Monday, December 31, 2018

2018: THE HIGH

Yorgos Lanthimos escaped the yoke of being the leader of Greek weirdcore a few films ago without needing to do much more than change languages. His third film in English is an energetic and deep essay on power with a cast for the ages.

This caused a lot of whinging as its massive midstream shift was seen as a letdown. I went with it and enjoyed it more than most of the new films I saw this year.

The story of a family struggling to maintain itself in the face of an existential threat. Beautifully realised by a first timer.

Maestro Del Toro tells a fable like no other, this time of pride in difference opposed by the shame of keeping it secret.

Parallel universe or haunting? This strange debut feature from a student of Kyoshi Kurosawa brings back what the teacher has apparently abandoned, the sublime in horror.

Tough and mean but heart rending in the most beautiful way.

Nasty and stark but the more powerful for that. Great performances all round. Still waiting for a release locally.

Strong rockumentary that neither elevates nor bores which makes it almost unique in its genre.

A poignant farewell to an old hand managed also to serve as a deceptively light tribute to finding treasure in the everyday. Haunting.

Unexpected. Like Ben Wheatley meets Ken Loach and a commitment to a devastating conclusion.

Satire writ large in this lashing of contemporary and future capitalism. Might well prove to be the cinematic satire of its era.

Tale of impossibly angelic stranger improves the more thought it's given afterwards. Good turns by the two leads and a very funny subversion of the let's-party drive to a golden oldie.


It began, progressed and ended without great strides in the art de cinema but it was a well paced comedy that stuck to its guns. I don't see enough of them.

Stephen Soderberg is prolific filmmaker but has never been an auteur. Any of his films could be by anyone as he doesn't appear to be obsessed with making the big scratch of cinematic signatures. This tight thriller with the preposterous plot works a charm, never claiming to be anything else. Shot on a modified phone but you wouldn't know it.

Interesting take on zombie/infected tale in the Australian outback is an efficient story of family, the land and its first peoples. Could have been a lot darker to better effect.

Same director's Ida left me with more shivers of delight at seeing a great small film. This, though, was a fine piece.

My initial enthusiasm for this one was, I think, too driven by my relief that it wasn't a Noah Baumbach/Wes Anderson cringe but a genuine account told with underplayed flash. Superb performances are where most of the work went and it paid off.

Sheer joy when I saw it at the cinema but it doesn't linger so finely in the memory.

Solid plot of righting injustice with a powerhouse central performance by Frances McDormand. Some misdeeds by its chief lunkhead character never examined after his redemption which leaves a bad taste.

A blend of redneck ridicule and the divergence of personal recollections of the same events could not resolve itself for me. Good performances and an appreciable treatment of domestic violence almost take it into the High list but not quite.

Mighty cast and some tough satire give this grim political fable a place at today's political table but perhaps too many easy dismissed moments of horror which play lightly and move toward overload.

Compelling tale of freedom and morality in a guarded culture let down by a few too many obvious metaphors where more concentration on the already strong central relationship might have served better.

NICO 1988
A good rock bio movie that has a good look at post-fame careers. Not quite loveable but impressive for its contempt of the hagiographic approach.

A decent tale of ethics and impressionability goes further than it needs to prove its point. Very good performances, though.

Coming of age tale diluted by lack of sense of struggle despite great charm in some of the performances. Also, scores like this one don't belong in the cinema.

Some very fine performances and an intriguing premise can't quite lift this one from its over-even treatment.

Fine central performance in a story that could have done with more muscle from the writers and director. Not quite a waste of Glenn Close but ... close.

Decent enough adaptation of the graphic novel but couldn't eclipse it.

Consistently funny and subversive but perhaps a little too neatly wrapped.

2018: THE LOW

This list is usually comprised of movies that I found disappointing rather than poor. But this year my radar failed me more than once.

Old style Tarantino ensemble thriller never gets beyond ok and takes too long to get that far.

Recreating a vague version of Vertigo through a mishmash of other films with the same setting. Why hasn't anyone thought of it before? I hope Guy Maddin finds his form again some time soon.

Good filmmaking wasted on unjustifiable remake that was so divergent from its source that its use of the same title was offensive.

A promise of something pleasingly complex collapses into an unsurprising twist. Wish it had been better.

The matrilineal message is undercut by a clumsy mix of tribute and new ideas that don't quite make it. And how come, if this is meant to be the real Halloween II, are there so many call backs to all the other entries in the franchise that this film pretends never existed? What did I expect? What T.S. Eliot said about poetry, a return to the banal.

