional as a journalist in pursuit of a story. So when he does finally crack, it is unspeakably powerful, the trailer really shouldn’t have used that moment, because it is so much more when seen in context. It’s Ruffalo’s build up to the moment, that makes the moment. “They knew. And they let it happen.” And his lovely scene afterwards with McAdams’ Sacha Pfieffer. Ruffalo’s mouth-twisted, fidgety delivery of the line ‘When I stopped going to church, I always thought I’d go back‘ and his agonised realisation that he has dug and dug to tear down an institution as a journalist and not acknowledged how the Catholic, Boston boy who still has the Church on a pedestal feels. It reminded me of the wonderful line in Dogma, when Bethany describes her loss of faith. “When you’re a kid, you never question the whole faith thing. Nope. God’s in heaven, and he’s…she’s…always got her eye on you. I would give anything to feel that way again.” Beautiful work, Ruffalo, and just like the rest of the cast, always subtle and true. However, his performance wouldn’t work without the rest, so sort it out ‘the Academy’ we need an ensemble award and this year should have included Spotlight and Straight Outta Compton (more on that next time).

The production is lovely, close camera work gives us the highly intimate feel required, and the lighting and locations all just feel unbearably normal, there’s no Fincher-esque over-saturation to tell us it’s bleak or period charm bright wash to tell us it’s in the past, or fussy lot built sets, it’s just a capturing of normal life and people in it. There are some lovely shots, my favourite was when the titular team of journalists are sat around a speaker phone and the caller begins to outline the statistics he has uncovered, as the numbers are revealed  we have a slow dolly zoom out. This mirrors the characters realisation of the magnitude and the implication of what the caller is saying, while using a technique common for thrillers and horror movies to startling effect.

So Spotlight nailed the casting, the production and the pace, producing a pacey newspaper thriller. I think what really sets it apart though, is the handling of the subject matter. The victims / survivors (whatever term they would prefer) are wonderfully well balanced and true. We meet the survivor who has set up a support group, who talks almost like a sales rep, so used is he to having to sell and defend his story, in the face of constant denials and dismissals and being called a crank. He gives us the chilling soundbite “When a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?”. The film also gives us victims who have never told their story before, and the actors find the truth in the pain of relieving it, admitting it. The scene when Robby confronts his old school friend with the truth and we see all of the choices flash through his mind in a brief few seconds (deny it, laugh it off, punch him) before he just exhales and says ‘I never even told my wife‘. It’s never overplayed, people don’t shout and scream about these things, sadly the overwhelming documented response is guilt and apology and sadly just relief at being believed and acknowledged. For me, the most powerful victim encounter was with Joe (Michael Cyril Creighton). He tells his story with a half-smile, tells it as if it happened to someone else and seeks to make the listener almost comfortable, and heartbreakingly justifies his involvement in the abuse. When he does finally break-down, he says sorry and is cross with himself that he is crying. A very, very true response. We think it’s because he is having to relive the trauma but then he looks up and says “It’s just that there’s a church right there. And a playground.”

Spotlight is a fantastic and quietly thrilling watch, but it also seeks to keep an important story alive. The lists at the end of the film, of all the other places systematic cover ups of abuse by Catholic priests have been found, raised a gasp from my fellow cinema-goers. Even when you think you know about something, film has the power to make you look from a different perspective and learn more. A film like Spotlight does this quietly, while you are busy being entertained.

Afterword: I still think Mad Max:Fury Road should have taken Best Picture. It has a BARD. Playing a guitar that SHOOTS FLAMES. So awesome.

WITNESS ME.

