Film Reviews by PD

Welcome to PD's film reviews page. PD has written 175 reviews and rated 275 films.

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Full Time

Impressive study of modern work from the perspective of a single mother

(Edit) 21/02/2024

Most of us can easily relate to the experience of a sleep-shattering jab of an early-morning alarm and the various sensations a promising job interview subjects us to in a context of a demeaning job. Eric Gavel’s film is a breathless nail-biter whose stoical protagonist Julie (Laure Calamy - utterly convincing throughout) is a single mother of two who commutes to Paris from the suburbs in her capacity as head chambermaid at a four-star hotel, while at the same time looking for a job better suited to her university education. The film’s title is quite literal, alluding to the “second shift” that still falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, often expected to perform endless hours of unpaid domestic labour after clocking off from work.

Julie’s day-to-day life would be gruelling enough were it not for a transit strike that serves as a backdrop to her struggle. It makes her late for work and late to pick up her children from their childminder, Madame Lusigny, forcing her to hitchhike or pay for taxis that she can’t afford while she waits for her (all too absent) ex-husband to pay alimony and take some responsibility. Still, she views the strikes almost as a rogue weather phenomenon, never blaming them for her troubles but never showing any solidarity either, (let alone succumbing to the thought of why she can’t go on strike herself). This is all-too obviously a dog-eat-world where a workforce is both exploited and taken for granted; cornered though she is, the individualism that drives Julie’s actions leads to the firing of another single mother.

The frenetic editing of scenes that see Julie sprinting from terminal to terminal through seething crowds and traffic jams, barely keeping her cool as further delays and cancellations of service are announced, never relents, and her work routine is shot at the same level of intensity. The pulsing Minimal soundtrack by Irène Drésel matches the rhythm of rapid-fire close-ups showing Julie changing into her uniform, making beds, fluffing pillows, scrubbing toilets, and so on, all of which provides a palpable contrast to the rare scenes in which she gets an all-too brief breather. Any moments of hope are quickly snuffed out, notably a meeting with a fellow parent (and the only character with any direct relation to the strikes) who gently rejects her advances, which he rightly interprets as an act of desperation rather than passion; here and elsewhere, Calamy’s performance deftly captures the moment-by-moment collapse of Julie’s composure. There’s a bitterly ironic edge to the fact that her job transposes the domestic labour she performs at home to a hotel—domestic space in its most alienated form; that both Julie’s boss at the hotel and her job interviewer at the marketing firm are women suggests that it’s capitalism, rather than sexism, that’s at the root of everyone’s troubles. The ending for me is by far the weakest bit of the film, unfortunately - if it had concluded about thirty seconds before it does, ie, before we hear what the substance of a phone call is, then it would have been even better. Nevertheless, very impressive work.

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Joyland

Brave and sensitive study of gender and sexuality in modern Pakistan

(Edit) 14/02/2024

That a country like Pakistan could produce a film like Joyland is, in itself, pretty remarkable. The centre of the film’s story — of an unorthodox, extra-marital relationship between a married man and trans woman — unpredictably caused a huge stir in its country of origin, where conservative religious values hold sway and LGBTQ rights remain woefully backwards: the film ended up being banned by the government there, only to be unbanned (with some scenes censored) after voices as loud as Amnesty International and Malala Yousafzai spoke up.

From an 'objective' point of view, the film is a thoughtful, nuanced and sensitive story, and a deeply considered exploration of how modern ideas of gender and sexuality sit awkwardly in a rigidly traditional society that still expects marriages to be arranged and men to be breadwinners, women to be homemakers. It is, above anything else, a well - pitched character study, told with a formidable ensemble of actors, and a script that treats each role with respect and consideration. Most impressive by far is Alina Khan as Biba, depicted as a transgender woman with real agency and power, in a culture that can treat her like a second-class citizen. She is tough and sharp-tongued — we get brief glimpses of Lahore’s khwaja sira (“third gender”) community that supports and sustains her — but vulnerable and flawed, too. Khan is an amazing find: making her feature debut here (like many on the cast list), her screen presence is very powerful indeed, and means that we can easily see how Haider (Ali Junejo) soon falls under Biba’s spell. Under pressure from his father to meet certain societal expectations (get a job, provide a son), Haider accepts a gig at an erotic dance show, initially, it seems, just to prove he’s not a washout. He is a gentle soul and, it’s implied, somewhere on the gay spectrum — but his extra-marital affair with Biba is played out without sensationalism. He is tenderly protective of Biba, while also grappling with a sexual and romantic desire he doesn’t fully comprehend. In another, more 'soapy' film, Haider’s wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq, also very good, and another feature first-timer) might have been little more than a ‘wronged-woman’ caricature, but she gets layers to her, too: trapped by the patriarchal system that suffocates her own desires.