Why subvert something when all you are doing is using the title to make what you wanted despite the source material? This unscary extended psyche workshop is using the branding without substantial reason. See also Suspiria 2018.

A guy with loser syndrome, his restless wife looking to survive while he's off being a hero and a boy
who looks happy to stand around. Then it ends.

Potentially explosive story of accelerating pride in a community of opposites keeps going when it should just get over itself and resolve without the grandstanding.

Conceptual documentary of a road trip in celebration of Elvis Presley never quite answers its own question of why it was made.

In which the footage of the failed first attempt of what became a great documentary proves why it was a failure. Is there merit in the meta?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


Films by Yorgos Lanthimos often sound like they're going to be comedies. But the weirdly cossetted kids in Dogtooth lived in an affluent nightmare. The Lobster's government-sponsored mating program (that results in surgical metamorphosis for the unsuccessful) was an absurdist horror. And here, Anne, last of the Stuarts, creator of the sovereign state of Great Britain, gout-stricken and quaveringly self-doubting is the goal in a fight between two manipulators. This film is frequently funny but it is not a comedy.

The opening scenes cut between a demonstration of how the Queen's favourite, Sarah Churchill/Lady Malborough, micromanages her monarch and the arrival of Abigail, fallen from high birth after her father lost her in a card game to a large German with a small penis. Sarah is staving off the parliamentary Whigs who want the current war to stop as it's bleeding the coffers despite British victories. Abigail is pranked into interrupting a meeting between Sarah and a politician and sent to work in the kitchen (where her pranker continues to prank 'er). All continues except that now Abagail has her eyes on the kitchen door and uses her expertise to find Sarah's favour. From that point the pair are in competition for the royal ear.

Lanthimos keeps the range of competition wide, from country dance moves that fall between mating rituals and partner-swinging jitterbugs, mating rituals that play like kickboxing bouts (with the female in the ascendant), afternoons of bird shooting which double as tutorials in manipulation and manipulation in itself, and so on unto direct physical harm. The surface might be powdered and tailored but the motivations are no different from the madames and ponces in the bawdy house we see at one point. But there is a difference between power attained and power applied skilfully.

Between scenes of opulence shot through a spherical lens that give a Vermeer's mirror look to wide, flat splendour to the details of faces known only to intimates we have a dark oak palette and a sense that, even within the appearance of gentility we might easily see brutality or gore. Though it's stylised to the last pixel of each frame this world looks lived in. And from the grandeur of Purcell and Handel to the unsettling monotonic scraping of the contemporary score we also know that we are in a film that can turn us.

There are major empathy shifts in the power play and for all the luxuriant space of the palace the squeeze of dominance can be stifling. The central trio of performances is thus crucial and we are served beautifully by Olvia Coleman's Queen Anne who can whimper like a lapdog or rage like a banshee, Rachel Weisz who brings a dark and fierce intelligence to Sarah, and the mercurial Emma Stone who, in an arc that takes her from a put-upon survivor to a character from The Harlot's Progress, can wait like a hunting hound and triumph like a shark. The charge the trio must create between them for this film to be more than a chess game is in every scene they share, as classically marbled as a John Dryden verse and as vulgar. I know I've tapped out some purple patches here but it's hard to describe this film justly without them: it's good, it's very good.

Sunday, December 16, 2018


Judge Fiona Maye manages her days with a clipped efficiency and intimidating wit at a pace that belies the notion that the top jobs are easy. Her husband, a heavily white collared American, proposes that he have an affair as their own union has long dried sexually and it might add a valve of relief to the marriage. She doesn't have time to be more than winded by this as a case comes up whose urgency all but erases it. A boy of seventeen is denying a blood transfusion to treat his leukemia through religious conviction: he a Jehova's Witness, as we learn from a well place vignette near the start the sect believe the blood to be the literal carriage of the soul so the ingestion of another's is pollution. Who's right?

Strained by strong arguments from both sides and preoccupied by her own personal crisis, Maye must rule either way and rapidly. Seeking to break the circuit she visits the patient, Adam, in his hospital bed to find out how much of the decision is his rather than his parents' and subculture. His plea has an adolescent naivete but it is convincing. Noticing the guitar at the end of his bed she asks his to play. His first stumbling few chords open a song they both know and she sings it while he strums. She makes her excuses (court) and leaves him screaming for more of her company, the first, we get the feeling, that has treated his intellect genuinely.

