Based on a Pulitzer-winning play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole is a film about a husband and wife pair, Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman), who live in suburban America and face a very difficult period in their life: they have lost their small child and are grieving. However, their coping strategies begin to diverge drastically, especially when Becca makes a contact with a teenaged boy who was involved in their son’s tragedy. Nicole Kidman gives one of the best performances in her career in this beautiful, nuanced film that sometimes feels like a slow train-wreck, but which ultimately says a lot about seeking solace in the most unexpected of places, overcoming hardest losses in life and finding hope.
“When I think of the things I have seen on this ship. The stupid cruelties. The vanities. We talk about values? There’re no values. The dung we base our lives on…We are the intelligent, civilized people who carry out orders we are given. No matter what they may be. Our biggest mission in life is to avoid being fools. And we wind up being the biggest fools of all” (Dr Wilhelm Schumann in Ship ofFools).
Based on a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools tells of a passenger ship sailing from Mexico and bound for Germany. On board, the people are from all walks of life and classes, from a Countess (played by Simone Signoret) who lost everything to desperate Spanish farm workers. They are also one artistic couple having a serious relationship trouble, a middle-aged Nazi sympathiser, an aging southern belle (played by Vivien Leigh), who is in search of “something”, and a troupe of Spanish dancers, among others. The film focuses on each of those in turn, taking rounds, and could be said to represent a series of “film vignettes”, rather than a straightforward plot moving to one cinematic climax. Directed by Stanley Kramer (Look Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)), who always promoted films with important social issues, Ship of Fools is distinguished by its unusual presentation, incredible cast, and the acting of Simone Signoret and Oskar Werner.
Death of a Cyclist is a Spanish-language film that was the winner of the FIPRESCI Award at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Juan Antonio Bardem (Main Street (1956)), this social realist film tells of a couple of secret, privileged lovers residing in Madrid who are involved in a hit-and-run accident involving a cyclist. Afraid that their illicit affair will be known to everybody, María José de Castro (Lucia Bosè) and Juan Fernandez Soler (Alberto Closas) failed to stop and help a cyclist who they accidentally hit in their sports car. What follows is a dangerous game of trying to guess who knows what and who can use that information against whom. Parallel to this, Juan Soler, a university instructor, goes through some kind of an existential crisis which leads to surprising results. Death of a Cyclist is one intriguing thriller with Hitchcockian elements. There is plenty in the film on the topic of class divide and the faults of the upper class. Although frustrating at times with a questionable ending, Death of a Cyclist also benefits from nuanced directing which brings out the best in this story about crime and attempts at redemption.
Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is a kind of film whose theme of the individual vs. the system, brutal honesty and underlying power make it a compulsory watch for everyone. The story centres on Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year old widowed carpenter living in the UK, who is forced to rely on the benefits system (welfare system) to support himself after his doctor diagnosed him with heart problems. What follows is his experience being part of that system where a person is just a number and where there is little place for basic human understanding and compassion. All this may sound mundane and even dull, but the film is anything but that. Under Loach’s nuanced direction, we follow Blake as he makes friends with a single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and does everything in his power to make his own and others’ lives bearable. The true power of this gentle, realistic film that displays the kindness of others and human hope, lies in showing ordinary people struggling on a daily basis against the system that is paradoxically designed to keep them in the same miserable place.
Departures is the winner of the 2009 Academy Award in the category of the Best Foreign Language Picture. Loosely based on a memoir by Shinmon Aoki titled Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, it tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), an ex-cellist who comes to his home town and finds a very undesirable employment as a nōkanshi, a traditional ritual mortician in Japan. The profession attracts strong societal criticism and prejudice, and soon Kobayashi has to justify his choice not only to his wife and those around him, but also to himself, while finding the courage to finally face the most hated man in his life – his own father. Departures is a wonderful film full of humour and touching moments. This film about one man’s journey of self-discovery and finding forgiveness is also an admirable attempt to challenge and to help alleviate the nonsensical and unfair discrimination faced by people who work in this very difficult and challenging profession in Japan.