However, Mumtaz becomes the unexpected focus of the film’s final act, and therein lies the film's major problem, for it takes an unexpectedly tragic turn with the result that, after all the subtlety of what came before, the film’s conclusion is unduly melodramatic and thus of course significantly undermines its power. Nevertheless, a brave and impressive work.

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Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

Many qualities but ultimately rather simplistic and lacking nuance

(Edit) 14/02/2024

This one's an expansive documentary essay on the gendered nature of film language by Nina Menkes. Using over 175 snippets of footage from scores of films, as well as interviews with filmmakers such as Joey Soloway, Julie Dash, and Catherine Hardwicke, among others, it represents a slickly assembled collage that seeks to illustrate Menkes’ “understandings about shot design and the established cinematic canon,” to quote her directly. Clearly made with the best of intentions, unfortunately however the film is founded on a rather simplistic and weakly argued thesis that doesn't do justice to the many waves of feminist film theory in academic circles. In essence, Menkes proposes here a watered-down version of Laura Mulvey’s ideas about the “male gaze,” a term Mulvey coined in her foundational 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (although to her credit Menkes dispenses with much of the juicy psychoanalytic language about phallocentrism and scopophilia Mulvey retconned from Freud).

'Brainwashed' has many qualities, not least many interesting interviewees, but the presence of a solid theoretical framework is not one of its virtues. Menkes takes that central, so-basic-it’s-banal notion about who does the looking in film, and who is looked at, in order to mount a critique of the quintessentially patriarchal nature of film language. Which is fine as far as it goes, but the thesis here is ultimately so reductive and lacking in nuance that presents a number of problems, not least of which is that the model can’t cope with films made by female directors who don’t fit Menkes’ strictures. Cheryl Dunye’s extreme close-ups of two women making love in The Watermelon Woman gets a pass of course, but Sofia Coppola’s long held shot of Scarlett Johansson’s derriere in the opening minutes of Lost in Translation is for her too much like the male gaze, whilst Kathryn Bigelow earns recognition for being the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, but gets dinged for hiring all men to supervise the key craft contributions. The film is more persuasive when it engages with the realpolitik of the film industry, addressing the innate and persistent sexism in Hollywood specifically that’s challenged and humiliated filmmakers from Rosanna Arquette to Penelope Spheeris. Fellow director and activist Maria Giese talks informatively about efforts to use the 1964 Civil Rights Act to find a legal path to reducing discrimination against women in the industry, a topic that deserves a documentary all its own, and Ita Obrien also helps to move the discussion into the 21st century given how filmmakers now can make films that express a female or even non-binary gaze, the latter a particular concern of Soloway’s.

It’s frustrating therefore that these lines of inquiry aren’t pursued fully; instead, the bulk of the film consists of offering up yet more clips from canonical male voyeuristic fare. There are undoubtedly many to choose from, but equally a fair few scenes selected here are analysed in isolation from the rest of the films in which they are from. For example, she demonstrates the 'man as subject, woman as object' shot through a scene from “Phantom Thread,” insisting that it implies that Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock has power over Vicky Krieps' Alma, but had she bothered to study this in relation to the context of the entire film, we would see how director Paul Thomas Anderson then flips this visual language, along with the power structure of Woodcock and Alma’s relationship, by the end of the film (I'm sure Menkes knows this, so I'm afraid she's guilty of simply choosing to ignore something that doesn't fit the thesis, which is unworthy of her). Needless to say, the film also has no time to explore the complexity of desire the way, for instance, Mulvey herself did in one of her other seminal essays which explored female spectatorship. All in all, a bit of a disappointment.

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Blue Jean

Empathetic portrait of self-acceptance

(Edit) 10/02/2024

This very absorbing piece by first-time writer-director Georgia Oakley takes (an admittedly non-too-subtle) aim at Section 28, introduced by Thatcher’s government in the 80s, which effectively enshrined homophobia into law, preventing teachers from the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools, and fostering a climate of mistrust and fear that arguably continued well into the current generation. The message is conveyed via a knotty, complex character study of PE teacher Jean (newcomer Rosy McEwen - superb throughout), and is generally successful of providing an empathetic portrait of a life lived in secret, and all the strains that brings on the journey to self-acceptance. On screen in pretty much every scene, McEwan balances the vulnerability of her stresses with a worldly poise and calm, and Oakley takes care, too, to show a gay life that feels rich and lived-in — from the simple exhilaration of a boozy, smoky gay pub, bound by the safety and welcoming of that community, to the everyday curtain-twitching of the wider community, automatically suspicious of difference. Unfortunately for me, the film attempts a bridge too far when trying to deal with the effects of a teacher-pupil attachment, the ramifications of which are treated rather superficially; Jean's actions amount to stalking at one point (which in 'real life' could easily have got her arrested) and generally the effects of Jean's actions on 15-year old Lois are both barely touched on and all-too neatly resolved, which left something of a bitter taste for my liking. Nevertheless, a serious, thoughtful piece.

