Free Solo: Movie review (documentary).


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The poster reads “in theatres this fall”. Let’s hope that’s not a prediction.

And breathe…

Leaving the film theatre finally allows your diaphragm to return to normality because the final thirty minutes of this monumental documentary is like being put through the worst nightmare Alfred Hitchcock could ever have dreamed up.

You see, you’ve just witnessed Alex Honnold attempt the first ever solo rope-free ascent of the 3,000foot high El Capitan cliff face in Yosemite National Park.

Apple Mac Users will know it as that home screen on a recent Mac Operating System.

This one!

os-x-el-capitan-mac-007.jpgBefore the attempt Honnold was a legend of free climbing in the mountaineering community.  Now, he is simply a legend.

This National Geographic Doc (that has been Oscar nominated for best feature length documentary) works on four levels;

  1. Understanding Honnold’s psyche
  2. Watching, slightly voyeuristically, the development of the relationship with his first relatively long-term girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. (He reveals the L word was never used in his family life and he struggles with it.)
  3. The climb
  4. The filming of the climb by his support team, led by director, Jimmy Chin.

Each component is critical in making the film add to up to more than the sum of its parts.

But it’s the climb that is the centrepiece, for obvious reasons, and the camerawork of Chin, Matt Clegg, Clair Poplin and Mikey Schaefer is like nothing you will ever have seen in your life.

And there, standing erect, brooding, terrifying, is El Capitan at the heart of it all.

Defiant.

This is boy’s own stuff on a truly grand scale, but it is a film with a heart too and I loved every second of it.  It will be some feat to beat this at The Kodak Theatre in March.

100% recommended. 10/10.

Roma: Movie Review.


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Choices.  a) watch paint drying or b) fast forward to 75 minutes.

In the light of today’s BAFTA nominations I had to pull my socks up and watch Roma.

I started it before Christmas but I wasn’t in the mood, it seemed a little dull at the time. But that was probably the time of year I thought.

Nope.

Tonight I endured its full effect.  All 135 minutes of it.

The first 80 made some of the French New Wave’s slower stuff seem like Prodigy videos.

But it got better.

Seriously, I have had more fun in my first job, in which I spent 72 hours extracting staples from booklets.

It is colossally slow.

Literally NOTHING happens.

We see a lot of planes fly overhead and we see a lot, and I mean a LOT, of dogs wandering aimlessly; farm dogs, stray dogs, domestic dogs, stuffed dog heads (that was a good bit).  The star dog defecates in an unprecedented manner.

It takes us through Cleo’s – the main protagonist – pregnancy, seemingly in real time.

This is not new territory for Alfonso Cuaron.  Here’s what I wrote about his previous feature, Gravity, in 2013.

It is exciting from time to time.  But in between the exciting bits (whisper this) it’s a little bit boring.

Just a little bit.  But.  It. Is. A. Little. Bit. Boring.

But Roma takes boring to Golgothan proportions, to an art form that has no equal.  We’re talking stumbling into monochrome art films in art galleries that you walk out of, relieved that you aren’t obliged to sit through any more, after about 12 seconds.

But, heavens above, after about 75 minutes suddenly a great 50 minute featurette emerges from this torpid cocoon and transmogrifies into what a cinematic treasure.

It’s bewildering.

We’re talking games of two halves here like no other.  It’s like a football match that’s 0-0 at half time with no shots on target, no corners, throw-ins, bookings.

No anything,.

Followed by the first third of the second half with more of the same, until six substitutions are made simultaneously and the match ends 7 all.

The transition really is that dramatic.

I won’t bore you with the plot (there is none) or the technical details (Cuaron did everything except dolly grip operator – and I’ll tell you what, the Dolly Grip was a busy bunny as Cuaron has more pan shots than a series of Jamie Oliver TV shows).

Cuaron LOVES A PAN SHOT!

So, do yourself a favour.  Fast forward to 70 minutes and start watching from there.

You’ve only missed a pregnancy.

The Favourite: Film Review.


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I am a big, big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos whose two previous deadpan comedic features (The Killing of a Scared Deer and The Lobster) are outstanding movies.

The feature of both of these movies is Lanthimos’ extremely black humour delivered in a unique style.

However, for The Favourite Lanthimos has taken a big decision in abandoning the scriptwriting and handing the duties over to Deborah Davis (her debut) and Tony McNamara (lots of minor TV but no cinema history).  It’s  strange choice of writing team because they don’t bring any previous to the mix, and neither are fresh-faced youths.  But what they bring is an entirely different tonality to Lanthimos’ work and that leaves him to focus on direction, with cinematography provided by Robbie Ryan, who made a big contribution (in my view) to American Honey.  Indeed, the cinematography is a major talking point after the writing.  Gone is Lanthimos’ naturalistic, almost clinical, lighting of the Lobster and “Deer” instead, although we again go au natural, it’s through a gloom of candle and fire light that renders the screen largely black for a great deal of its 2+ hours.

