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Fences: Movie Review

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I feel a little mean criticising a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony winning play that has now become a movie.   In the 2016 stage revival of the 1983 August Wilson play, both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the movie’s stars,  picked up best actor awards for their performances, alongside fellow actors Stephen Henderson (Bono), Mykelti Williamson (Gabe) and Russell Hornsby (Lyons).

But, and here’s the rub. This is very much a play.  Not a movie.

Ever seen a good movie version of All my Sons, A view from the Bridge, Death of a Salesman? (A minor success of the latter hit our screens in 2000, winning a couple of Golden Globes, but nothing of significance from the Miller pen has made the cut in the last 50 years.)

That’s because Miller, like Wilson, wrote for the stage.  Long, often deeply allegorical speeches populate both of their plays about life, the universe, family, honour, duty, human fragility and responsibility.  Meaty subjects that work in the intimacy of theatre where you can almost smell the actor’s vulnerability.

Hats off to Denzel Washington for taking a modern theatre classic, crafted very much in  the style of Arthur Miller, and attempting to recreate that dramatic tension on the screen. Incidentally it has taken 35 years to reach us because August Wilson strictly instructed that this ultimate of ‘Black’ plays could only be directed on screen by a ‘black’ director.

But, my overall criticism is that, from the opening extended and overly vernacular scene (for my ears) which is a dialogue between Troy (Washington) Bono (Henderson) and Rose (Davis), this feels like a stage production with a few wide angle shots and locations thrown in.

(As an aside, in the first scene the continuity person needs a rocket as the levels in the very obvious ‘pint’ of gin that Troy shares goes up and down like a yo-yo.  A criminal mistake given that the prop is central to illustrate Troy’s dependence on alcohol.)

The play’s title is a full-on allegory about the role of the fence that Troy laboriously builds throughout the play (something Donald Trump might surely prick his ears up to).  On the one hand it’s a physical and protective barrier (Trump’s not much cop at complex allegories so that’s him out of the way now) on the other it’s both an emotional barrier representing Troy’s inability to accept his sons’ affections and a shield to the Grim Reaper who stalks his life.

Both Washington and Davis are excellent in their roles, as are the supporting ensemble, but I could not escape, almost at any point, the fact that this felt a cheat. A pirate movie for those of us who couldn’t see it (like me) in the theatre, where it should be seen.  It made me distinctly uncomfortable.

It’s like watching pop stars mime in film studios.  Somehow fake, unreal, unworthy.

For all its strengths I’m reminded of a quote by a former Hibernian FC manager, Bobby Williamson, a dull and forgettable man in any other scheme of things.

He uttered the immortal sentence, after another 0 – 0 draw,  “If you want entertainment, go to the theatre.”

That’s how I saw this production.

 

 

 



Toni Erdmann: Movie Review

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Naming German comedies could easily be a substitute parlour game for naming famous Belgians in the rather snooty middle class homes of the British Isles.  I confess my list would consist of Toni Erdmann and… Deutschland ’83 (well, it has funny bits, doesn’t it?)

And as you leave the film theatre 162 minutes after the opening of a spectacularly soundtrack-free Toni Erdmann you’re left reflecting on the fact that it was funny, and when I say funny I mean screaming out loud as part of a cacophonous melee of filmgoers, but was it REALLY a comedy?

You see, it’s also deeply moving and actually the underlying sadness of the whole thing, the painful loneliness of the two extraordinary leads (both of whom should be Oscar nominated), makes your unrestrained laughter feel like a betrayal of their fragile mental health.

Father and daughter, Winfreid (alias Toni Erdmann) and Ines, are a dysfunctional 69 year old and 40 something.

He’s a semi retired music teacher with a practical joker streak.  She’s a hard as nails management consultant who’s idea of a good time is to take a client’s wife mall-shopping, anything to succeed in her high stress work environment where she’s willing to trample over people to the top.

She has eliminated emotion from her life and that’s hurting no-one more than her dad Winfred (Peter Simonischek).

On a flying trip home from her temporary workplace in Bucharest, Romania she stages fake phone calls so as to distance herself from her family and friends group who are hosting an early birthday party for her.  Her father can’t bear it and so springs a surprise trip to Bucharest, only days later, to see if he can win back her stone cold affection.