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Small Body

Compelling study of a journey of spiritual redemption

(Edit) 09/02/2024

This debut feature from Laura Samani is a hard watch at times, but compelling viewing nevertheless. Agata (beautifully played by Celeste Cescutti) is a young woman who gives birth to a stillborn child on the coast of Veneto in North East Italy in a deeply religious community where the priest emphatically states that the unbaptised baby is now in limbo where she will stay for eternity. The year is nominally 1900 but with their tradition the fishing village could just as easily be in the Middle Ages; Agata only given hope when she is told of a sanctuary in the mountains where unbaptised babies are briefly and miraculously brought back to life for one breath – time enough, given this mentality, for the baby to be baptised and thus saved.

The film has the rooted magic of a folktale as Agata straps the small coffin to her back and sets off on her epic journey to the mountains in the north, where she is joined by Lynx (Ondina Quadri), who becomes an unlikely companion and whose story also gets woven into the action (if less successfully). Samani and her co-writers use Friulian dialect throughout, a language that can change from one village to the next; these are lives for the most part lived in one place and deeply connected to the land or in Agata’s case the sea, something Lynx has never seen, whilst Agata is in a world she barely understands. Cinematographer Mitja Licen’s camera follows close at Agata’s heels for the beginning of the journey but as it goes on the movement widens to include the landscape and the film takes on a genuine sense of grandeur when the mountains finally loom into the frame. A sequence where their journey takes us under a mountain sees Luca Bertolin’s sound design come to the fore as underground winds blow through the tunnels, whilst composer Fredrika Stahl, using folk songs to great effect, provides a score that becomes increasingly beautiful as the film goes on and is a reminder of a time when the only culture available was music you made yourself. It is ultimately a film about a personal grief which gradually, step by step, takes on a mythic resonance, and the last twenty minutes are truly astonishing. Very powerful stuff indeed.

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The Eternal Daughter

Engaging mother-and-daughter psychological drama

(Edit) 07/02/2024

Joanna Hogg's latest is very much a minor piece compared to her usual fayre, but is still engaging, mainly because of Tilda Swinton's 'double' performance both as filmmaker Julie and her aging mother Rosalind. The setting is a remote Welsh hotel which used to belong to Rosalind’s aunt Jocelyn, and where Rosalind stayed at various points during her past, and as with “The Souvenir,” Hogg’s outstanding two-part meta-textual memoir, the film is as much about an artist’s fickle relationship with her own creativity — and her struggle with the ethics of co-opting stories that do not necessarily belong to her — as it is about any interpersonal bond. However, here the film's power is perhaps diminished rather than enhanced by the (rather cliched) 'haunted house' motifs, with the result that after a while it starts to feel like an unnecessarily drawn-out wait for a 'big reveal' that you can see coming from a mile off. Nevertheless, there's still much to enjoy - as well as Swinton, there's a wonderfully surly, border-line hostile hotel receptionist (a pitch-perfect Carly-Sophia Davis), who couldn’t more obviously care less about Julie’s quite reasonable requests, and the sense of entrapment in pragmatic English reserve, where mother and daughter exchange halting pleasantries and little acts of care by day, while Julie roams the maze-like corridors and the misty grounds of the hotel by night, is nicely done. In its best moments, including an excruciating passive-aggressive/affectionate-aggravated birthday dinner, and a couple of exchanges with the hotel’s genial concierge Bill, there is some good insights into the vast and yawning gulf between the conversations we would like to have with our mothers and daughters, and the ones we actually end up having. Sometimes, no matter how resolved you are to reach down into the inexpressibly profound depths of your mutual love, guilt and remorse, all you can ever actually dredge up is some comment about the niceness of the marmalade or prettiness of the wrapping paper. Dog-lovers' hearts will also melt over the film’s most important supporting actor: Louis, Rosalind’s faithful spaniel, who steals whole scenes. Much more to come from Hogg, I hope.