His frequent choice of extreme wide angle (almost fish eye) lens to capture the scale of the huge palace rooms is highly unusual in cinema and is much more like stills photography. One scene, shot in a long corridor, makes it look like a u-bend when in fact it is completely straight – unlike the principal characters!

But the real meat here is this terrific all female star line-up.  In the #MeToo era this is a real vote of confidence in female actors with attitude and sheer quality.  Come March it is entirely possible that all of the leads; Olivia Coleman (national treasure that she is), Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone will be career Oscar winners because Coleman’s performance is quite brilliant.  The other two already hold this distinction and each has a good chance of adding to their trophy haul.

Although, As Queen Anne, Coleman (who gained 2.5 stone top play the gout-ridden Queen’s part) is the designated lead the film is essentially a three player ensemble with some ineffectual men put into bat to be made to look ridiculous and, oh, they do in Sandy Powell’s outrageous costumes and Beverley Binda’s even more outrageous hair and make up.  (“You look like a dead badger’ Weisz tells the Queen as she sets out on a royal engagement.)

The story echoes All About Eve as Queen Anne’s favourite lady in waiting, and lesbian lover, Lady Sarah Marlborough, The Wife of the Duke of Marlborough who is leading the war with France, is gradually pushed out of favouritism by one time lady and now servant girl, Abigail (Emma Stone).  Although she does not go without  fight.

This is where the scriptwriting team get the nod to create a bawdy and vicious rivalry set in a Draughtsman Contract-esque world.

Overindulgence, poisoning and illness leads to all three leads vomiting at least once each, reflecting this world of excess.

The music track is at times intrusive, but to my mind in a good way; it’s a sort of early 18th Century version of Atticus Rose and Trent Resnor’s soundtrack to The Social Network.

What everyone is talking about is the lead performances. Each is supremely talented and each is given so much scope to truly flex their acting muscles that what results is an acting master-class.  In the trailer it seems like a knockabout farce but in reality the movie is actually quite slow paced with moments of true hilarity and enough foul language to shock some of our more prurient audience members.  That said, my wife who abhors the C-word volunteered that it was used to great effect several times in this.

The lesbian relationships Queen Anne enjoyed are worthy of note. In a life that saw her lose 17 children (5 still born and many miscarried) her tipping of the velvet was, apart from a bulimic relationship with food, one of her few pleasures.  Both Lady Marlborough and Abigail are adept in their duty to pleasure their monarch.

Coleman comes steadily into her own as the movie progresses.  The first half belongs to Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone plays a beautifully judged and paced part in which she will do anything to get ahead but in the end it’s Coleman who wins the day with the last 20 minutes belonging to her as she suffers the vagaries of her life.  Her portrayal of Queen Anne as a stroke victim is as good a performance as you will see anywhere this year.

It’s a fascinating movie, although I’m not convinced it’s quite as good as its hype.  That said, for lovers of history and lovers of Olivia Coleman it has to be seen.

 

 

 

 

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by The Coen Brothers: Movie review.


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Zoe Kazan as Anna Longabaugh in the best segment of a mixed bag of short wild west films.

Portmanteau (anthology) movies are hard to pull off effectively.  My favourites would be Amores Perros, Inaritu’s incredible debut that uses three dog stories to loosely draw together his take on the fragility of love, and The Argentinian classic, Wild Stories, written and directed by Damián Szifron, united by a common them of violence and vengeance.

Other directors who have tackled the ‘genre’ effectively are Hitchcock and the celebrated triumvirate of Coppola, Scorsese and Allen for New York Stories.  It’s most widely used as a structure in horror.

Here, The Coen Brothers continue, for me, their hit and miss career with a near miss, but a miss nonetheless.

It’s a six story Western. Part spoof, part serious drama.  But the mix of genres they employ means that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  Some of the stories reach  a conclusion when the stories are barely developed, others could last longer to make them more engaging,

By far the highlights are the opening Buster Scruggs spoof which is laugh out loud hilarious and the endearing “The Gal Who Got Rattled” featuring a stand out performance from Zoe Kazan, ably supported by her love interest Bill Heck (playing Billy Knapp) and old timer Grainger Hines as Mr Arthur.

Tom Waits puts in a good turn as a prospector in All Gold Canyon.  But the story is daft.

The sixth and last, featuring Brendan Gleeson, is just not very good at all.