Maye makes her judgement for the hospital and the boy receives his lifesaving treatment. The husband,self-banished, is back but relegated to the spare bed. There's that .. and the next case. But her judgement follows her, literally. Adam, newly vital from her decision, is now obsessed with her. Although he pleas that he hasn't replaced one tooth fairy with another he is clearly in the kind of awe of her that anyone of his age might well be prey to. When they are in the same space it's as though it is encased in a kind of ectoplasmic bubble of his secretion. How to escape this? He has an idea. It's not a good one.

Emma Thompson brings to her judge a mind too engaged and busy to stop for a moment and every thought it deals with can be lightlessly deep. This means that we are given pause to see her in painful puzzle at her husband's sudden request (to him, one long in the making) but gratified at her resourceful dealing with the difficult boy at the centre of the case. We find ourselves watching keenly for a moment of strain that will break to his force as she understands simultaneously how similar the situation is to her husband's but how damaging it would be to indulge it. Even as an emotive human she must remain a judge. Thompson carries this into visceral territory amking this one of the year's most compelling onscreen performances I've seen.

The rest of the cast provide great support. Fion Whitehead as Adam scares us with his chaotic intensity. Stanley Tucci manages to put more than the boy-man mid-lifer that the script has him. Jason Watkins, one of those know him if you see him, U.K. character actors as Maye's patient clerk is a delight. And Ben Chaplin as Adam's father provides us with a man committed to a (to an outsider like myself) bizarre religious conviction and make it not just believable but reasonable and terrifying. He reminded me of no one so much as Michael Craig whose similar role in the 1962 Life for Ruth also impressed.

The Children Act does a lot with what might have been a scant canvas; big morality and bigger decisions, reconciliation and the weight (or lack of weight) of our convictions. The film looks and feels quite plain for this reason: it must traverse real melodrama to get to real pain and so can't go about complicating the business of putting it all on a screen. When you have Ian McEwan adapting his own novel and performances like Thompsons, you'll settle for that.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Lee Israel loses her job as a literary editor and finds herself hanging by a thread. She's behind in the rent. Her cat's off its food and she owes the vet as well. She sells books for a pittance at a shop where her publishes biographies are on sale. Her agent avoids her calls and, when confronted, tells Lee she's out of touch and probably needs to play the game better. Lee is "fifty-one and likes cats more than people". She swallows pride to a tiny degree and sells a letter from Katherine Hepburn, getting a decent return. Finding a couple of letters from her biographical subject at an archive she lifts them and is able to sell one. The other, more mundane one she doctors with the subject's style of wit and makes hundreds on it. She has been told she has no voice of her own. Maybe, she thinks, that's a good thing.

While consoling herself about the sacking at the start, over a bourbon at a Manhattan dive bar she meets Jack, a flamboyant British fop past his best and they begin a rapport. When he sees what she has done and continues to do, forge the letters of famous dead people to milk a market in memorabilia. There's an obligatory montage involving Lee doing Dorothy Parker or Fanny Brice and raking it in until circumstances prevent her from operating. She sends Jack in. You already know that none of this can last.

That's not a problem here, though. The film makes it plain that Lee is a woman whose intelligence and wit are going to be her own undoing. You might even start looking for signs of a break in Jack. You won't really be surprised by the turn of events but the real game in this town (a dependably beautiful Manhattan) is the great furnace burning behind the eyes of Lee Israel.

Melissa McCarthy accepts the challenge of a lead role almost devoid of sympathy, a woman who subverts herself at every turn and seems to ignore the talent she is proving with her fraud. McCarthy's fierce humanity damns that torpedo and gives us someone we want to see winning despite agreeing with the opinion of the rest of the world on her. Her performance is strong in its restraint and gives this perhaps too evenly paced and textured film some real muscle. The film depends on it as it cannot condone the act of forgery but must celebrate the response to base talent that leads to it. Great credit must also go to Richard E. Grant as Jack, a kind of aged Withnail fallen on deservedly hard times. He shows the grey admission beneath the character's performance as though it were easy.

The world wanted to believe in the Hitler Diaries. There was a great desire for explanation. Konrad Kajau filled a need so well that his exposure led to his public damnation from dissapointment alone. Lee Israel tickled the fancy of fans of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker at the top of the collector food chain and was put to professional death for it. The only thing she could write about after that was the story of it itself. This is why this deceptively plain film keeps its scenes to intimate dialogues and allows only the occasional burst of real feeling through: we whose awareness of fake news and election winning power must recognise how quietly it must begin. Israel's cover versions of her subjects are irresistable but we don't forgive cover versions lightly.