Sandra Huller, who played Ines, is magnificent in her role.  She engages in filthy hotel room sex with her underling but completely without love or desire. She attends conventions on weekends, she socialises with a girl group but it’s a veneer of enjoyment as she sips unenthusiastically from half full drinks glasses – letting drink overwhelm her would be a DISASTER -and she has seemingly lost the ability to even FAKE smile.

She is a world class cold fish.

Arriving in Bucharest, her dad tracks her down and starts following her having assumed a persona, Toni Erdmann, Life Coach,  in a long brown wig and oversized false teeth and somehow inveigles his way into her work group.  That’s where the humour really kicks in, as he pursues a series on ‘did he really do that’ set pieces that contain a variety of comedy tropes including mime, slapstick and pathos.

It’s devastatingly funny in places.  Most notably when he attends Ines’ actual birthday party which has already assumed levels of absurdity never before seen on screen.

This is an absurdist comedy at the end of the day.  In places completely surreal.  That’s why it’s certainly not for everyone. The reviews on IMDB range from awestruck to awful so I hesitate to say you’ll love it, but me and my wife both did.

It’s glacially slow but stick with it.

It rewards patience and stamina, but is engrossing from first frame to last.

This truly is a comedy classic.

You may need hankies.



T2: Review. So much better than the original.

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On the day that the infamous ‘Banana Flats’ in Leith were accorded ‘A listed’ architectural heritage status I was in the cinema to see the sequel to the movie that contributed to the Brutalist building’s cultural credibility.

Trainspotting left me cold in 1996. Danny Boyle’s casting of Ewan McGregor as Renton sat extremely uncomfortably with his characterisation in Irvine Welsh’s mind-blowing source novel.  The stage adaptation that featured both Ewen Bremner and Susan Vidler was much more mind-blowing and credible than the movie.

A public schoolboy from Creiff simply did not fit my vision of an, albeit relatively educated compared to his peers, junkie from West Granton.

The low budget special effects were largely corny.

The baby on the ceiling?  Come on.

The filthiest toilet in Scotland?  With crystal clear water?  Come on.

But the music was outstanding and it clearly nailed a cultural moment (I hesitate to say zeitgeist).

So, my expectations of a sequal, especially of a cult youth movie, twenty years on, were hardly sky high.

They should have been, because in my view this is everything that Trainspotting was not.

“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family…. “ Renton’s cynical rant in the original is a sardonic take on the AIDS campaign that fitted so perfectly with the drug addled HIV capital of Europe  moniker that Edinburgh ‘enjoyed’ in the mid 1990’s.  The city’s unique needle-sharing skag culture had contributed to a minor epidemic, and choosing life was  not a decision, merely a potential outcome.

This underclass had zero control.

Zero choice.

Only Renton (who at least had supportive parents) had the wherewithal to escape; not just from the vicious circle, but from the country itself. Set up with £12,000 of his mates’ money, the proceeds of a London drug sale that he had, admittedly, part funded (That gets overlooked and is a slight plot-hole for me.) he escaped to Amsterdam and a new life.

That he chose.

T2 opens on Renton’s return to the Promised Land, an Edinburgh where the airport meeter greeters are Eastern European.  A family without his mother (he didn’t make the funeral).  A Leith that is part-gentrified, although Sick Boy’s Salamader Street flat symbolically overlooks a massive scrap metal yard, the graveyard of dream cars.  A metaphor for life’s finite span.

The movie (very) roughly adapts Welch’s Porno, but with many flashbacks and additional scenes from the Trainspotting novel that could have been in the original (not least the scene in Leith Central Station).

The budget is six times the original and it shows.  In a good way.  The cinematography bristles from start to finish (Anthony Dod Mantle) and the script bristles with comedy and tragedy in almost equal measure.  The scene in the King William Bar (1690) is a classic.

Not all the characters have fared as well as Renton.

SickBoy, although lithe (thanks to the Charlie) owns his Aunty’s boozer (the beautifully named Port Sunshine – Hibees ya bass) it’s a doss house and in need of investment. His Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika is the only new character to join the fray and cleverly plays the tart with, half, a heart.

Spud’s still a, now suicidal, junkie.

Begbie’s still a fucking bampot on the run from the jail.

Spud, Sickboy and Renton join forces to turn the Port Sunshine into a cultural heritage landmark in Leith attracting considerable public investment.  (For cultural heritage read brothel, sorry, sauna.)

It turns into a hilarious revenge thriller with Begbie on the rampage.