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My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock

Quirky but engaging and discerning study of Hitchcock's films

(Edit) 23/01/2024

Prolific documentarian Mark Cousins latest is a love letter to one of cinema’s towering greats. The opening credits announce that the film was “written and voiced by Alfred Hitchcock”, but the first sound of that voice on the soundtrack, however familiar its adenoidal depths and Cockney slants, immediately sparks doubt, and in fact the master of suspense is voiced by English impressionist Alistair McGowan. Once we’ve got past this ventriloquist conceit — that Hitchcock, addressing Cousins and us, is revisiting his body of work from the perspective of the smartphone-tethered 21st century — the film succeeds in engaging us with Cousins’ typically sharp connections as he delves into the visual language of Hitchcock’s creations, the many narrative motifs and inventive strategies as well some of their key themes.

As “Hitchcock” notes, his films have been analysed every which way and back, and Cousins’ fresh approach divides the work into six sections, an elegant capsule melding existential questions with the practical challenges and opportunities of big-screen storytelling. The first chapter, Escape, is the longest, and from there the film moves through Desire, Loneliness, Time and Fulfilment, culminating with Height (as in an elevated sense of perspective), and this proves a very good way of exploring Hitchcock's work. Biographical elements mainly serve as a complement to the stories they tell; he doesn’t second-guess or dismantle the films as much as zero in on what makes them tick. We are reminded that Hitchcock, unfairly generally dismissed as a mere entertainer, was wielding radical methods, the film particularly good as showing how he escaped the conventions of drama, replacing them with hyperrealities, not unlike his beloved Cezanne in his own field.

For the Hitchcock-curious, Cousins’ film easily could serve as an introduction to his work, but for fans it also casts a new light on scenes you may have seen many times - laying bare for example the ache in Norman Bates’ philosophical musings, or the charged space around Hitchcock's many lonely characters. It finds rhymes between the phone booth in The Birds and the shower in Psycho, and links the blinding orange afterglow of flashbulbs in Rear Window, on a soundstage facsimile of Greenwich Village, to A-bomb tests in the desert on the other side of the continent. No Hitchcock fan needs reminding that the best of his movies are endlessly, insistently watchable. And yet, viewed through the prism of this discerning film, it’s remarkable how affecting the images still are. Wielding the camera as voyeur, detective and tense-shuffling “time phantom,” Hitchcock unfailingly draws us in. Most enjoyable.

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The Lost Weekend: A Love Story

Engaging and often moving documentary from May Pang

(Edit) 23/12/2023

Unfortunately, the usual version of events has made the ‘Lost Weekend’ of 1973-4 into a sort of blip in Lennon’s life, equivalent to some sort of one-night ‘fling’ with the secretary before resuming reality. This of course is a travesty of the truth.

The film is told entirely from May Pang's point of view and is a diary-like account of how her relationship with John played out week by week, emotion by emotion. On that score it does very well indeed, offering us a fascinating and often moving account of Lennon unmoored, trying to find himself in a world whose adulation he both courted and couldn't deal with. The film is also successful at revealing May's sincere love for John, and how they became convivial companions, their relationship rooted in a genuine mutual affection and in Lennon's discovery that he didn't have to live in a way that was always chained to his legend. There’s amazing archival material throughout, which gives us brief glimpses sense of what Lennon was like away from the limelight - including the dark side, which is very much in evidence. We hear for example Pang’s stories about how Lennon, in a drunken fit, smashed up their place in L.A., and how he would hit her sometimes (Lennon’s violent tendencies in general and against women in particular have generally been airbrushed out of his story after his murder). But according to Pang, the tales of Lennon’s misbehaviour were more the exception than the rule, and she accentuates all the positives - it’s no coincidence for example that during the period he was able to build a relationship with his son Julian, and also able to reconcile with Beatle Paul – it’s really moving to see the two former Beatles bury the acrimony and rediscover their friendship, even to the extent of being on the brink of working together again.

According to Pang, it was Yoko herself who deliberately set the whole thing up - having observed John’s infidelity, Yoko figured that she would let him stray with a woman she could control (even by her standards, a decision of seriously weird manipulation). However, Pang insists also that it wasn’t Yoko’s idea that the two of them move to L.A.; that, she claims, was an impulsive move on John’s part, who clearly had ‘serious’ feelings for her. And so began a distinctly odd three-way relationship, with Yoko attempting to manage it from a distance with persistent phone calls and May gradually being convinced that John wanted to be with her. The documentary chronicles how after about a year there (we often forget of course that this was no ‘weekend’), they returned to New York, moving into a small apartment, where they lived until the first months of 1975 and how they were talking of buying a house together in Montauk. But of course Yoko had never entirely been removed from the picture. There are many moments in the film when Yoko does not come off well — notably in Pang’s description of how Yoko attempted to cut off Lennon’s relationship with Julian, who is interviewed throughout the film; that Pang helped to bring John and Julian back together is obvious. But what doesn’t seem convincing is the final twist. After John goes back to Yoko, and Pang confronts him about it, he says, quite simply: ‘She’s letting me come back’. Letting him? That doesn’t square with what the film has implied — that Lennon had drifted away from Yoko; his comment suggests that their separation was always contingent on an understanding between them. But that’s something we’d have to guess at, and although May says that she and John kept seeing each other during what proved to be the last years of his life, we rather too suddenly skip to the fateful events of 1980, thus leaving many questions unanswered.

