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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.

 

 

 



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.

 



Joy; Movie Review.

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In 1990 Joy Mangano invented the Miracle Mop.

It was a complete flop and nearly bankrupt her and her family in the process.

The US shopping channel’s top sales on screen sales people couldn’t work it and so her ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to make her millions turned into standing on the cusp of losing them instead.

So she took matters into her own hands.  She asked QVC to let her sell her mops herself on screen explaining  “I’m just like everybody else out there. I’m a mom, I work, I have a house to clean, things to organize. We all have certain similar needs, and I address them.”  This came across in a very real and engaging way on QVC and the rest was history.  She is now a $3 x billionaire.

In Joy, Jennifer Lawrence puts in a performance that not only captures this spectacular rags to riches story but breaks your heart along the way.

There really only is one Jennifer Lawrence with her myriad looks, faces and delightfully subtle intonations.  JLaw is a force of nature.

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So too is David O. Russell, her doting director, who has now cast her in his last three excellent movies, including Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (and, in all three, he places the brilliant Bradley Cooper alongside her).

Always, the effect is cinematic magic.

No less so here despite the relatively lukewarm reaction from IMDB voters and critics alike. (How can this be so?)

The script appears to takes many liberties with the true life story for both comic and dramatic effect, but who cares it’s a movie.

The ensemble gathered around J Law’s star vehicle performance also include a rejuvenated Robert De Niro as her morally dubious father, Isabella Rossellini (no really), Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen and Elisabeth Rohm (as her rather hateful half sister).

It works.

Three, maybe four, times this movie made me completely fill up, not because of the fantastic human story but because of the remarkable performance by Jennifer Lawrence and the stunning direction of her by Russell.

Ignore the critics.

Just, not this one.

You’ll thank me.

 



The Salt of the Earth : documentary review.

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You may not consider a two hour documentary, that is in large part a slideshow of Brazilian Social photographer Sebastião Salgado’s portfolio, featuring many, many dead and mutilated bodies, a significant proportion of them children and babies would be the recipe for entertainment but, trust me, it is.

This movie, co-directed and produced by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, should be essential viewing for anyone with any interest in humanity, humanitarian aid and politics because the vast bulk of it covers Salgado’s career as a  social photographer who specialised in capturing images of large populations of the displaced and downtrodden or victims of natural disaster and war.  This takes in Eritrea, Rwanda, Kosovo, the Oil fires of Kuwait, left in Saddam’s wake, and the biblical and truly epic nature of his most famous work; the gold mines of Brazil where up to 50,000 men gold prospected in deep pits of mud.

Wender narrates and Salgado Jr and Hugo Barbier share cinematography duties.  That’s no small undertaking as they are filming a master at work and in the flesh, but somehow their cameras are every bit as inspiring as Salgado Sr’s.

As the film develops we see where this fame has taken Salgado, back to his native Brazil where he has established  a conservation project of such dramatic scale that it has been transformed into a natural park.  It’s a remarkable achievement.

Salgado’s photography places him in the most esteemed company in photographic history (with Ansell Adams he ranks as my personal favourite – coincidentally both photograph strictly in monochrome).  What makes this tribute so moving is Salgado’s personal reminiscences of how he witnessed children die and wars that are so utterly pointless.

At one point we see an image of a man placing his dead baby onto a vast pile of dead bodies – of Holocaust proportions.  Salgado says, and I paraphrase, “He turned away almost chatting to his friend so inured was he to the horror in which he was living.”

Towards the end it all gets too much for him, he very nearly breaks down.  The audience is with him the way.

This is a must see film.  Really must see on so many levels.  A straight 10/10.



Whiplash – movie review

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As the end credits rolled I let out an uncontrollable cheer and burst into spontaneous applause.

It wasn’t a film festival premiere, it was a cold Saturday matinee in Edinburgh in early January.

But I had been emotionally unravelled.  I’d been through the wringer and had come out the other end a whooping fan boy.