 

 

Exit. Pursued by a bear… The Revenant

It seems a while since we had a decent epic, a Gladiator or a Braveheart (accents aside), or even a bad one, Waterworld, Troy. Something not based on fantasy or a comic franchise but just an immersive, non green screen, we actually built that, epic. Big scale, must-see-on-the-big-screen, well over 2 hours run time – EPIC. A proper epic makes you forget all the niggling questions like ‘is that really historical accurate’, ‘that seems a bit convenient’, ‘surely you’d be dead after THAT’. Last night I finally saw The Revenant and it was the epic I didn’t know I needed.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ambitious project was already surrounded by myth and gossip during filming, hugely over-budget, had to relocate to Argentina because Canada just wasn’t damn wintery enough, Tom Hardy dropped out of Suicide Squad because this film needed more time and of course the constant ‘this one’s is Leo’s oscar movie’ buzz. Not to mention the tales of extreme method acting, crazy schedule, crew members fired who couldn’t handle the pace, Hardy throttling Iñárritu and so on. When a film has this much hype it’s always got the potential to disappoint.

It didn’t disappoint me though. If you haven’t been yet (I am late to the party so you probably have) believe the hype GET to a cinema, this is NOT a wait till it streams release. Quite apart from the excellent acting, (DiCaprio literally chews the scenery) this owes just as much to the stunning landscape and the commitment to capturing the uniqueness and beauty of the natural world. Iñárritu decided to film natural light only and that gave an average of 2 hours a day to film, so they rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and then went for the take. If it went wrong, re-set, do it all again tomorrow. Now, I heard that and thought, well it’s going to be a lot of long shots of DiCaprio being wilderness tough, he’s an accomplished and experienced performer, sure it’ll be fine. I really didn’t realise how many incredible set pieces or how many people, horses, fires, props that Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki were committing to.

The first 30 minutes are entirely reminiscent of the unforgettable Saving Private Ryan so immersive and close that you scarcely draw breathe, just the same reaction I had to Spielberg’s beach storming. When you are let up for air, there’s some fast character catching up to do.  With two or three exceptions, everyone is a man, the frontiersman are all dressed in furs and home-spun layers with a greater (Hardy / DiCaprio) or lesser (Poulter/ Goodluck) degree of facial hair – so without a tight script and some stand out performances you could be a bit ‘wait who is that now’? The cast are all exceptionally good. Hardy and DiCaprio have been given the awards nods, fair play, but Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter deserve huge acknowledgement too. Being support to these two heavyweights – both in acting and character terms – is not an easy task, but Gleeson brings a wonderful, natural performance as the Captain, he doesn’t get the big emotions or big endurance tests, but he is utterly solid and allows Hardy and DiCaprio the room to indulge. Poulter, I have only seen in Chronicles of Narnia – he was great- IMDB tells me he’s in other ‘teen’ films – so this seems to mark his transition into adult films. Good choice Poulter, brave as you like to jump in with this kind of talent but you held your own and brought not only truth but some much needed empathy to your Bridger. A shout out too to Arthur Redcloud as Hikuc, a truck driver in his debut performance, just delightful and probably the most likeable character all things considered.

The landscape is breathtaking, from the huge sweeping shots of frozen expanses, mountains and stunning river shots, to the detailed work of dew on plants, close-ups of ants, bark, Iñárritu REALLY loves the outdoors and Lubezki delivers. The light is ever impressive and changing, a scene by a river towards the end, where the sun lights up the mountain side was breathtaking and totally aside from the action on screen. Indeed, the story has plenty going on already, but what makes this film unique is that tireless commitment to capture the visceral, bleak, unspoilt beauty of 19th century America. No compromises, no cheats and almost all achieved with minimal computer enhancement. Where CG was used – BEAR ATTACK – it was seamless. Seriously, I never want to know HOW they did the bear, it was so real it makes you wince – me for Glass, my boyfriend for the bear. I also enjoyed the balance of time spent with the opposing two groups of frontiersman and Native Americans – this is of course Glass (and arguably Fitzgerald’s) story, but in the time spent with the Ree and the development of Hikuc’s character (I adored the playful snow tasting scene) Iñárritu bans any sense of ‘cowboys and injuns’. Iñárritu and DiCaprio have both spoken out about the film being a platform for highlighting the struggle of culture clash, of industrialisation, modernisation to the detriment of ancient tradition and the natural world and similar themes. Which is fine – personally I just enjoyed the visceral beauty of the backdrop and hyper real performances used to tell the story – but if that motivation drove them to get the results they did – no complaints. I cannot call the cinematography Oscar  – triple whammy for Lubezki?  Probably. But I did adore the work in Carol and Fury Road

