Film Reviews by WS

Welcome to WS's film reviews page. WS has written 37 reviews and rated 365 films.

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The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog - a review

(Edit) Updated 08/12/2021

It’s 1925, and the West is no longer the "Wild West". The trappings of modernity - radio, recorded sound, and magazines - are starting to seep into everyday life even in remote rural Montana. Brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) are prosperous ranchers who, whilst on a cattle drive, spend the night at an inn run by the widowed Rose Gordon and waited upon by her effete, toothpick-thin son, Peter. George asks Rose to marry him, and she moves into the mansion the brothers share, much to the disapproval of the supercilious and sarcastic Phil, who despises her as a gold-digger. The arrangement works out well for Peter, who is able to enrol in medical school with George's money, but Phil starts to wage psychological warfare on Rose, undermining her already fragile mental state. He mocks her piano-playing skills and stymies her attempts to improve by playing the banjo in the next room.

Eventually Phil takes a shine to Peter, who turns out to have far more iron in his soul than his fragile physique and soft demeanour would suggest. He teaches the boy to ride and starts plaiting him a rawhide rope, promising him that when it's finished he'll teach him how to use it, and they go on a trek together into the wilderness. Rose, meanwhile, steadily disintegrates, becoming an alcoholic.

This film requires the viewer's undivided attention, as plot points and the characters' motives aren't always clearly signposted. The sublime New Zealand landscape stands in well for the Rocky Mountains, and we get a masterful performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as a hyper-confident lone wolf. Whilst not altogether a likeable character, he has some good qualities - he's hard-working, focussed, sober and has no desire to ingratiate himself with his social superiors. What I found particularly fascinating about this film was its edgy and politically-incorrect take on masculinity. There are surely echoes of "Fight Club" here - remember where Tyler Durden says "We're a generation raised by women...I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need"? This sums up Phil's attitude and even that of the film - that women are a demoralising, strength-sapping influence on young men. "Don't let your mother turn you into a sissy!" Phil exhorts the young lad. It is not clear whether we, the viewer, are meant to sympathise with this intensely male-centred worldview, or see it as nihilistic and self-destructive.

I've no intrinsic objection to films that are atmosphere- rather than plot-led, or those that rely heavily on using established genre tropes in an apparently unironic way. But I found the limited character development to be less than satisfying. Phil, a man with no unmet needs and nothing to prove, is really more like a force of nature than a human being, so in his case, the fact that he doesn't evolve or progress isn't really a shortcoming - “change” for him would be a fracture. But it’s a little perplexing that George stays so passive in the face of Rose’s increasing dipsomania and depression. And we don’t really get any sense of how Peter’s ambitions or sense of self have evolved as a result of his experiences. So, it's hardly a "coming of age" story, either.

I also found the brothers' backstory to be sketchy and unconvincing. I can easily imagine Phil (who we learn is a university graduate) as a self-sufficiency nut, spurning a predictable middle-class life to become a rancher. Not so the mild-mannered, bowler-hatted George, who looks every inch an insurance actuary. We never see him doing any manual work and it's not clear what he contributes to the enterprise or why the men put up with each other.

An intellectually stimulating film but one that left me feeling emotionally disengaged, I’m undecided between "quite" and "very good". Seeing as it’s got a 95% critics’ approval rating, and I’m in a contrarian mood, I think I’ll round it down to 3 stars.

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Night of the Kings

Minor spoiler - the chicken lives!

(Edit) 04/12/2021

In the basement of a dark and labyrinthine prison, to which he has been sent for an as yet unspecified crime, the new arrival – or “Roman” – is instructed to mount a podium and tell a story that will last until dawn, and told that failure will mean certain death. The Roman’s tale - an account of the life and career of a gang leader known as the Zama King - is blatantly fictionalised, beginning in what appears to be pre-colonial West Africa and containing other impossible elements such as a duel between two sorcerers, but in its later chapters it moves to present-day Abidjan and is interwoven with the country’s political upheavals circa 2010. His fellow inmates, who presumably want the Roman to believe that the threat of execution is real, but don’t want to have to kill him because that would deprive them of their only source of entertainment, help him out, embellishing his performance with close-harmony singing and interpretative dance. The story-within-story is brought to life on screen in a way that draws upon a number of genres and cinematic styles – costume drama, epic, fantasy, neorealism and newsreel footage.