In a turnkey scene Renton sits with Veronika in the fancy Harvey Nichols Forth [sic] floor restaurant.  He reminisces on the Choose Life soliloquy but reframes it, every bit as cynically, for 2017.

“Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares … Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn. Choose a zero-hours contract, a two-hour journey to work. And choose the same for your kids, only worse …”

This is the point of the movie.  I don’t think it’s about nostalgia as so many reviews have said.  What was great about the foursome’s life in 1996?  Fuck all.

No, this is about regret and the search for middle aged redemption.  A new opportunity to escape the cycle of shit that the trio (Begbie couldnae give a fuck) have immersed themselves in.

It’s an echo of the 1996 dream that, for Sickboy and Begbie, was stolen from them in that London hotel room.  But you know, deep down, it’s not going to work out.  Is it?

Danny Boyle and John Hodge have created a monumental movie.  Poignant, funny, beautifully nuanced and reflecting (not nostalgically) their acknowledged masterpiece of 1996.  The weaving together of three generations of the key chartacters’ respective lives is effortless and the music mirrors that extremely subtly.

Ewen Bremner is the real star with his beautifully sad performance as Spud.  Ewan McGregor has grown into Renton’s skin and can finally be forgiven the original miscasting. Robert Carlyle’s Begbie just manages to steer clear of charicature, and delivers moments of high camp scary bastardness.

The whole thing is a fucking blast.

Go see it.

By the way, credit to Harvey Nichols for granting the rights to use, and adapt, their outstanding shoplifting commercial as part of the movie.



Prevenge: Movie Review. The best pregnant, slasher, comedy, horror movie…ever.

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The three  Greek Furies that feature prominently in the 1934 Noirish movie, Crime Without Passion, are the central metaphor in Alice Lowe’s extraordinarily dark Prevenge, billed as the world’s  first pregnant, slasher, comedy, horror movie.

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In it, Alice Lowe’s character, Ruth, embarks on a revenge murder spree goaded on by her helium-voiced, gestating baby.

It takes her to Wales and, in one breathtaking scene, the streets of Cardiff on Halloween night where she claims she almost needed protection from the boozed-up locals in a sequence reminiscent of Scarlett Johnassonn’s Under The Skin street walk in Glasgow.

The reason for her bloody revenge spree is only revealed in drips (so I won’t spoil it – like a preview I read before the screening did for me) which adds greatly to the narrative tension.

The making of this low budget Film Four offering is remarkable.  Lowe was offered development money and finding herself pregnant used her condition to inspire this blackest of black script.  She then wrote, produced, cast and filmed (in 11 days) the whole affair before her baby arrived.

Seeing an actor perform whilst heavily pregnant, and genuinely playing a pregnant character, is a rarity (my only recollection is Frances McDormand in Fargo) and Lowe certainly makes the most of the opportunity.  Shooting took place in her late third Trimester.

The Furies are the ultimate avenging angels and she uses the extraordinary scenes from Crime Without Passion to symbolise her quest for justice, viewing the movie from the comfort of her hotel room where she takes respite, despite noisily bonking near neighbours, from her exhausting killings.

The killings themselves are simple but bloody affairs and each has hilarious set ups.  Can she complete her task before the long arm of the law catches up on her careful forensic clean ups?  You’ll have to see it to find out.

This is classic British black comedy at its best.  Using its low budget as a virtue but still making some moments of genuinely great cinematography, most notably in an exotic pet shop and a beautiful full facial dream sequence in a yoga class.

It has echoes of Mike Leigh’s early work and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers is an obvious reference point.  Obvious because Lowe is its co-star and it too shares a murderous plotline.

But, comparisons aside, this is an entirely original take on several genres that does its damnedest to create a genre of its own.

Whether there’s room for thousands of pregnant, slasher, comedy, horror movies is debatable.

So we’ll just have to agree on one thing.  The original and best.

 

 



Manchester by The Sea: Review

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About one third of the way through this, quite long (137 minutes) movie the swelling strings and organ of Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings and Organ in G Minor start to stir and build through 8 minutes and 35 seconds.

Unlike traditional screenplay music the classical piece, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, does not subtly grace the background, it grabs you by the throat and dominates the proceedings to the point, almost, of discomfort.

(Some reviewers feel it is heavy-handed, I felt it was well judged.)

The fact that it is in a minor key and is achingly melancholic bursting with sadness, despair and grief absolutely encapsulates the mood of Lonergan’s creation.