The Oscars are hugely political – never more so than now – and it is undoubtedly DiCaprio’s ‘time’, but all that aside, if he wins for The Revenant it will be good thing. It’s not a Judi Dench winning for Shakespeare in Love moment, I’d say it’s deserved. DiCaprio is known for physically committing to a role – see quaaludes scene in Wolf of Wall Street, but this was surely the most physically grueling role of his life, of most roles IN life. As my friend described it ‘Oh the cold!’ – you felt cold watching it, when he stuffed his fingers in his mouth to warm them on his breathe, you did go OUCH frostbite. There’s plenty written out there on the physical punishment, much made of the eating of raw fish, bison liver, the Skywalker Hoth moment – but for me, DiCaprio deserves the Oscar for his emotional performance. Glass is not a character that gives you a big Oscar emotional outburst moment. This is a man with emotions deeply buried, hard-as-nails, survivalist, but the combination of DiCaprio’s total immersion and the close-enough-to-touch camera work, allows ab understanding of this man’s motivations, pain – physical and emotional – and eventual surrender, completely. The fact that he finds that truth behind the eyes whilst being covered in goo, frost and muck is wonderful. Look at those eyes…

Hardy is great too, getting a lot of dialogue to have fun with and a nice clear nasty role to get stuck into – not particularly stand out for me in the Hardy canon but solid as always.

There a few dodgy moments, like any good epic, the Gladiator field of wheat style flashbacks were a wee bit laboured and there is the whole hypothermia elephant in the room but a film like The Revenant validates the argument that films should be seen at the cinema – more even than the big 3D behemoths like The Force Awakens or Fury Road. It’s not the big set pieces in this film – perfect as they are, it’s the space around the story that makes it so special, a long lingering gaze as you breathe out, the dedication to quiet and still. In these days of ‘oh just stream it’, a film like this deserves your full attention. The utter immersion of a shared experience in a dark room is worth it every time for me, but if you’re reluctant to leave your comfy sofa for sticky popcorn floor very often – make it now, make it for The Revenant. 

Oh and a massive three cheers for Powaqa’s ‘I’ll cut off your balls!’. Justice, Ree style and important moment in a male dominated film.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children will listen – Room & Beasts of No Nation

Tough gig being a child actor, I’m not talking about the multiple traps you can fall into because you were in the public eye young (prisondrug abuse, mad parents), no, there’s the much more obvious pitfall of just not being very good. I mean it’s usually forgiveable not very good – Daniel Radcliffe channeling Shatner in HP One – “I. Can’t. Be a….. wizard” – but sometimes it’s just like ‘throw that child out the WINDOW’ annoying. So, it was with some trepidation I approached my weekend viewings of Room on Friday and Beasts of No Nation on Sunday, as both rely on the central child actor to carry the film.

Both films, and both boys, were phenomenal, not a hint of Shatner… just a joy to watch, if the word joy can be assigned to these films.

Room will have a tough time getting people into the cinema. Director Lenny Abrahamson said he made a deliberate choice in the trailer and marketing to reveal the ending, because despite what you might assume, Room is not about kidnap, imprisonment, a damaged child or horror-filled, it’s about a relationship between a mother and a son, it’s a love story. However, for those who have read the book, Room,  almost exclusively spends time with just two characters, Jack and Ma, and without the right casting and more importantly the correct pairing, there would be no film.But they nailed it, Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson are utterly believable in their roles. Abrahamson has spoken about the importance of Larson and Tremblay’s off-screen relationship, he could not have cast an actress who would ‘return to her trailer’, he needed someone to engage all day with the child actor, whether the cameras were on or not. Larson is quietly terrific and thoroughly deserves that Oscar nod, and it is because of her and of Abrahamson that Tremblay is so perfect.