The jail scenes are very atmospheric and menacing, and I was highly impressed by the production design, camerawork, and Kone's performance as the reluctant raconteur. We normally think of the dominant mood in prisons as being one of fatalism and apathy, but here it is one of suppressed energy and lust for life, and we get a striking contrast between the boisterous effervescence of the other inmates and the Roman’s apparent naivety and vulnerability. The writer and director deliberately take a non-realistic approach, steering clear of prison drama clichés, and adding some slightly kooky touches, such as an unexplained white man in the otherwise all-black jail who goes around with a pet hen on his shoulder.

One arguable shortcoming is that the narrative is too fragmented, with excessive cutting between present and past. Whilst this does serve to dissipate tension somewhat, I feel it is artistically justified. For these men, *everything* is fragmented, incomplete and makeshift. The chopping-up of the narrative reflects the way their own lives have been chopped up by poverty, violence and incarceration - or at least that’s my take on it. Another possible criticism is that the concurrent plot thread, that of Blackbeard’s associates and rivals jostling to become the new prison godfather, isn’t very dramatic, since Blackbeard is dying anyway and there’s no obvious reason why we should care who becomes the new boss. Again, this may be an allegory for Ivorian politics, in which I’m not well versed.

But this is still one of the most ambitious and original films a year, although what you take from it is up to you. For me, it's a celebration of creativity and art as something that naturally belong to the working class not the elites, and at another level it’s about how people need myths and legends to make sense of their place in the world, and about our relationship with truth. It is easy to sneer at someone for trying to reinvent a two-bit street hoodlum as a legendary warrior - or "king" - but if we’re honest, we ourselves don’t always want the unvarnished actualité as much as we think we do.

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Azor

Ominous and understated

(Edit) 05/12/2021

The film is set during the “Dirty War” of the late 70s and early 80s perpetrated by the Argentinian military Junta against suspected leftists and other dissidents. I thought it was going to be very much a by-the-numbers conspiracy thriller . . . but how wrong I was. The scenario is a familiar one – a conscientious and hardworking man with a satisfactory but mundane life, who encounters corruption in high places and faces the dilemma of whether to expose it, risking his own life, or keep quiet and be morally compromised by it. It’s very much a slow-burner, however, which achieves what it sets out to achieve without assassinations, explosions or shock revelations.

The central protagonist, Yvan de Wiel, comes across as quietly confident but rather passive, over-polite and lacking in flair – he shows excellent social skills in dealing with super-rich and well-connected clients, but completely lacks the bad-boy, alpha-male flamboyance that we tend to associate with investment bankers. Ines is the one who “wears the trousers” – she tells Yvan what to wear for the first meeting in Argentina and criticising him for not being ambitious enough. Argentina is evidently a country in which business deals are conducted with a lot of foreplay and rapport-building, in contrast to the brisk, cut-to-the-chase approach that prevails in Switzerland and the US, and so we see the couple attending a succession of pool parties and other social engagements in which Yvan and Ines spend more time buttering up clients than offering them practical advice. But there is a subtle air of menace even in these scenes of apparent ease and nonchalance. Even the rich are insecure; it becomes clear that the tuxedo-wearing, horse-and-hound set are not the true elites of the country and that wealth offers no protection against getting “disappeared” by the regime. In an exclusive members’ club called the Circle of Arms, Yvan gets to meet the top brass - an ambassador, an admiral, a general - and gets the clearest indication yet that he’s about to get the proverbial “offer you can’t refuse”. The contrast between the men’s affable good humour and the knowledge that they could easily get him fed through a tree-shredder if he proves uncooperative, is truly disconcerting. In a scene reminiscent of "Apocalyse Now", Yvan is taken on a boat trip through the jungle where the unpleasant nature of his mission becomes crystal-clear.

Not for those who insist on an incident-laden story, it relies for its impact on suggestion and understatement, and is carried by the strong central performances and the cinematography. Finally, at a time when over-use of music in films is becoming a frequent complaint by discerning movie-goers, “Azor” is a masterclass in minimalist - and minimal - use of music, which is all the more effective and ominous as a result.