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel for May and what might have been, both for her and for the world. The film is no more than a slice of a bigger piece of history, but is a very engaging story of a truly remarkable, very likeable woman.

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Godland

Ambitious and accomplished colonial tale

(Edit) 17/07/2023

This one probably isn't for you if a) you don't like long films in which nothing much happens or b) have a particular affection for horses, but Icelandic writer-director Hlynur Pálmason's latest is an ambitious and accomplished piece as he attempts to see his homeland through outside eyes, namely, the Danes who claimed it from the late 19th century. At once visually mesmerising and emotionally austere, the film takes the country’s colonialist past as its subject, pitting a late-19th-century man of faith against a force far stronger than him: a kind of Arctic 'There Will Be Blood.'

In the opening scene, Lutheran priest Lucas (brilliantly played by Elliott Crosset Hove) is sent by the Church of Denmark to establish a parish in Iceland, but it's immediately clear that he's not at all prepared for what lies ahead. Sincere and devout he may be, but the journey (which takes up the first hour of the film) breaks him the same way that Africa did Kurtz in 'Heart of Darkness,' (an obvious reference). Lucas is proactively curious, he carries a camera and pauses often to document his surroundings (we’re told at the outset that the film was inspired by seven historic photographs taken by a Danish priest, the first to document the country’s southeastern coast), but remains incongruously ridiculous among the strong, sturdy, practical men around him. When Lucas finally reaches his destination, a fellow Dane named Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann, a great performance neatly balancing hospitality and menace) asks him, “Why the long journey, when you could have just sailed here?” Quite. Lucas intended the arduous detour as a way of appreciating Iceland, but instead, the trek merely turns him against it - a clear indictment of colonial enterprises.

After the vast, unforgiving landscapes of the first hour, the rest of the film is by contrast much more claustrophobic as it focuses on Lucas' interaction with the locals and his growing resentment of them and especially his former guide Ragnar, who he treats the way conquistadors did the Natives, as somehow subhuman. The language barrier between them serves as one of the film’s key themes, and often doesn't translate well via subtitles: Pálmason gives the film two names — “Vanskabte Land” in Danish, “Volaða land” in Icelandic — and neither means “Godland.” These titles overtly refer to a poem by Matthías Jochumsson called “Wretched Land,” which tore into a place he couldn’t abide. Lucas wrestles with similar feelings toward Iceland, and his behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable as the film goes on - another of the film's unifying themes is the egocentrism of masculinity. At Carl’s table, Lucas is drawn to Carl’s eldest daughter, Anna, but appears dazed and seems to have forgotten how to pray, whilst Anna’s slightly wild younger sister Ida (excellently played by the director’s daughter, Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) merely perplexes him. Here, in this small, hardy community, Lucas is the proverbial fish out of water, having forgotten the bishop’s advice at the outset: for the mission to be a success, he must adapt to the locals and their customs. He is absolutely incapable of it.

All of this is enormously rich material to work with, rendered all the more engaging by the surroundings, and although Pálmason doesn’t make anything easy, he has a most unique sense of pacing, devoting months if not years to capturing images of a single location under changing conditions. As in 'A White, White Day,' there’s a time-lapse element here, as, for example, when the director features an overhead shot of a decomposing horse. Amongst all this there's some wonderful touches - a story about some mating eels and mass infidelity is haunting, whilst Lucas' opening turn in his role as a priest in his newly-built church is bleakly hilarious. Much to admire for those with time and patience!

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Tár

Gripping and original emotional epic

(Edit) 17/02/2023

Todd Field's highly original emotional epic, part psychological thriller, part character study, concerns the downfall of a world-famous conductor, superbly played by Cate Blanchett. The film is at its best in channelling a distinct sense of Kubrick-style unease as it charts the slow, tortuous unmaking of Tar, her seeming invincibility being of course precisely what leads to her downfall. It's basically a film about the corruption of power and the dichotomy of genius, although Field also attempts (rather less successfully) to include such topical themes as cancel culture and the #metoo movement. The film is mercifully not a manifesto, and cleverly eschews conventional narrative, and although it sometimes resorts to lazy shorthand in conveying the details of the protagonist's dilemmas, Blanchett's performance is compelling throughout, and particularly effective for me are the surreal elements that appear unexpectedly during the tale, which often effectively reveal a burdened conscience. Despite its length (over two and a half hours) no minute feels wasted, and indeed it is the last section that is particularly engaging, with an unexpected ending which is both quirky and tragic. Gripping stuff.