Exhausted, I staggered from the cinema gasping for breath.  How on earth could a movie about a Jazz teacher and his drumming protege elicit such a visceral reaction? It’s hard to say why because on the surface (subject aside) there is little that’s fundamentally original about the movie’s structure.  But what there is, is two absolutely gut-wrenching and enthralling performances that smash your emotions all over the cinema.  Hits to the solar plexus are about the size of it.

The story concerns the relationship between a 19 year old drumming major in his first year at North America’s best music conservatory and his desire to succeed at almost any cost in carving out a springboard and a shop window for a future career as a ‘Lincoln Centre’ core member.

His tutor is, if anything, even more focused than he is, and certainly as unforgiving and intolerant of anything less than perfection as it’s possible to be.

The result is a fascinating emotional power struggle, shot through with manipulation by both protagonists.

Much has been said about JK Simmons’ barbaric performance as the tutor and Jazz Studio conductor who has expectations the height of Everest.  But far less credit has been given to the equally powerful turn by his pupil played by Miles Teller.  Simmons simply could not have achieved the heights he has without this perfect foil.

The film smoulders from the opening scene and aside from Simmons and Teller pretty much nothing else matters (other than Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich et al whose canon of work is electrifyingly brought to life by the Studio Jazz Band that Teller so wants, no needs, to join).

Much of it consists of boot camp scenarios where imperfections are punished again and again and again.  It’s these scenes that create the unbearable tension.  But punctuating these are the human side of it – like Teller’s inability to build any relationships at all, other than with his single father.  Drumming is always more important.  And not just drumming; but drumming fame.

Do not let the subject matter put you off.

Do not let the fact that this is a jazz infused hour and a half, much of it in performance put you off.

This really is a very special movie indeed and fully deserves a straight ten rating.



12 Years a slave. A landmark cinematic achievement.

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Steve McQueen, the actor, all steely ice blue eyes, furrowed brow and golden locks was a Holywood legend, “The King of Cool”.  His filmography is impressive (The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, Papillon, Magnificent Seven and Towering Inferno) yet the Academy only recognised him with a single nomination for his leading role, in the lesser known 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles, which he failed to convert.

No lifetime achievement awards either.  Nada.

And yet his name pervades popular culture as toweringly as the inferno he escaped from.

Fast forward to 2008 and and his namesake and former visual artist, (he was the official Iraq War artist in 2003) makes his feature movie bow.

By then McQueen already has an OBE (2002)  to his name, for services to the arts, before he even sat in a director’s chair -he won the highly prestigious Turner prize in 1999.

In 2011 he added a CBE to his honours.

Today he may be on the cusp of eclipsing the achievements of his illustrious predecessor.

McQueen honed his craft by making no fewer than 20 shorts before emabarking on Hunger; his breathtaking debut feature that tells the story of Bobby Sands and the “Dirty Protests” in Belfast’s Maze prison, with his, so far, ubiquitous right hand man, Michael Fassbender.

Shame, in 2011, continued his elevation to directorial greatness in a shocking tale of sexual addiction.

For me, it is something of a surprise that neither Hunger, nor Shame, were recognised in the best movie categories of either the BAFTAs or The Oscars, but that is all about to change with 12 Years a Slave.  Indeed it already has 10 nominations at the BAFTAs and surely chief amongst them is McQueen’s.

Whatever you may think of the movie itself it’s the point of it that deserves most attention and applause.  Now, that sounds worthy but it shouldn’t be seen as such because it is not just a monumental piece of filmmaking, but one with purpose, vision and bravery.

The first EVER feature film about slavery.  How can that be?

The politics of America that’s how.

Sure, Tarantino made a brilliant pastiche of slavery last year with Django Unchained, and for those of us of a certain age Roots long lives in our memory (but that was a TV series).  So too, Lincoln focussed heavily on the issue, but not the experience.

This, however, is a full on cinematic release described by one reviewer as the “greatest film ever made” that unswervingly captures the experience of one man kidnapped from a life of freedom, of privelage, in 1841 New York and transported to the sweltering cotton and sugar cane fields of the deep south.