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I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Enjoyable, but trying to tease out hidden meanings will leave you frustrated

(Edit) 05/12/2021

I liked the interaction between Lucy and Jake during the car journeys. You get the impression that Jake isn’t really much of a ladies’ man; he’s probably the type who’s bullishly confident in an all-male environment but awkward around women. During the journey, they talk about movies, poetry, science, and psychoanalysis - both seem very well-read and erudite, and you get the feeling that in some ways they might be a good match, even though there’s a lack of evident passion or intimacy between them, and I think it's fair to say that on looks alone, Lucy is "dating down".

Jake’s mom and dad (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) are an affable and affectionate pair, but a little cringey in their overenthusiasm and exaggerated reactions; Jake is awkward in their company, even though Lucy warms to them. Even before dinner, a few things seem not quite right. Why are there scratches and tape-marks on the basement door? When the family dog comes in from outside, why isn’t it covered in snow? But it’s only after dinner that the movie descends into non-linear weirdness, with alternative timelines and identities superimposed on the main narrative, and the couple’s past, present and future (if indeed they are a couple), colliding.

So how does this fit into Kaufman’s body of work? Does it show a new direction? Well, it’s another film about powerlessness, disappointment, thwarted ambition, and the apparent futility of our lives. But compared to Kaufman's earlier offerings, which are mostly about middle-class and creative angst, this is more a film about the universality of suffering. It’s about the stages of life, about the passage of time and how we process our past experiences; more specifically it’s a reminder that at no stage in our existence – childhood, adolescence, maturity, old age – are we ever going to get all the parts of our lives to click into place like a completed Rubix cube. There’s no final moment of redemption or triumph for any of us, and that if there is meaning and dignity to be found in life, it is in small everyday acts of kindness. Feels oddly contemporary in touching on the themes of long-term middle-aged loneliness, whilst not having anything very incisive to say about it.

It offers a somewhat bleak worldview, I feel that many aspects of it are intentionally confusing and opaque and that sometimes even the writer wasn't sure what he was trying to do. Attempting to unpack this film's meaning could be like unpacking a suitcase and finding a false bottom . . . that turns out to be empty. But it's still the most humanistic and least acerbic film he's made so far, and based on my own enjoyment, rather than it's philosophical depth, I would say it's his best since "Adaptation" and would have no hesitation in giving it a 4.

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Carlos the Jackal

International Man of Misery

(Edit) Updated 09/05/2020

Venezuela-born Carlos – real name Ilich Sanchez Ramirez – believed that the Marxist-Leninist class struggle was inseparable from “anti-imperialism”, which meant, in practice, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. The aim being to undermine (and where possible militarily defeat) America’s allies, but chiefly the State of Israel. In 1970 he threw himself into the nationalist struggle of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, training as a guerrilla fighter.

Perhaps disproportionately (although not solely) of interest to politics and current affairs nerds, “Carlos” provides a balanced, non-polemical view of Ilich’s bloody and ignoble career. Clearly a man of some physical courage – he fought in the 1970 Black September conflict between Jordan and the PLO – he is not glamorised or represented as a heroic failure like Che Guevara. He is ruthless enough to shoot an unarmed man in the face at point-blank range, but never sadistic or gratuitously violent. The genuineness of his political zealotry is never in doubt, and there is no suggestion that he is ever seeking personal power for its own sake. But he shows a staggering level of arrogance and political naivety in thinking that he understands the Palestinian cause better than the Palestinians themselves.

The first section of the film sees Carlos carrying out attacks on Israel-linked targets in London, and then going on the run after fatally shooting two detectives. The second act deals with the astonishingly audacious raid on the 1975 OPEC conference – ending, from the terrorists’ point of view, in a humiliating anti-climax. By the closing chapters of the film Carlos, spurned by his Palestinian mentors and gradually running out of countries willing to shelter or aid him, is facing life as a politically irrelevant fugitive.

Ambitious in its scope and in its use of multiple international locations, “Carlos” attempts to show us the wider picture (the geopolitics and international diplomacy of the time), while not neglecting the human scale – the divergent objectives and clashing personalities within the international militant Left, the disagreements over tactics, and the inevitable conflict between guerillahood and stable family life. We see Carlos involved with three different women, and briefly raising a daughter, but it appears that being a dutiful husband and father was never high on his list of priorities.