The Red Shoes is about the rise to stardom of a dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) who falls under the strict control of one charismatic, but elusive and mysterious company director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Page becomes truly famous after appearing in Lermontov’s ballet “The Red Shoes”, but soon finds herself torn between her new love – composer of “The Red Shoes” – Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and her professional life. The film is brilliant in terms of cinematography, camera-movements and visual impact. The beautifully-designed production and the ballet, that incorporates a story of one girl whose red shoes take control over her life, are memorable. The film also makes certain observations on the creative process of a theatre/ballet production, and on art and artistic input. It asks – what price a person will be willing to pay for the sake of artistic glory and full professional realisation in theatre/ballet? The story of one girl whose red shoes control her (a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale) mirrors the story of Victoria Page who, ultimately, has to choose between her romantic interest and her blind devotion to the demands of the man behind the “The Red Shoes” genius – Boris Lermontov.
Directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover (2011)), Joker is a latest, much-hyped movie starring Joaquin Phoenix (The Master(2012)) in the titular role of Arthur Fleck or Joker, a stand-up comedian fallen on hard times, who resorts to violence in Gotham City to avenge wrongs allegedly committed against him. Being supported by no other than Robert De Niro (a role reversal from The King of Comedy (1983)), Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance in Joker than can only be described as manically jaw-dropping in its brilliance. The character insight and portrayal are also bold, vivid, without holding anything back, as the film tries to explore the origins of Arthur’s homicidal tendencies through his early history and its revelations. However, unfortunately, if we then shift our attention to anything that is not Phoenix or the character study, we can see a number of problems in the film, including the inability to suspend disbelief regarding major plot developments, the sheer predictability of the plot, and the imbalance in the spotlight given to the minor characters vis-a-vis the main one. Joker is a kind of a film that is made up solely out of one character study and cannot show anything for itself apart from its character study and the brilliant performance. If Joaquin Phoenix is not there, there is no film (thankfully, Phoenix is virtually in every shot). Why should that be a problem? Building a film around a character study is one thing, but having a “film” that is nothing but a very “self-important” character study is something completely different (because, in this case, the film seems more like a shameful star-vehicle). There is no Joker, without the Joker, it is true, but when there is nothing but Joker and everything else (not much) in the film is either very awkward, very predictable, very questionable or very puzzling, then there is simply no great film. Continue reading ““Joker” Review”→
Today (11th September) marks 18 years since the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, USA, and I thought I would review a movie that incorporates the post-9/11 atmosphere – Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour – as a tribute so that we never forget what happened and what it meant. Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing (1989), BlacKkKlansman (2018)) based his film on a book by David Benioff that tells of Montgomery “Monty” Brogan (Edward Norton), a man with a criminal history, who has just one day to enjoy his freedom before he goes to jail for seven years for drug-related offences. We follow Monty on this day, as he reflects on his past and the mistakes he had made in his life. With the beautiful score by Terence Blanchard, 25th Hour is a film that showcases the post-9/11 grief and anxiety to the fullest, while also demonstrating the extent people are pushed to lead a better life. Copying with grief and coming to terms with tragedy and one’s life mistakes are just some of the issues explored. 25th Hour may be too long, not entirely cohesive and thin plot-wise, but, with its vivid images, it somehow seems to speak directly to one’s heart and soul, being a film about hope, guilt and attempts at redemption, making it somehow very significant. Continue reading ““25th Hour” Review”→
Ari Aster takes horror to a completely new level in his latest film Midsommar. Inspired by TheWicker Man and horror folklore, this film tells of Dani (Florence Pugh) who reluctantly decided to accept an invitation and go with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends to a festival that celebrates a midsummer in Hårga, Sweden (originally, the Midsummer Festival was a pagan holiday to commemorate the arrival of summer). On location, we, through the unsuspecting group of friends, slowly become immersed in the odd ways of life in this rural village in Sweden, slowly discovering its strange residents and their disturbing rituals. Welcoming and friendly villagers are only too happy to show their visitors around, as well as introduce them to their traditional midsummer celebration, but will our group of friends, as well as we, the audience, stomach what the villagers prepared for them and presented on their silver plate? In this gripping, “hallucinatory” film, we soon discover that, for the emotionally-vulnerable Dani, the stage has already been set for a showdown of her life. Continue reading ““Midsommar” Review”→
The Nightingale is the latest film from Jennifer Kent, director of TheBabadook(2014). In this film, the location is Tasmania and the year is 1825. A young Irish convict woman seeks revenge for a terrible act of violence once inflicted upon her family. The story sounds interesting and the film seems to gorgeously recreate the past setting. In “brutality” on display, The Nightingale reminds me of a very-hard-to-watch film Brimstone (2017) with Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning, meaning that this film will also not be for everyone.