Jack feels so true he will feel familiar both to those with small children in their lives and, certainly for me, as a reminder of your own childhood, the pushing of boundaries, the questions, the swings of emotion. Abrahamson’s work with Tremblay, repeating takes, repeating lines, letting the camera roll on as they stopped and talked through scenes, produces not only a natural performance but makes Jack deeply likable. In one scene where Jack shouts at Ma, Tremblay really struggled, so Abrahamson got the whole crew up and shouting until he joined in. Of course Room is not a blockbuster, there are not a lot of effects or a large crew to wrangle so Abrahamson had the space to do this style of directing, but the outcome is spectacular. He manages to film the the room of the title so it really does go “every direction, all the way to the end”. There is of course a pervading sense of horror, despite the undeniably uplifting scenes where Jack introduces us to his world, “Egg snake’s our longest friend, and fanciest”, we as adults know something is very wrong. Abrahamson allows this horror to creep in around us – we know the real reason there aren’t any birthday candles, Ma has a ‘gone’ day where she doesn’t get out of bed, Old Nick is a another word for devil – we can feel it and we know, but somehow it stays on the edges because Jack is ok. Because Ma has done a really good job at giving him a childhood. There are of course heart-in-mouth moments and I am sure if you are a Mummy this is a much tougher watch, but it is predominately an overwhelmingly positive film, about the power of imagination and the joy of childhood. Of course here is the place to give massive props to Emma Donoghue as well, who wrote the book but also the screenplay, apparently she wrote it almost immediately because she was afraid they wouldn’t let her if they book did well. It’s wonderful stuff.

There is a scene in Room which echoed through my head when watching Beasts of No Nation, it includes the following exchange:

JACK: I want a different story.

MA: No, this is the story that you get.

Ultimately, in Room you don’t want a different story, because in a different story Jack would not be there and Ma would not be Ma. However, I did want a different story for Agu, the central character of Beasts of No Nation, played by Abraham Attah, very badly.

Like Room, Beasts of No Nation, is all told from Agu’s perspective. Both films employ a voiceover, but where Jack’s commentary retains a 5 year old’s logic and innocence “There’s less time because the time has to be spread extra thin over all the places, like butter”, Agu’s becomes increasingly aged beyond his years and frighteningly bleak, “Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga, like Abrahamson, begins with Agu existing in a world that has horror on the edges, a world at war, with soldiers, borders, friends leaving in the night, anxious parents, but Agu is fine, he has parents that love him. Jack has an imaginary dog, Agu has imagination TV (joyous). Agu is older so will try to understand what is happening, but it’s much more fun to pull faces by torchlight, fart at the dinner table, basically be a child. You enjoy spending time in Agu’s world so much that when the horror spills over, it feels more shocking. In Room, your deepest fears of what could happen never materialise, in Beasts of No Nation, it gets much worse than you can imagine.

Beasts of No Nation is not an easy watch, but equally is not relentlessly bleak, the work of Fukunaga and Attah to bring joy and truth in the first 30 mins pays off and the supporting cast are equally excellent. In contrast to the de-saturated, cold, Fincher-esque colours of Room, the colour palate here is lush, bright, and jumps off the screen so you can feel the heat, the smells and tastes of this world. There has been much controversy around the overlooked Oscar nomination for Idris Elba and I see why, he is mesmerising as the Commandant – finding the balance between the human and the monster, showing moments of being almost (almost) sympathetic and likeable, which lends truth to the performance of a character than could easily have been done as a by the numbers ‘evil African rebel’.

A brief aside for the supporting cast of Room, loved Joan Allen and Tom McCamus – just being totally believable and populating the world they are in beautifully. I couldn’t remember if William H Macy’s character was lifted from the book, but in the film he feels surplus to requirements and his plotline feels a bit crow-barred in.