The inconsistent use of subtitles – French, Spanish and sometimes Arabic speech is subbed, English and German dialogue isn’t, even with the subtitle option selected – didn’t really bother me but it may be enervating to some viewers and is not ideal for the hard of hearing. Again some people may be put off by the 155 minute running time, but the story is eventful enough to fill it out, the action scenes are well-directed, to me it didn’t feel unnaturally stretched.

It’s debatable how relevant this film is as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first Century. ISIL and their imitators are not concerned with playing the long game but see slaughter and martyrdom as ends in themselves. But if there is a message we can take away, it is: that terrorists are bad people, they rarely have legitimate grievances, and the only way to defeat them long-term is through skilled international diplomacy and cutting off the funding. The pen and the abacus are mightier than the sword.

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Ema

Ema = Extreme Maternal Anarchy

(Edit) Updated 05/05/2020

The premise is that Gaston, a choreographer, and Ema, his much younger wife, a school dance instructor, have adopted a child but gave him back to the adoption agency because they couldn’t cope with his delinquent behaviour – in particular, his fire-setting. The boy (named Polo, by now about 10 years old) started a blaze that left Ema’s sister permanently disfigured. The couple seem to regret giving him up but blame each other for the chain of events that led to it happening.

If so far it sounds like a Mike Leigh tragedy or a slice of Dardennes Brothers social realism, think again – what follows is more a celebration of decadence and transgression, sort of Pedro Almodovar meets Gaspar Noé. Ema has an affair with a married firefighter and encourages Gaston to sleep with one of her friends – not very shocking or perverse behaviour in itself perhaps, since their marriage has irretrievably broken down. As if that’s not enough, she gets sexually involved with an older female attorney – maybe because she’s broke and is hoping the other woman will take on her divorce case gratis . . . or maybe just because she can. And then a bit later she’s at a house party with her five reggaeton friends, they all strip naked and make out with each other . . . and, far be it from me to accuse the film-makers of inserting a gratuitous lesbian scene just so they’d have some salacious imagery to show in the trailer reel - I’m sure there was a sound artistic justification for it but I’m just too thick to see it. (There’s no male-on-male action, in case you’re wondering).

Mariana Di Girolamo gives an accomplished performance as Ema, a borderline sociopath who has a great lust for life but a weird emotional detachment from people and situations (and is a pyromaniac to boot). Almost every scene is visually rewarding, whether we’re at the harbour side, a halogen-infused city street at night, or a decaying basketball court, and the outdoor reggaeton dance scenes are particularly inspiring.

But aside from being a celebration of hedonism, what is this film really about? I would hardly call it feminist or anti-authoritarian – in Ema’s world, male power and authority seem to have evaporated anyway. Once or twice the film seems to be trying to make a point about class or racial privilege – one of Gaston’s students calls him out as a “tourist” who doesn’t understand the culture of the blue-collar waterfront district, and it’s surely significant that Polo is a dark-skinned mestizo boy who’s been adopted by a very white couple. But if it’s meant to be skewering self-indulgent white hipster culture then its impact is blunted when for most of its running time it seems to be endorsing that sort of lifestyle and mentality.

I felt a little soiled by the film’s seemingly amoral world-view and would be tentative about recommending it to any of my cinephile friends, on account of the shortage of likeable characters and lack of emotional chemistry between the main protagonists. But it has a nifty ending and I enjoyed it enough to want to re-watch at least parts of it. Perhaps in classifying this film as amoral I’m missing the point – when all’s said and done, if Chilean society is going to hell in a handcart anyway, maybe the only rational response is to grab the sleekest handcart, paint go-faster stripes on it and enjoy the ride.

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Uncut Gems

He's no diamond geezer

(Edit) 24/01/2020

It’s about a man with a reverse Midas touch – all the gold he touches turns to poop!

Howard Ratner is a successful and knowledgeable jeweller who (unlike Gerald, his blundering UK namesake) offers luxury bling to customers at the upper end of the market. He counts among his regular clients a basketball star named Keith Garnett (he actually plays for the Boston Celtics in real life). Howard is however in dire financial straits, partly owing to his gambling fixation. He likes to bet on the outcomes of basketball games, a sport to which he is fanatically devoted – more than he is to his wife, sons, and mistress, in fact.

