Wonder (2017)

Wonder

There are no nice ones. After two dozen surgeries to get 10-year old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) seeing and speaking he’s still terribly disfigured but mom Isabelle (Julia Roberts) has decided it’s time for him to go to regular school after years of educating him at home. It’s the first time he’s gone out without wearing his astronaut helmet. Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) help out but it’s mainly been Isabelle who’s done the heavy lifting and Via has been left out and retreats to her estranged grandmother (Sonia Braga) in Coney Island when she needs attention. Auggie meets the wise and kind school principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) who has him introduced around the school by some kids but Auggie still gets bullied terribly. He wins over some students through his smarts, especially at science where he’s top dog. However when he wears a different Halloween costume than the one his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) expects, Auggie overhears him saying something terrible and it seems like everything is lost … Not everything in this world is about you. A film about facial disfigurement that manages to be truly humane without ever stooping to the mawkish or trite? Surely some mistake. And maybe it’s Mask. Well, that was then, this is now. This adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel is a kind of miracle of text and performance and not just by that fine young actor Tremblay. Everyone here gets their moment in a family that has other problems – sister Via is overlooked, Isabelle doesn’t speak to her mother, the marriage is strained because of the constant caring needed for Auggie. Isabelle had a promising career and was mid-thesis when Auggie came along and her life was put on hold. Roberts never looks for pity in the role and the plot keeps everyone afloat.  Even Daisy the dog needs more from the family members than they realise. That’s good writing. The screenplay is by Jack Thorne, Steven Conrad and director Steven Chbosky, who knows something about young people as we know from that other marvellous film about kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on his own book. Right here the issues of middle school, our responsibilities to others, competitive friendship and rivalries are nailed with precision. Auggie can’t change the way he looks so maybe we can change the way we see

Code Name: Emerald (1985)

Code Name Emerald

I was expecting Peter Lorre. Augustus Lang aka Emerald (Ed Harris) is a spy for the Allies working undercover in Nazi-Occupied Paris during World War II but the Nazis believe he’s their man. With his assistance they capture Wheeler (Eric Stoltz) an ‘Overlord’ thought to know the plans for D-Day. Lang is planted as his cell mate and their conversations are monitored by Gestapo officer Walter Hoffman (Horst Buchholz) who is constantly at odds with his SS colleague Ernst Ritter (Helmut Berger) but retains friendly relations with decent Jurgen Brausch (Max Von Sydow).  Outside the cell in everyday Paris, Lang is in contact with Claire Jouvet  (Cyrielle Clair) who is trying to help him engineer Wheeler’s escape. But Wheeler is weakening under threat of torture and Hoffman suspects there might be more than one spy in the wings … Averages aren’t everything. There’s such a thing as grace. A really good premise in a terrific screenplay by Ronald Bass from his novel is largely laid waste by miscasting and some underpowered directing. That makes a change! Harris is not expressive enough to elicit our sympathy as the hero of the piece and Stoltz is unconvincing and probably too young in his role; paradoxically it’s Buchholz who has the most interesting character to play – how often do we see Nazis in civvies in WW2 films? Von Sydow is good as a vitally placed German officer and Clair does very well as the woman at the centre of the romance/resistance storyline. While the tension isn’t strictly maintained, the magnificent score by John Addison goes a long way to giving this a sense of urgency that isn’t necessarily in the dénouement – the outcome of the war is at stake but you wouldn’t know it from the way this is staged. C’est la guerre. Directed by Jonathan Sanger for NBC in their first theatrical production. One of these Krauts is on our side. Problem is, I don’t which one it is

 

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth poster

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

Out of Blue (2019)