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Alcarràs

Engaging, quietly tragic rural family realist drama

(Edit) 21/12/2023

Shifting from the delicate childhood memories that shaped her impressive 2017 feature debut, 'Summer 1993', Carla Simón expands her scope to take in a more extended fictional family portrait with no loss of personal investment in a stirring ensemble piece. The film is named for the village in Spain where the Catalan director’s people have cultivated peaches for generations; it’s cast with non-professional actors whose deep roots in that agrarian culture inform their flawless natural performances. The result is a heartfelt drama about the wrenching clash between traditional agriculture and industry. The prevailing mood is one of melancholy for a way of life under threat and stability abruptly upended, but this is tempered throughout by gratitude for the beauty and bounty of land whose people are no less nurtured by the soil and the sun than the orchard they tend.

Simón lulls us into a false sense of happy harmony by opening with three excitable children (their carefree, 'sod health-and-safety' existence is a delight to watch) playing a raucous spaceship game in a broken-down car, but when a crane appears to tow the wreck, we learn that the Solé clan, who have farmed the property since the Spanish Civil War, are on borrowed time, for the landowner, Pinyol, has made an agreement with an alternative energy company to replace the trees with solar panels. The ingenuous Solé patriarch, Rogelio, is still convinced that a spoken agreement with Pinyol’s ancestors seals their rights, whilst his son-in-law Cisco and his wife Nati are more pragmatic, already cozying up to Pinyol for employment and causing a rift in the family. It’s not immediately easy to figure out who’s who and clarify all the connections, but the overlapping hubbub of the dialogue and the swiftly established network of fondness and frictions make the cast entirely convincing as a tight-knit family.

The anchoring centre of the ensemble is Rogelio’s son Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet), who accepts his family’s fate with proud indignation, throwing all his energy into drawing maximum yield from the final harvest. That means leaning more on his teenage children Roger and Mariona for labour, whilst Quimet’s wife Dolors attempts with no-nonsense efficiency to keep the loving but quarrelsome family together, as does his sister Glòria. The signs of a shift away from the family’s roots are already evident in rebellious Roger, secretly cultivating cannabis plants, and the often-petulant Mariona, rehearsing a dance routine to perform at the village fiesta. But neither of the adolescents is untouched by the sobering threat of change, and the film delicately explores, without any melodrama, how the various tensions rippling through her family are not lost even on the youngest children.

The inevitability of the Solés' fate is sorrowfully indicated by the constant arrival of delivery trucks and the initial stages of solar panel installation on the land bordering the orchard; the devaluing of history is also subtlety symbolized by Pinyol’s indifference to the fact that his wealthy family was hidden and protected during the war by the Solés. Rendered powerless to stop the cruel hand of progress, the family acknowledges their suddenly uncertain future while drawing whatever fortification they can from the land that’s nourished them. This is most evident in bearish Quimet, played by Dolcet with the infectious warmth and coiled strength of an everyman type - watching him arrange snails on a grill and cover them with dried grass to be smoked and eaten at a big, jovial family lunch where everyone ends up in the pool is just one example of his appreciation for the life that has sustained them. His tears when when his impatience costs them a part of the harvest carry a real sting, whilst his exultant win in a wine-guzzling contest at the town festival gives him a moment of cathartic release, a victory in face of defeat. A beautiful, engaging, quietly-tragic piece.

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L'immensità

Beautifully realised and affecting autobiographical childhood drama

(Edit) 10/12/2023

Emanuele Crialese’s autobiographical film, set in early 70s Rome, focuses on preteen, Adri (beautifully played by Luana Giuliani), and in particular her relationship with her mother Clara (Penélope Cruz). Cruz is perhaps rather too incongruously beautiful for the part, but remains largely convincing nevertheless, particularly in the scenes where she throws off social convention and we see the charismatic, free-spirit underneath the housewife.