He’s concocted a get-rich-quick scheme, by which he will smuggle a rare uncut African black opal into the country, which he anticipates will sell at a 600 % profit, allowing him to pay off the 100K he’s had to borrow from loan sharks. Unfortunately, his scheme, and his life generally, seem to be constantly on the verge of catastrophe thanks to his over-confidence, poor judgement, and talent for rubbing people up the wrong way. When he gets some cash in hand he gambles with it instead of using it to pay off his loan; he doesn’t allow himself enough time to get the opal properly valued before the auction; and he behaves boisterously and arrogantly towards the mobsters who have lent him the money. The loan-sharking crew is led by his brother-in-law Arno; this may explain why they go easy on him at first, although Arno has some very scary-looking goy (possibly Russian?) associates who, you suspect, might not be so lenient if they were running the outfit.

Although marketed as a thriller, the emphasis is more on dialogue and character motivation than thrills and suspense. It feels more sleazy and gritty than noir-ish, partly a consequence of the central character, who is by turns devious, aggressive, and self-pitying. Then again, there isn’t really a truly admirable person in this picture – the only benign characters are fools. I think the biggest weakness is the underdevelopment of the female characters. Julia doesn’t really amount to more than a stereotype – the gorgeous young mistress with no life plans of her own, pathetically devoted to a well-off but obviously unreliable married man who keeps promising to leave his wife. Dinah, meanwhile, seems remarkably tolerant of her husband’s misdeeds and his chaotic approach to business. I don’t think a normal woman would stay so calm and composed on finding her husband locked naked inside the trunk of his own car. The grimy feel of the story is enhanced and underlined by the close-range hand-held camera work, the 90s techno-inspired soundtrack, and the unconventional sound mix which often gives equal priority to ambient noise and background chatter as against what the principal protagonists are actually saying.

Perhaps to an extent the Safdie brothers, themselves Jewish, are rebelling against the habitual portrayal of Jews in the movies and on TV as being either respectable, clean-cut high-achievers or nerdy, sexually-inadequate wimps, and wanted to make a film showing Jews as badass wheeler-dealers who have more in common with African-Americans than their fellow light-skinned Caucasians. At one point Howards black assistant Demany, played by Lakeith Stanfield, even calls him a “Jewish n****r”.

It all adds up to a rather sour and nihilistic worldview. But I felt that Adam Sandler’s performance, the cinematography, and soundtrack, all made it compelling, it was never dull and I never stopped wanting to know what would happen next even though the central protagonist is such a sleazebag. However, I do feel it would be a less rewarding experience on the small screen.

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Cinema 16: European Short Films

Essential viewing for short-film enthusiasts

(Edit) 06/11/2019

Sixteen films from established directors showing a remarkable range of tone, style, and subject matter.

There's "Charlotte et Veronique", Godard's delightful neo-Nouvelle Vague comedy about a young Parisian philanderer; "L'Homme sans Tete", an allegorical fantasy that gives a whole new meaning to "head shop"; "Talk", a sombre tale of a social vampire who is desperate for company after being fired from his job; and "Gisele Kerosene", a demented caper in which transvestite witches on combustion-powered broomsticks hurtle through an ultra-modern cityscape in pursuit of a stolen relic. Other stand-outs include a stop-motion from the master of Czech surrealism; a gentle yet sardonic comedy from Chris Morris about a man who thinks his dog can talk; and an over-zealous anti-racist who comes a cropper in Jensen's hilarious "Election Night".

Should be something to please everyone - there are no real duds except the forgettable "Opening Day of Close Up" and maybe "Nocturne" which is perhaps too minimalist for most people's taste - so I'm a little surprised to see it rated at only 3.5 stars.

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Salvatore Giuliano

Gangster's paradise

(Edit) 14/10/2019

A profoundly depressing exposé of the interpenetration of politics, organised crime and landed interests in rural Sicily. Depressing not only in its portrayal of corruption and deference, but in the lack of any clear moral lessons to be learned or grounds for hope. Classed as a Neo-realist film but don't expect "Bicycle Thieves". The pivotal event is the massacre of Porta della Ginestra, in which assailants fired upon people who had gathered to celebrate May Day, killing 11 including women and children. Much of the second half of the film deals with the investigation and subsequent trials, and focuses on the struggle to find out who ordered the killings. The subject matter is given a documentary-style treatment, with the emphasis very much on dramatising the known facts rather than providing character depth. But parts of it are quite cinematic, especially the military operations in the town, and the courtroom scenes which are possibly the highlight.