I’m not sure what’s to blame here.  Are the Coens just such royalty that they can’t be challenged?  Certainly a number of their films are just not very good at all but Fargo and No Country For Old Men are absolute classics.

I also felt the colourisation was overused and again variably effective.  At its best it created a richness and depth that was highly appealing.  At its worst (in the sixth segment) it just made everything murky.

I have higher expectations of Netflix’s other big bet, Roma, That screens from 15 December.  For now you’ll have to be content with this curate’s egg.

 

 

Widows: Movie Review.


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I love Steve McQueen movies.  I really do.

But he makes some strange decisions and isn’t 100% consistent.  This is one of his mis-steps.

Thankfully and rightfully (IMHO) 12 Years A Slave won best movie at the Oscars last time out but its predecessor, Shame, was an oddly unsettling cinematic experience.

His debut, Hunger, has been overlooked, again in my opinion – I think it’s a masterpiece and gave Michael Fassbender his launchpad.

So, now.  Film Four.  (By Film Four.)

It’s based on a fairly pulpy Lynda Le Plant TV series, but Mcqueen has reimagined it for the arthouse.

Some elements of it are great, not least Viola Davis in the lead role and the stunning cinematography.

But after that it starts to break down.

It’s a bit cryptic.  One of the baddies’ diction is so bad as to render whole scenes indecipherable, the resolution is confusing and it’s too long.

It’s a bit boring if truth be told.

Sorry Steve, mate.

 

They Shall Not Grow Old: Documentary Review by Peter Jackson.


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It’s only October and I have already seen two Oscar winning films.  This (for best documentary) and A star is Born for loads of things.

Months ago I bought a ticket for this special live (3D) screening of this BFI film from the London Film Festival featuring a post film interview between Peter Jackson (the most modest man in cinema) and Mark Kermode (the most adulatory)

I thought it would be special.

It was more than that.

It was a landmark.

It was actually a significant night in cinematic history, because what Peter Jackson has achieved here is unparalleled.

We’ve all seen colourised war footage.  It’s interesting, but in reality it’s a bit pants.

This is the real deal.  A step forward in technology driven by heart, emotion, passion, DNA.

In this truly remarkable documentary Jackson brings us footage from the WW1 front line trenches in a way that you can’t even begin to imagine.

First he restored hours of black and white footage to remove grain, scratches, burn marks etc.

Then he graded it.

Then he fixed all the film sprockets so they don’t jiggle about and blur.

Then, get this, he turned it all from a hotch-potch of 10/11/12/14/16 and 17 Frames per second into it all being 24 FPS.

This is not insignificant.

A 17 FPS film transferred to 24 frames needs to ‘find’ 7 frames.  It needs to create them, to fill in the gaps to make film flow as we expect.  How one does that I have no clue.  Frankly, neither does Jackson, but he knows people who were up to it and deliver on the challenge.

So, as Jackson puts it, we don’t see Charlie Chaplinesque war footage.  We see dignified film of soldiers in real time as our eye would compute it.  This is important because it makes it so real.

Then he, frame by frame, colourised the whole lot.

Then he put a team of lip readers onto it to work out what the soldiers were saying when they spoke to camera (in 1914-18 there was no film/sound recording).

Then he recorded both battleground sound effects, by enlisting the NZ army, and the words these soldiers were saying, through actors, and lip synched and background-noised the whole thing.

Then he launched it.

The man is a genius.

The result is beyond words incredible.

On many occasions I gasped out loud, not least when he moved from the first reel, which shows unmodified footage of the preparation of enlistees for WWI, into the reality of war.

In a stunning coup de theatre the screen changes shape.

The audiences audibly gasps.

We are in a new reality.

Now, this all makes it sound like this is simply an exercise in technological show-offery.

No.  this focuses on soldiers.  Poor.  Young.  Men.

With terrible teeth, but with opinion, with humour, with dignity, with resolute spirit.

And not just young British men.

Perhaps the most affecting part of this film is where German POW’s muck in and join the Brits.   It’s clear that in those days this was duty and honour for one’s country, absolutely NOT hatred of the enemy.

This is a truly remarkable film experience.

It’s important.

Find a way of seeing it.

It’s much more than a cinematic landmark.

It’s a historical one, because the legacy Peter Jackson’s 14-18-Now and Imperial War Museum commission gives the world is new technology that will allow all sorts of ancient film archives to become living history.

In this case the 100 minutes that are committed to film are actually backed up by a further 100 hours of monochrome footage that Jackson’s team has restored (free of charge) for his commissioners.

See when international honours are handed out (I think Bono has a knighthood for example) Peter Jackson needs to be number one on the list for this real and important achievement.

I assume a further Oscar is in the bag.