The film deals with some success Adri's having to cope with not only the usual various teenage angst, but also a web of intersecting inequities, including domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and class prejudice. By turns wry and tragic, but never glib or sentimental, this is a visually rich and evocative drama about navigating the often treacherous path to adulthood. In an early scene, Giuliani’s character tells her mother that she’s 'Andrew', but seems to have compromised with her and the other adults in his life on the reasonably gender-ambiguous “Adri.” She never explicitly expresses a preference for masculine pronouns, but it could hardly be clearer that Adri thinks of herself as a boy, and she begins living a secret, second life among people who perceive her as male, notably a girl called Sara, with whom Adri begins a teenaged flirtation that allows her to truly be Andrew, at least for temporary stretches. And she soon has additional reason to escape her family’s well-apportioned but emotionally cramped apartment, as her parents’ marriage is crumbling, and her father, Felice, is becoming increasingly abusive (these scenes are a very hard watch at times, but generally very well handled). Meanwhile, Cialese styles the Sara subplot as Andri’s most material fantastical escape to a realm where the identities people are tied to in everyday life dissipate, and Black-and-white television is another such transitory non-place. In a wonderful, surreal dancing scene roughly half-way through, a mother-daughter/son collaboration is quite wonderful, but we are made aware that this can only be fully realised in fantasy in by a later scene where Clara attempts to join Adri and his cousins playing underneath a giant dining table but is rebuffed by Adri, who reminds her that she should be with the adults. Adri finds it very difficult to process the fact that some adults can't seem to ever grow up.

Giuliani is quite excellent as the steely eyed but deeply sensitive Adri, simmering with an angst that typically isn’t voiced in a deeply Catholic community within which he and her family live. One sees in Giuliani’s sullen, knowing glares the way Adri has already begun to choose their battles—to, effectively, save the trauma for later in order to survive the moment. Adri has reached that period of early teenagedom in which adults haven’t quite clocked the child’s enhanced understanding of their environs. “What’s more important: What’s on the inside, or what’s on the outside?” she asks his science teacher when the latter explains, in reference to cell anatomy, that inside everything is something different. Growing more perceptive with experience, Adri takes on much of the burden as her family begins to crumble. The immensity referred to in the title may be this burden, but Cialese intermingles the story’s heavier stuff with a lively sense of childlike wonder, so that the occasional dips toward melodrama never feel unduly onerous. The ending is by far the weakest part of the film for me, but this is a nevertheless a very affecting piece indeed.

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Past Lives

Thoughtful, bittersweet drama

(Edit) 08/12/2023

Whether minor or major, the millions of decisions we make form the winding path of our lives, and specific reasons for taking certain forks in the road can often be lost to the sea of time. A not-quite-romance in three parts crossing nearly a quarter-century, playwright Celine Song’s directorial debut examines such universal experience with keen cultural specificity, telling the story of childhood friends who twice reconnect later in life. It’s a warm, patient film culminating in a quietly powerful, reflective finale.

It begins in Seoul, introducing Na Young and Hae Sung as primary school classmates forming a playful bond before the former’s family move to Canada. With no contact for 12 years, we then jump in time after Hae Sung finishes his mandatory military service and, per Korean tradition, moves back with his family as he begins engineering school. Na Young, now 'Nora' (Greta Lee - very good indeed), has meanwhile embarked to NYC to launch her career as an author in the midst of an MFA program. They reconnect thanks to the halcyon days of digital-chat Facebook, and so begins a flirtatious, long-distance relationship, although this section rather lacks emotional weight, being underwritten and simplified as if Song can’t wait to jump to the final, longest, and most rewarding section of her film.

This third part presents an opportunity for the childhood sweethearts to reconnect physically for the first time in 24 years. As the weight of what could have been hangs over, a wistful and bittersweet reunion commences, Song beautifully conveying the vast passage of time and how much the circumstances of our lives can change while we still carry the same yearning souls, their interaction fond yet distant as we witness two people now shaped by entirely different circumstances in their most formative years. This dichotomy is wonderfully realised by Song in both their cultural differences and ways their long, furtive glances say more than words ever could, as if every stare makes up for years of being apart. We're left with the question of whether Nora does actually have a connection with Hae Sung, someone she now barely knows, or whether is he just representative of life she never got to experience, the symbolic ghost of a country left behind.

Song delicately juggles such questions of identity and longing in a powerful moment at the film’s conclusion as our lead considers if the life she leads is 'meant to be'. While taking its title from the Korean belief of In Yun––wherein the connections people make in this life are actually the culmination of thousands of others from past lives––it’s joked at one point that this profound idea is often used as a seduction tactic for courting. That gentle sense of wit, mixing the philosophical and the personal, sums up the film's power. Rather than instilling anxiety in contemplating another path one could’ve taken, Song provides comfort by suggesting everyone’s journey is uniquely their own. Thoughtful work.

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Oppenheimer

Powerful historical epic

(Edit) 28/11/2023

This very lengthy but powerful and watchable film about the man who created the atomic bomb slices and dices chronology, psychodrama, scientific inquiry, political backstabbing, and history in roughly equal measure. Cillian Murphy gives a superb performance as Oppenheimer, making him fascinating and multi-layered: his “Oppie” is an elegant mandarin who’s also a bit snakelike — at once a cold prodigy and an ardent humanist, a Jewish outsider who becomes a consummate insider, and a man who oversees the invention of nuclear weapons without a shred of doubt or compunction, only to confront the world he created from behind a defensive shield of guilt that’s a lot less self-aware.