I found these lyrics written for the Adagio and they could in fact be the inspiration for Kenneth Lonergan’s Screenplay although I very much doubt he has seen them…

So turn away!
Turn away, turn away

I am alone, I am alone!
I am alone
I am alone
I am alone

Go turn away, go turn away
Turn away, turn away
Turn away,
Turn me away

Alone!
Damned!
Go home!
Gone in darkness
Light, surpasses

All ….
All, is one now!
All, is gone now!
All, is gone
Truthfully
Truthfully
Truthfully
I am gone.

I don’t recall a Hollywood movie so built around grief and that grief is etched into every pore of Casey Affleck’s face. Surely he is a shoe in for best actor at this year’s Oscars.

Lucas Hedges, as his orphaned nephew who Casey Affleck, as Leo – a dead end Janitor – suddenly becomes guardian to after the death of his brother, plays a nuanced role as the troubled teen who can at least find solace in school, sex and band practice; even if his band is dire.

(Actually, there are also a lot of laugh out loud, mainly awkward, moments in it which were entirely unexpected to me.)

It’s  essentially a two header between them although Michelle Williams plays a strong support role, albeit brief in screen time.

To be honest, even calling it a two-header is to downplay the importance of Casey Affleck in this movie.  In truth it is really a study of him alone with supporting characters used ostensibly as dramatic devices and props.

The trailers do not reveal the depth of the storyline, which is devastatingly sad, and for some almost too much to bear.  My wife sobbed almost uncontrollably throughout the third act.

But despite all this, personally, it didn’t quite capture my heart.

Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind.  It’s a great, albeit slightly one dimensional, movie with a brilliant central performance and a strong screenplay with a good ensemble supporting cast, but that’s not enough to make it the movie of the year.

That said, I would strongly recommend it.

 



Silence. The latest Scorsese filming masterclass. (With some reservations.)
January 2, 2017, 8:11 pm
Filed under: Arts, creativity, life, movies, religion, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

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To follow up The Wolf of Wall Street with this movie demonstrates that no director has the sheer vision and chutzpah of Martin Scorsese. We are talking chalk and cheese in extremis here.  Not even P.T. Anderson or Alejandro Iñárritu can match his range.

As each movie goes by he lays greater and greater claims to be the greatest movie director of all time.

But Silence will not be, by any means, top of the popularity list.

Because this is film making borne of extreme passion (clearly the source novel connected with him).

This is a cinematic therapy session, a philosophical 15 rounder and languid, arthouse fare that few will love.

It’s a beast of a movie, weighing in at 2 hours and 41 minutes.  There is no action.  No soundtrack (music) to speak of.  No sex.  In fact hardly any women.

And it’s about the tension of religious powerbroking in 17th century Japan.

For many reviewers I’ve read (and my wife’s view) it’s just plain boring.  And I can understand, but don’t agree with, where they are coming from.  It is incredibly slow.

Scorsese’s lifelong editor, the mighty Thelma Schoonmacker, has either been over-ruled in many places or is complicit in its sheer lack of pace.

Certainly it could be cut in places where some repetition is evident and probably unnecessary.  That said, its pace is its schtick.

The central premise about religion being the root of all the shit the world had to deal with then, and has to deal with now, is highly topical and that’s what makes it an essential movie of our times.

It even-handedly plays out the battle between Buddhism and Khiristianity (sic) and leaves the viewer to decide if religion is the root of all evil or that some religions have more merit than others.  Given Scorsese’s Catholic upbringing this is an impressive feat.  I know not whether he remains a believer or an abstainer, but either way this could have made for an overplayed hand either for or against Christianity.  The fact that the movie is neither is to his huge credit and gives it it’s real moral backbone.

It’s roundly well performed, the cinematography has a lot of merit and the overall production values are excellent.

But this is not entertainment as such; this is a slog.  A reason to appreciate cinema.  It’s notable that StudioCanal is behind it.  Surely the greatest contributor in recent times to arthouse cinema.

There are no laughs in this.  None AT ALL.  But it is a venerable movie. And I loved it on many levels.

And put it this way, it sparked a pretty intense post movie debate about the merits of religion then and now.

 



Hell. Yeah! Alien Covenant trailer. By Ridley Scott.
December 26, 2016, 1:44 pm
Filed under: action, creativity, movies, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,