The Shape of Water: Movie Review.


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The Faberge Egg:  A thing of undoubted beauty, extremely costly but serving no real purpose.

So it is with The Shape of Water.

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Constantly Guillermo del Toro leaves me disappointed.  Pan’s Labrynth especially and now this much hyped ‘masterpiece’.  Both miss the target by some distance for me. (I’ll give you, he nailed it in both Cronos – a long time ago now – and Hellboy.)

There’s much to like about The Shape of Water (but NOT the music which is standard fare and I’m puzzled as to why it won the BAFTA).  The design is superb, it really is a sumptuous feast both in period detail, cinematography and mood and the sets are great.

Sally Hawkins is fine in the role of a mute who falls in love with a fishy ‘monster’ but why, oh why, does she need to get full frontal naked and masturbate in her bath in the opening scenes of the movie.  Wholly gratuitous.

Octavia Spencer puts in a decent shift in the supporting female role but, oh my gosh, this is not an Oscar-worthy performance. (Exactly the same can be said about the mystifying nomination for Mary J. Blige in Mudbound – I’ll leave you to your own conclusions on why these were Academy nominated.)

Both the male leads are on form; Michael Shannon as the nasty finder and torturer of the fish man and Richard Jenkins as Hawkins’ neighbourly friend and the narrator; an alcoholic, cat-loving, adman fallen on hard times.

My biggest criticism lies with the script, or more correctly, the plot which has holes the size of the budget (actually, on checking it was only $19.4m, so my Faberge analogy is stretched a little.  Author’s note:  Faberge Eggs sell from around $6m to $33m.)

OK it’s a fantasy movie but it’s pretty silly really and stretches credibility throughout.

I wanted to like this, I really did and I don’t dislike it, it’s just so fundamentally flawed that its 13 Oscar nods verge on ludicrous.  I don’t think it will take home more than three (I wouldn’t give it any with a possible exception for design) – Best Movie most certainly should not be one of them.

Get Out. Movie Review.


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Once in a while a movie comes along that takes a genre by the scruff of the neck and vigorously shakes it into a new shape.

This is so with Get Out, a horror movie (so the marketing blurb says) that lobs a few horror tropes into a lean and mean 104 minute thriller.  But it is really a social observation on the insidiousness of racism.  It comes out the other end as a unique movie offering.

It borrows from Pacific Heights, Psycho, Michael Haneke’s astonishing Party Games and sub-horror-porn like Saw without ever being any of them.

Without resorting to spoilers its one gigantic twist from start to finish that realises the fears of a young black American guy on a trip to the country to meet his wealthy WASP girlfriend’s family on a celebration weekend.  Every sentence uttered by every character becomes a retrospective clue as to what the outcome will be.

Given it’s described as a ‘horror’ you can expect a deal of nasty stuff in a climactic ending.  What director and screenwriter Jordan Peele (amazingly a debut outing) most cleverly does is apply Hitchcockian tension so that 89 minutes of tension are realised in a mere 15 minutes of terror in such a way that the nasty bits don’t (as so often is the case) outstay their welcome.

Superb performances all round from the five principal actors, but especially boyfriend and girlfriend Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams (Girls).

It’s should be no surprise that this has been both BAFTA and Golden Globes nominated, but it is because this genre rarely reaches this level of critical acclaim.

It’ll get Oscar nods too.

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: Movie 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.