The film opens with a flash forward to the 1954 hearing of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission that ultimately resulted in Oppenheimer accused (among other things) of having hidden Communist ties, being stripped of his security clearance. This was the government’s way of silencing him, since in the postwar world he’d become something of a dove on the issue of nuclear weapons, a view that didn’t mesh with America’s Cold War stance of aggression. The film keeps returning to the hearing, weaving it deep into the fabric of its three-hour running time. As Oppenheimer defends himself in front of a committee of hanging judges, the film uses his anecdotes to flash back in time, and Nolan creates a hypnotic multi-tiered storytelling structure, using it to tease out the hidden continuities that shaped Oppenheimer’s life. We see how the Cold War really started before World War II was over — it was always there, shaping the paranoia of atom-bomb politics. We see that Oppenheimer the ruthless nuclear zealot and Oppenheimer the mystic idealist were one and the same. And we see that the race to complete the Manhattan Project, rooted in the makeshift creation of a small desert city that Oppenheimer presides over in Los Alamos, meant that the momentum of the nuclear age was already taking on a life of its own.

The film has a mesmerising first half, encompassing everything from Oppenheimer’s mysterious Princeton encounter with Albert Einstein to his far from utopian marriage to the alcoholic Kitty (played with some force by Emily Blunt). Just about everything we see is stunning in its accuracy, for this isn’t a film that traffics in composite characters or audience-friendly arcs; Nolan channels the grain of reality, the fervour and detail of what really happened. Meanwhile, the build-up to the creation of the first atomic bomb ticks with cosmic suspense, but the big bang itself, when it finally arrives, is something of an anti-climax as Nolan shows it impressionistically — the sound cutting out, images of what look like radioactive hellfire. Thus the terrifying awesomeness, the nightmare bigness of it all, does not come across, nor does it evoke the descriptions of witnesses who say that the blast was streaked with purple and grey and was many times brighter than the noonday sun. The Japanese experience is, perhaps inevitably, largely side-stepped, and although it's hinted at that bombing the defeated Japanese was less to save American lives and more designed to cow the Russians with a ruthless demonstration of the US’s nuclear mastery, the concentration on the effects of this on Oppenheimer seems rather morally incongruous given the forces unleashed. And once we're past that nuclear climax, the intensity rather subsides - we’re still at the A.E.C. hearing (after two hours), with an Oppenheimer who is now fighting the invention of the more powerful hydrogen bomb, as if it were some utterly different weapon from the one he created, and who is desperate to rein in the existence of nuclear weapons in general, but forgetting the key lesson of the revolution he was at the centre of: that human beings will always be at the mercy of what science makes possible.

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Barbie

Enjoyable and often funny, if ultimately too light on its feminist philosophy

(Edit) 29/10/2023

This enjoyable film is largely carried by its feminist philosophy, and features a very good, impassioned monologue delivered by America Ferrara (who plays a Mattel employee with a surly, anti-Barbie tween daughter) that lays out the many ways in which women are forever in conflict with themselves and within their societies. However, ultimately director Greta Gerwig rather shies away from dealing with this core theme in any great depth, instead urging her audience toward accepting that the best way to be in a broken world is by simply being yourself, whoever that may be - a fair enough sentiment, sure, but hardly a hard-hitting one. The film thus pushes its hero, and (less successfully) Ken, into that exploration and then leaves them to it, dropping all the clashes over patriarchy and corporate feminism in favour of a more palatable message about individualism.

Gerwig seems to take the view that her film can really only tickle and mildly provoke, and that it’s mostly there to be amusing - which it is, albeit more gently than I think was intended. There are a few laugh-out-loud gags in the film, but just as many jokes, if not more, clunk around like cheap plastic, whilst the script is so strenuously wacky that it runs the movie ragged pretty quickly. The film is willing to tease its commercial mission and its overlords, but really only if it is followed by a “hey, we’re just having fun here” pat of reassurance. And whilst Margot Robbie gamely commits to whatever bit is put in front of her in any given scene, she has as much trouble following Barbie’s emotional throughline as we in the audience do, whilst as the film heads into its third act it becomes just as much Ryan Gosling’s show, which is much less funny, and even less entertaining.

There is plenty here to enjoy, and it's not surprising that the film was a massive hit, cheered for turning a cynical I.P. project into a loopy treatise on being. But for me it could have been much stickier, more probing and indelible, if it had reined in some of its erratic energy and really figured out what it wanted to say about its key feminist theme.

2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.
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