This heist movie is by Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios (Güeros (2014)), starring Gael Garcia Bernal (No (2012), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)) and Leonardo Ortizgris (Güeros). Loosely based on a real story, the film won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the Berlin International Film Festival 2018, and is about two young men in their thirties who still live with their families, while trying to become veterinarians. They decide to break their cycle of personal desperation by robbing the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. What follows is their journey trying to convert their stolen Mayan artefacts into money, while battling personal doubts, since they did not initially realise what their theft might mean culturally and societally for the people of Mexico. Museo is a well-made film with an interesting premise and an unusual dimension to it, but it is also fair to say that it often slides into some obvious melodrama, losing its force and conviction. Continue reading ““Museo” Mini-Review”→
This mystery-thriller comes from the acclaimed director Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman (2016)), and stars such big-time actors as Penelope Cruz (Volver (2006)), Javier Bardem(Mother!(2017)) and Ricardo Darin (The Secret in Their Eyes(2009)). It seems therefore like this film can do no wrong, but, unfortunately, much does not go well in this latest by Farhadi. In this story, Laura (Cruz) travels from Argentina to Spain with her two children to attend her sister’s wedding. She arrives to a quiet Spanish village of her childhood and is happy to strengthen relationship with her large extended family. However, when Laura’s teenage daughter gets kidnapped, familial secrets come dangerously close to being revealed, and the pool of suspects thins to point to some family members. In Everybody Knows, the lead actors’ performances cannot be faulted, and the film has this one-of-a-kind ambiance of traditional rural Spain. The director also admirably tries to explore some curious familial situations. However, the problem with this film is that it does not become a clever mystery-thriller with tension surrounding the kidnapping and some twists to come. Instead, overlong Everybody Knows is all about tedious melodramatic scenes, withthe feeling left that the script could have been considered for some local TV series. Even more unfortunately, what “everybody knows” in the story or the big reveal could easily be guessed in the first half of this well-meaning “mystery” movie. Continue reading ““Everybody Knows” Mini-Review”→
The film adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel “The Little Stranger” had some bad public reviews, and, therefore, I was curious to see it. In the story, Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) reacquaints himself with one stately house (Hundreds Hall) he used to admire in his childhood. This is the house belonging to the Ayres family, who now find themselves in a pitiful financial and societal position. Dr Faraday tries to help the son of the family Roderick (Will Poulter) with his health issues, and gets close to the daughter of Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) – Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson). However, with his blinding attachment to the house, Dr Faraday does not even guess the horrors which the house apparently holds. The film is not bad. It is stylishly presented and has some intriguing character presentation. However, it is also problematic in a way it tries too awkwardly to tie together a period drama, with one central maladjusted character, and supernatural horror. Continue reading ““The Little Stranger” Review”→
“You don’t have to convince yourself that a mandarin orange exists, you have to forget that it does not exist.” (Haemi, when explaining the art of pantomime in “Burning”).
In Chang-dong Lee’s film “Burning”, Jongsoo (Ah-In Yoo) is a country lad who rekindles friendship and begins a romance with Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon), a girl from his childhood, only then to discover that Haemi vanishes soon after meeting the handsome and wealthy Ben (Steven Yeun). “Burning”, which received much praise at the Cannes Film Festival 2018, is the kind of a film commenting on which people would pride themselves by saying that they liked it, only for others to secretly tell themselves that they do not. Slow-moving or “burning” films with intricate psychological character studies and with unhealthy doses of inexplicability are fashionable nowadays, and, in that vein, “Burning” also would like to take its place among this elite unfathomable group of films. However, the result is a clumsy, uncompelling and excruciatingly tedious film that is as much of a mystery as any non-mystery and that has as much high tension as waiting patiently for a catch when fishing (only then, predictably, not catch anything substantial at the end of the day).