So to wrap it up – I find I am a bit rambly this time – I wish Jacob Tremblay and Abraham Attah the very best, they have excelled in their debut film roles, top work. Room will leave you feeling uplifted, Beasts of No Nation will leave you feeling helpless and empty, but both films are urgent and important. They both have the same message for me, what children are told to make sense of their experiences, they will believe. The lies Ma tells Jack to allow him to make sense of his world are done from kindness and a desire to protect, the gamble pays off, Jack ends happy, healthy and curious. The lies the Commandant tells Agu to justify his new existence as a child soldier leaves him dead-eyed, drug addicted and damaged, though we hope not beyond repair.

Children will listen.

  • Room is still in all the cinemas and Beasts of No Nation is available on Netflix. 
  • If you watch Beasts of No Nation and want to do something, you may consider joining me in supporting the work of War Child – their work is incredible and they are there long after a war has ended, I have supported them for a few years now. 

The Danish Girl: You should’ve been a mother, you should’ve been a wife…

It’s OSCAR SEASON and there are just so many films I want to see, so I checked out the upcoming release dates and the first on the list was The Danish Girl. I’d seen the trailers and Eddie Redmayne seems to be on every London bus, I was excited. I fully expected to be emotionally involved, maybe have a weep and learn something along the way. I know I’ve enjoyed a film when I do a big breath out as the credits roll, in a ‘phew that was IMMENSE’ sort of way.

The Danish Girl was honestly, a bit…meh, a bit hollow. All the building blocks were there, a glittering cast (oh hi Ben Wishaw are you in EVERYTHING?), a true story to base from, sumptuous period setting, heavenly costumes and Tom (The King’s Speech) Hooper at the helm. But it was just very cold somehow, very distant. To try and explain it better: I went to see The Theory of Everything this time last year, purely to see Eddie Redmayne’s performance – I’d read he’d done serious research and training to play Hawking and moreover filmed it out of sequence. I went to see it with no interest in a Stephen Hawking biopic, no interest in hearing that story – just from a ooh impressive acting geek out time. The Theory of Everything really blew me away, I was totally invested in the characters and their journey, though it was a fairly soft focus and sugar coated telling of events, it was a proper immersive movie and I really enjoyed it. So much so that my technical appreciation of Redmayne was totally lost in the power of the tale.

In contrast to The Theory of Everything, I was interested in The Danish Girl for the story. I was fascinated by the story of the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery and had no idea the issue of gender, transgender, identification was even being discussed – let alone acknowledged by the medical community- in the 1920’s. Plus the exploration of Einar and Gerda’s relationship – that Lili was Gerda’s muse and that she supported his surgery and the ‘loss’ of her husband. The fact that Redmayne was in it was just a plus, I went for the story not the performances. However, almost immediately, I went into technical appreciation mode (because this does have good performances) never becoming immersed, never suspending my disbelief, whatever you want to call it and by the end I was up and out pretty fast, no deep breath out – nothing.

Having said that, there were some wonderful moments and do go and see it, because maybe you will get the heart that I missed. It certainly got me thinking though and it comes at an important time for transgender and gender identity discussions, education, understanding and so on – so if nothing else if this film does anything to reduce stigma, fear and makes things better then I applaud it. But I am not sure it will. This is a film about one person’s journey, and to be blunt, it just wasn’t that interesting.