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A Touch of Zen

A Touch of Zen

(Edit) Updated 09/10/2019

This is an untutored opinion as I haven't seen many wuxia ("martial hero") films and cannot claim to have a rounded view on the genre.

I felt that for much of the running time the pace was crashingly slow, but at the same time I have to admire its cleverness in the way it only gradually reveals who the main protagonists are and who is allied to whom. It is well-directed, even though at times the locations are so dark you have to concentrate to tell what's going on. The fight scenes, although probably advanced for the late 60's, sometimes lack finesse by modern standards.

But it is definitely worth it for the majestic final and penultimate scenes. There's the terrific multi-participant fight in the eerily-lit forest involving warrior monks, a military commander, a renegade general and the fugitive heroine, followed by the surreal desert endgame which calls to mind a spaghetti Western.

In conclusion, feels slow for a 3-hour movie, but worth persevering with.

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Winter Light

A heart in winter

(Edit) 08/10/2019

Something I've always admired about Bergman's films is his use of light. Here, the photography expertly captures the austere and dignified beauty of the snow-bound landscape and the Medieval church interior. Not a film for people who insist on an action-packed three-act drama with neat resolutions to everything, yet it is definitely more than just a character study or atmosphere piece - it is a film about how inner struggles play out in the outer world.

Tomas Erikson, the pastor, celebrates Mass and performs his other parochial duties obediently, but without enthusiasm. He feels that God is distant and finds it difficult to reconcile his Christian faith with the adversity he has encountered during his life. His suffering has become a chasm separating him from his fellow human beings, rather than a bridge to empathy with them - he is self-absorbed, judgemental and sometimes callous. But the viewer can sympathise with his spiritual confusion and the fact that he is acutely aware of his own failings as a minister, thanks to the remarkably sensitive performance by Gunnar Björnstrand. One of the other principal characters is Marta Lindblom, a schoolteacher with whom, it is implied, Tomas has been having an on-off affair for some years. Marta is everything Tomas is not – warm, vivacious, generous, optimistic, and mentally resilient. Although openly agnostic, she provides a better illustration than the pastor of how to live a Christian life.

Inspired by the director's own struggles to maintain his own "childish piety", as he put it, in the face of life as actually lived, "Winter Light" is not heavy on theology, but is a deeply humanistic film that explores, among other things, whether it is possible to "save" someone who has given up not only on God and Man, but even on himself.

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Lore

Shattered minds in a shattered country

(Edit) 02/10/2019

A film largely overlooked by critics as well as cinema-goers. When we think of World War II aftermath and survival films we tend to think of big cities (Grave of the Fireflies, Germany Year Zero), but this is all about rural Germany. Notable in that it's not only about the struggle for survival in a war-ravaged country, but about the profound psychological damage done to children living under a totalitarian regime. Children and adults alike have been deeply affected by 12 years of brainwashing . . . but haven't completely lost their humanity. An exceptionally sensitive portrait of a war-ravaged country that makes excellent use of the rural locations.

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At Eternity's Gate

At Eternity's Gate

(Edit) 01/10/2019

I saw this at a one-off screening in an arts centre . . . and nearly half the audience walked out before the end.

I don't know what it was in particular that offended the early quitters, but I heard someone later complaining about excessive camera movement. Which is a fair comment - there were times where the camera buzzed around like a midge even though there wasn't a lot of action taking place, such as the first outdoor painting scene.

My own reaction is harder to describe. I liked the visuals and the imaginative sound design, and that it gives us some insight into Van Gogh's motives, his underlying philosophy and how it related to other contemporary trends in the art world, through his friendship with Paul Gaugin. But I came away with a sense of discontent, a feeling that the whole was less than the sum of its parts, that I find it difficult to pin down without seeming nit-picking. To some degree, perhaps, it's because it focuses mainly on aspects of Vincent's life that are already well-known - his single-minded devotion to his art, his inadequate social skills, the dire poverty he had to endure, and being snubbed by the critical establishment and art buyers alike. And, of course, his psychosis, which to give credit where it's due, the film does not exaggerate or sensationalise. But what I found really perplexing - and this is what downgrades it from 4 stars to 3 - was the casting choice. I cannot fault Willem Dafoe's performance, but Vincent van Gogh was only 37 when he died, and having him played by the 60-something Dafoe (who isn't even a young-looking 60-something) required a suspension of disbelief. This is especially so in the close-ups, where he often looks nearly 70, and when you see him together with his brother Theo, played by the obviously much younger Rupert Friend.