Even as a young second generation Beatles fan I knew the Klaatu album was not the Beatles. The song Sub Rosa Subway had such a Pepper vibe and tone perfect arrangement (and bullseye McCartney vocal) but even on one listen sounded affected and try-hard. It still played as a fun song, though. However, I did get the feeling that Klaatu were unable to be the Beatles in the sense that they were better at evoking a familiar sound than acting on their own musicality to forge new ones. That is what an inadvertent collector of a Lee Israel fraud might have felt: you were great at the golden era, why couldn't you have made your own?

This is a film as much about what the public wants as much as the invention of someone willing to bear false witness to satisfy it. It plays against the cuteness that might have won it more fans than it will have as a cinema release and, perversely, like Lee Israel herself, that is true to its word.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


Cassius Green (in the American pronunciation Cashus or just Cash) gets a job at a call centre and fails according to the statisical probability plus one detail. The old guy in the next cubicle tells him to use his white voice. Cash tries it and soon he is plunged into a success montage where the scrawny overseer with the prison tattoos repeatedly high fives and fist pumps him as the red sale bulb flashes. As his workmates plot and carry out a strike he is sequestered to the admin office where he is told he has become a power caller. He's seen power callers. They take the golden art deco lift to the top floor and they wear styles bought with serious money. Cash breaks the picket line and takes the lift.

His artist girlfriend is turning activist. The union organiser who started the strike is taking a keen interest in her. There are protests nationwide over the Worry Free Corporation whose creepy ads make what looks like slave labour an option for the poor. Worry Free are Cash's employer's biggest client. In the sumptuous upper floor of the Power Callers Cash's mentor, a smooth rapper type with an eye-patch ("white voice only on this floor"), tells him not to worry about changing the world but instead going with the way it's heading. Cash is feeling the benefit of the big paydays but also the conscience-tugging of the real friends he was starting to make at the call centre and his own dear Detroit (the girlfriend, her mother wanted an American name). Will the mighty Steve Lift of Worry Free and his massive plans for the world's future buy it with Cash? No spoilers. Too much to say, anyway.

This is a satire that substantially could have been written hundreds of years ago by the likes of Jonathon Swift; a savage eye on the greed of the rich but laced with such off hand comedy that its dogma feels like part of that (yet still serious). As I watched I thought of Brazil, O Lucky Man, Eternal Sunshine, and the restlessly inventive humour of Being John Malkovich. This film is not really like any of those but it has the same strength of vision of all of them and the nervy humour they run on: it's on the same shelf.

Lakeith Stanfield brings a humanising confusion to Cash who never seems comfortable with either being poor or what he has to do to be rich. His constant shifting, oddly enough, allows us into what might have played as a cipher (in a different way think John Cusack in Being John Malkovich) to hand the satire on. His fidgety perception let us cope with the speed and frenetic gear changing the story needs. Armie Hammer, looking very like John Krasinsky in a full beard, plays the corporate ubermensch with a terrifying mix of alphacrat and frat boy. The stopmotion business video (that anagramatically namechecks Michel Gondry) is a jawdropping vision inside his head. The cast is hugs and everyone works but special mention should go to Stephen Yeun as Squeeze (the ex-Sign Twirlers Union rep) and Tessa Thompson as Detroit who brings real personality to a role that looks like it had its own art department.

References fly past in thick currents which warrant at least a second viewing but this highly energetic film puts enough in the central arc to let those go by if they get fatiguing. This also reminds me in tone of other films of the strong end of '90s early '00s years of great American mainstream pieces like Fight Club, American Psycho or Amelie: grab what you can along the way and have a look at it when you get a breath. I can think of people who might well think it loses its way in the third act but I think that's pacing rather than plotting, after a light adjustment I kept going with it and felt rewarded. It changes at the root but the result is worked for and works.

On that, the conceits like the deliberately dubbed look of the white voices (Detroit's is hilarious) one weird moment when a character who warns against using his name has it blanked by both audio and visual blurring, the WTF effect of Cash's attempt at ad lib rapping, that corporate video and so much more give this rich mix enough chewy fruit and nuts to give it a life well beyond the first cinema run. The market doesn't really work like this any more but if this were the '80s or even the early '90s this would be a cult film right out of the gate. Sick of the insidious cultural support creeping in for giant capitalists and the rising extreme right? Go and see this. It's the right kind of hate.

And it's bloody funny.