Einar and Gerda live in a very small world, they are both artists in Copehagen and the film travels as well to the Paris art scene of the 20’s. Their best friend is a prima ballerina, everyone is beautiful, everyone is edgy and gorgeously dressed, the married couples all have sex every night and all the single people are having wild affairs with multiple partners. So far, so alienating to most of us. I’ve only seen Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina and she is excellent, so much so that I didn’t realise it was the same actor playing Gerda. Vikander plays Gerda as someone immensely likable, I totally wanted to hang out with her, and her journey was much more interesting to me than that of the title character. Her performance of how Gerda has to manage the unknown, of wanting to mourn the loss of her husband, but is unable to as someone who looks very like him is still there.  The best scene in the whole film for me was when Gerda confronts Einar about Lili, “She was a game, we made her up” – the realisation in her eyes that her world has been knocked off it’s axis and everything has changed. This scene was wonderful, because it felt so real and relevant. There must be lots of couples have fun sex, dress-up, putting on each other’s underwear etc – but what must it be like when one of them says actually this feels right, this isn’t me dressing up, this is what I should be wearing, I feel normal now. If a version of that conversation was had in reality between Einar and Gerda, it is still happening now, in a small semi in Manchester say.

 

We know Eddie Redmayne is good, his Oscar wasn’t one of those -‘one good performance’ Oscars (Cuba Gooding Jnr – I am looking at you) he is a very talented and immersive performer. But you could see the work this time, his performance of Einar at first consciously observing and mimicking women then realising Lili is the true self and Einar the performance, was technically brilliant. But, and it’s a big but, Lili was really annoying. If you met her at a party you’d go ugh, so simpering and mannered, so coy. At first I blamed the period the film was set in, but as I said I would totally hang out with Gerda, she was great, so it’s not that. And while it is horrid to watch a person go through all of the different avenues Einar went down before finding his final path to Lili – the montage of doctors was frightening, the physical assault, the depression –  I just didn’t really like Lili enough to really get involved.

And this defines the whole film for me, I didn’t really care about Einar /Lili, but I liked that it fired my brain into realising all the things that happen to Einar are still happening, it’s nearly 100 years later and we still don’t seem much further along. Yes, we have Caitlyn Jenner on the front of Vanity Fair and Laverne Cox on the front of Time, but these are still very ‘comfortable’ images of trans women and where are the trans men? Am I missing them? Check out the Twitter response to ‘Call me Caitlyn’ with trans people essentially saying – where’s my Vanity Fair cover? Laverne Cox has used her time in the spotlight to repeatedly remind the world that being transgender, particularly when you don’t have money, or fame, or a great job on a critically acclaimed TV show (and if you haven’t watched Orange is the New Black, run, don’t walk, watch it now) it can be at best a tough and lonely world and at worse you will be killed. Watch her incredible and measured response to a chat show host’s trite comment “Your private parts are different now” – what could you do with 1 minute to talk about an important? I could do nothing this good.

Lili at one point in the film says ‘Like a real woman’, and the phrase is echoed throughout, early in the film it’s show that Gerda has not got pregnant and this is causing a sadness, a failure of her as a woman somehow. Wider questions about gender and gender definition are not explored in depth by the film of course, this is a film about Einar/Lili and Gerda, but this triggers really interesting things for me. What does make a woman? Is a vagina and breasts enough, or is it being a wife? A mother? Is it the way we dress? I don’t consider myself a girlie girl – but what does that really mean anyway? I see friends with children working really hard not to gender stereotype their children, but sometimes girls like dolls and boys like to smash things. Is that ok? I will post some links in a moment for some recent articles that are continuing this debate – if you’re interested have a look, forward them on and keep the conversation going.

The Danish Girl may work for some people, the awards nominations show it’s being recognised and it’s got great performances and looks gorgeous and there are some really moving moments, but I think some people’s stories are just not interesting enough to carry a whole film. For me Stephen Hawking’s (or arguably Jane Hawking’s) story was more than enough, but Lili Elbe’s not so much.

More on gender, transgender and so on: 
- With thanks to Against Me! cos I stole their lyrics for a blog title - try the 
whole song - True Trans Soul Rebel
- Great read on gender fluidity 
- Responses to Jaden Smith wearing skirts
1. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/will-smiths-son-as-the-new-face-of-louis-vuitton-womenswear-might-seem-progressive-but-its-a6797461.html 
2. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jaden-smith-isnt-threatening-transgender-territory-hes-a-non-binary-icon-a6799411.html 

 

 

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