“It was a logical extension of his fantasy of a long sea voyage with her, of their talking all day as they paced the rolling deck. Logical and insane. And innocent. The silence wound itself around them and bound them” (Ian McEwan, The Children Act).
“The Children Act” is a film adaptation of an acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan, who, incidentally, also wrote the screenplay. In the story, a High Court judge, Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson), comes under immense pressure and has to deal with two rising issues in her life simultaneously – firstly, Fiona faces a family crisis as her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) states openly that he would like to have an affair with a younger woman, and, secondly, she also becomes involved in a very traumatic legal case of a boy, Adam (Fionn Whitehead), who refuses to have his life-saving blood transfusion because of his religious faith. The film is to be admired for its faithful conformity to the book, as well as for the excellent performance by Thompson. However, it is also apparent that, despite having McEwan himself on board as a scriptwriter, the film also missed its plot in relation to the portrayal of the character of Adam.
This film is about the final days of Vincent Van Gogh; is directed by Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007)); and stars Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project” (2016)), Rupert Friend (“Pride & Prejudice” (2005)), Oscar Isaac (“ThePromise” (2016)), Mads Mikkelsen (“A Royal Affair“ (2012)) and Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly“); the director knows something about making films about artists since he previously directed “Basquiat” (1996), a film about a postmodernist artist in New York; see also my list of 20 Fascinating Films about Visual Art, which also features “Basquiat” and many other notable movies about painters, their artistry and hardships.
“First Reformed” comes from director Paul Schrader, who co-wrote the scripts to such films as “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980), and who directed “American Gigolo” (1980) and “Affliction” (1997), among other films. It tells of Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a priest in the First Reformed church in Snowbridge, New York, who tries to help one man with his obsessive radical-environmentalist beliefs, but who ends up fighting his own inner demons instead. This film works well on many levels, but it is probably its deep philosophical, existentialist-like quality, as well as its masterful execution, which distinguish it above others. Deep, thought-provoking and resolute, “FirstReformed” grapples interestingly with the questions of faith and morality, and, by the end, becomes both a subdued and quiet meditation on life and internal despair, and an explosively powerful statement on hope.
There is method in his madness. This is the way some were able to characterise Donald Crowhurst’s insane desire and, ultimately, attempt to finish a single-handed, non-stop round-the world trip – the Golden Glove (Yacht) Race sponsored by Sunday Times in 1968. Completely amateur, Crowhurst, nevertheless, entered the race, and, overcome with growing boat problems and despair, started falsifying his positions in log books, to make it appear as though he is making an excellent progress in the race. The fascinating bit is that the film is based on a real story, which has so far been the subject of numerous books and other films (for example, see, probably, a better recent film “Crowhurst” (2018)). Despite the cast of Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz in the lead roles in “The Mercy“, the film never quite manages to raise its sails up, portraying a very predictable (to the point of boring) voyage, with an almost unconvincing and foolish “hero”-character at its centre.
“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” (Atwood, 1985:34)
“Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing what people can get used to as long as there are a few compensations.” (Atwood, 1985:283)
The 2017 dystopian web TV series is based on an award -winning novel of the same name written by Margaret Atwood in 1985. It is about a young woman, Offred, who recounts her time living under the totalitarian regime of Gilead, where women have few rights and their main function is to reproduce in a controlled environment. Pronounced “a TV sensation” overnight, “The Handmaid’s Tale” had 10 episodes (although there is still Season II to come!), and starred such recognisable names as Elisabeth Moss (“The Square” (2017)) and Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love” (1998)). I will review the series paying special attention to its faithfulness to the original novel and to the philosophical ideas behind the story.
One of my favourite actors – Sir Michael Caine turned 85 this week, and this is my belated opportunity to celebrate by reviewing one of Caine’s more recent films directed by the eminent Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty” (2013)). “Youth” is about Fred Ballinger (Caine), a retired music composer who reminisces on his life while luxuriating at a health resort in the Swiss Alps. His old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), an American film director, keeps him company, while his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who suffers from a relationship break-up, prompts Fred to re-examine his past familial relationships. A very much Sorrentino film, “Youth” may not reach the heights of Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty“, but it is still an interesting examination of a life past with some great acting as well as breathtakingly beautiful vistas on display.