What follows is almost two hours of unremitting injustice, backache, torture and frustration as the aforementioned Solomon Northup tries to prove his status as a free man, fighting injustice when he can but more often than not having to suffer in silence to protect his very existance.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the title role, is on screen throughout, sweating like no actor I’ve ever seen, in the oppresesive Southern heat and humidity.

His performance is both proud and defiant and as the movie progresses increasingly moving.

Once again Fassbender commands the screen as evil plantation and slave owner, Edwin Epps, but at times scenes are stolen by his super-evil wife played by Sarah Paulsen.

Brad Pitt scoops an important cameo role, perhaps thanks to his role as Executive Producer and, by all accounts, he is one of the main catalysts for the movie to happen.  It’s only fair that his character is a catalyst for the resolution of the movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch also puts in another fine cameo performance as the one “good guy” plantation owner and initial “owner” of Solomon Northup.  The counterpoint between him and the rabid plantation overseer Paul Dano is excellent.

Other supporting roles are well played but this is essentially Ejiofor and Fassbender’s movie.

No, it’s not actually, it’s McQueen’s.

This is a masterclass in direction with foot perfect cinematography and a very good score by Hans Zimmer.  The movie’s perfectly paced, with just the right amount of lingering mood and tense action.  One scene in which Fassbender’s concubine is whipped to within an inch of her life is truly appaling.  You flinch at every stroke. By contrast the scene where Northup simply turns his head right to left, up and down, as if to say “help” is breathtaking in its simplicity and resonance.

It WILL go down in history as an important document of America’s deepest guilt that festers even today, and McQueen WILL win both his first Oscar and a Knighthood.

Above all else though, it is a great, really great, movie.



Think The Diving Bell and The Butterfly meets 40 Year old Virgin and you still won’t be close

21 hours a day.  No wonder he wants to get his rocks off.

21 hours a day. No wonder he wants to get his rocks off.

This is a remarkable hidden gem of a movie directed with grace and understatement by Ben Lewin, a 67 year old director whose career has little in the way of highlights or recognition.  Until now that is.

His main protagonists, John Hawkes who was Oscar nominated for Winter’s Bone, Helen Hunt (who won one for As Good as it Gets) and William H Macy (Fargo nomination) tell a story as touching as any you will ever see that tries to make sense of whether sex out of wedlock as a (disabled) Catholic can be tolerated by those of great faith.

The good news?  It can.

What makes this trio of understated performances so remarkable is that they are all so extreme, yet constrained.

Firstly, John Hawkes (Mark) plays a 38 year old quadriplegic (a consequence of childhood polio), with a fine sense of humour, who lives 21 hours a day in an iron lung and desires nothing more than to have full penetrative sex and yet does not turn the role into a freakshow.

Secondly, Helen Hunt  spends much of the movie completely naked (as brave as it gets at 49) teaching Mark how to suck her nipples effectively, perform passable cunnilingus and generally satisfy her and himself – she’s a sex therapist.

And thirdly, William H Macy plays a cool dude Catholic priest that assumes the role of God, granting Mark the dispensation to get his rocks off free from the guilt of mortal sin.

What’s more, the supporting cast all put in excellent and mostly touching shifts that add to the overall quality of the movie.

It’s in places hilarious (although Seth MacFarlane would hardly agree), breathtakingly taboo (without offending anyone – including the four pensioners sat behind us) and moving.

What makes it work so wonderfully is what it doesn’t do or say.  Whilst issues surrounding morality must sit full square at the centre of the (based on true) story it’s not hammered home.  It makes no judgement and that’s in no small part down to the skill of director Lewin.

Very few people have seen this movie, more’s the pity, and the screening we saw was achingly badly attended.  Nonetheless it cost only $1m to make and grossed a modest (but profitable) $5m in the US.  I think it’s a sleeper of potentially Sideways proportions that will, over time, make the funders very large returns as its absolute honesty and sincerity wins it advocates like me.

Anne Hathaway is unbettable for Best Supporting actress at this year’s big hooley and she is by a distance the best thing about Les Miserables, but it’s a cameo role.  This, on the other hand, is a career defining moment for Hunt who would win every day in my book.  And I may indeed have a small wager on her at 25/1.