To sum up, a respectful and compassionate portrait of an extraordinary man, but one that, for me at least, doesn't live up to the promise of its epic-sounding title.

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A Woman Under the Influence

A tragedy of manners

(Edit) 02/09/2019

Made at a time when mental illness was more stigmatised than it is now, “Woman under the Influence” is far from being a period piece. The question of how we should treat mentally-afflicted people with compassion while preventing them from harming themselves and others – especially when so many cases resist an easy diagnosis or classification – is of ongoing relevance. People are terrified of being “sectioned” and drugged up, or having their loved ones subjected to this treatment . . . but what if the alternative is even worse?

Mabel is a married mother of three whose eccentric and uninhibited behaviour, not to mention her libertarian attitude to child-raising, have a habit of landing her in hot water. On one occasion, she treats a conservative neighbour, who has brought his own offspring round for a homework- and play-date, to a rendition of “Swan Lake” in the backyard – his bafflement turns to fury when he ventures upstairs and finds that the unsupervised children are playing dress-up and one of the girls is running around naked. Nick loves his wife the way she is and has no desire to suppress her individuality. But Mabel’s condition gets to the point where there is no alternative but to have her committed. At work Nick is tetchy and defensive about his wife's state of health and lies to the children about the reason why she's in hospital. He does his best to adjust to being a single dad while Mabel is institutionalised, but his own style of parenting turns out to be an odd mix of authority and anarchy.

The film steers clear of trite sentimentality and pop-psychology, and even more notably it avoids racial and class stereotypes and even subverts them to a degree. In Cassavetes’ world, working-class people still suffer from “middle-class” problems, such as uncertainty about how to behave in social situations. For instance, there’s the scene where Nick has prepared a big homecoming party for his wife, but belatedly realises that someone who’s recovering from a nervous breakdown will feel overwhelmed by that much company. Nick’s ethnically-mixed (but mainly Italian) colleagues are portrayed with dignity – no signs of racism or "toxic masculinity" here even though it’s the South in the 1970s – and I like the way that Nick effortlessly switches between brusque and affectionate without appearing to be two different people. Some viewers might find fault with the lack of significant female supporting characters, but I assume that Cassavetes wanted to emphasise that work was an important part of Nick’s sense of identity, being the family’s sole breadwinner, while underlining the relative isolation that Mabel experiences as a suburban housewife.

A heartbreaking yet life-affirming film that celebrates the resilience of the nuclear family and the value of love within marriage, which, while it may not necessarily conquer all, at least ensures there is a well to draw upon when the castle is under siege.

Notable also for the blend of expressive camerawork and naturalistic dialogue, which seems to be a trademark of this director, and very strong performances by the two leads, Gena Rowlands (who teamed up with director in several other films) and Peter Falk.

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November

November spawned a monster

(Edit) 11/11/2018

I had the good fortune to see this at Leeds International Film Festival and I hope it will go on wider release in 2019. Whether you choose to see this lurid tale of golems, shape-shifters, satanic pacts and bleeding crucifixes as merely an exercise in sensationalism, an anti-romance, a celebration of Estonian national resilience, or an oblique criticism of our own present-day fetishisation of wealth and technology, you certainly won't find it unmemorable.

It appears to owe little to the conventions of Hollywood or Western European genre films. Certain elements stand out which are perhaps more reminiscent of Polish, other Eastern European or even Asian cinema. The action scenes, which tend to be abrupt, with little build-up or aftermath; more emphasis on atmosphere than character development; the predominance of close-ups and half-shots for filming the principal characters; a cynical world-view; and the deployment of very dark and understated humour, to the extent that it's hard to tell whether some scenes are meant to be funny or not. The evocative high-contrast monochrome photography is evident from the stills, the score is outstanding too. Anyway, it's great to see such a tiny country (population 1.3 million) punching above its weight by making such a high-quality film.

9 out of 9 members found this review helpful.
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