Out of Blue

Can you explain your place in the universe? When well-connected black hole expert and astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found shot at a New Orleans Observatory, police detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is put in charge of the investigation and questions her co-worker, observatory manager Professor Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) and her teaching colleague boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors). When she encounters Jennifer’s father Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan) she finds an intimidating figure, a well-known local businessman, famous soldier and POW who walks on a cane. His wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver) is a fidgeting fusspot, the twin sons Walt and Bray (Brad and Todd Mann) argumentative and odd. Their office is dominated by a family portrait. Similarities are noted by her colleague Aaron Tevit (Tony Silvero) and reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Tyler) with the unsolved murders of other blonde thirtysomething women from decades earlier where items were exchanged with the victims. Mike pursues the idea that Tom might have been responsible but then it becomes clear that Jennifer killed herself. When Mike finds a familiar brooch among Jennifer’s collection of vintage clothes and costume jewellery questions of the cosmos start to inform the solution … The catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe. We are all stardust.  This adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 genre novel Night Train has some changes but mostly it bears the marks of writer/director Carol Morley, a singular talent who likes to compose a flat frame with just enough textural detail to suggest complexity, a taste that lends itself perfectly to this atmospheric thriller which shows a less travelled side of New Orleans. Mike is a troubled former alcoholic with a spare lifestyle; while Jennifer’s home is filled with nick nacks and her recorded talks anchor the narrative:  We spend our lives trying to get to the heart of this dark energy. It’s other people who point to the clues in the past – a TV journalist and another police officer. The similarities to the .38 caliber gun murders are inescapable – the victims are all blonde and of a certain age and the killings stopped when Jennifer was born. The intriguing use of imagery – not just fetish objects like blue marbles, a pot of handcream, but the confusion as to whether Mike is fantasising, dreaming or even remembering – is conjoined with the theme of the stars and their influence. And with a hint of Chinatown hanging over a story about family and power, there’s a cute reference when Miriam leaps into Mike’s police car and pulls her nose: You know what happens to very nosy people?  They lose their noses! We are reminded of Polanski. The narrative raises questions about how society deals with war – just what kind of man walks out of three years’ imprisonment a hero? Clarkson is great as this unconventional woman who lets loose in a strip club:  There’s many ways to be a woman. There are black holes in the story itself with a wry running joke about cats in boxes (and not just Schrödinger’s). In my experience usually what’s in a sealed box is dead. In the end, this is not just about the murder mystery, it’s about where we come from, who we are, what formed us and what happened to us. In that sense, the final sequence is truly a revelation of personal history in a unique procedural narrative which grapples with a bigger cosmic picture. Produced by Luc Roeg with a score by Clint Mansell. The past is messy

1917 (2019)

1917

If you fail, it will be a massacre. During World War I in the trenches close to the front line, two British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they have to cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message to the Devons Regiment – not to go over the top, in a change of plan that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades including Blake’s own brother from falling into a German trap... Brimming with award season nominations, already garlanded with some and its director and co-writer Sam Mendes (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) pronouncing on the virtues of pacificism, this is chiefly noted for the supposed virtuosity of its being an apparently seamless one-take drama shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Newsflash:  it is a dull and irritating exercise entirely lacking in character development, boasting minimal plot, cursory and random dialogue, little forward propulsion until the 75th minute and thereafter it continues to play out in real time, with a wholly foreseeable ending. What is the problem? The script, the script, the script. It’s unthinking, immature and poorly conceived. The camera has a perspective, the script lacks a point of view. World War 1 was a senseless slaughter of boys led by blinkered generals. There are images of bodies both human and animal. Death was in the trenches and in the air. We know. There are great war films, and not just about World War 1, although La Grande Illusion, All Quiet on the Western Front, Gallipoli and Paths of Glory immediately come to mind when that subject arises. World War 2 has a plethora, most recently, Saving Private Ryan, which sensibly – necessarily – pulls back from its extraordinarily immersive half-hour opening sequence at the Normandy Landing to give the audience a breather from the shockingly unleashed violence and drive towards death and to establish characters, context and narrative.  It is a classic of modern cinema. Dunkirk attempts to converge three stories in parallel without having a scintilla of memorably comparable affect because it seems, like another of Christopher Nolan’s films, Inception, to derive from a gamer’s sensibility, visor firmly clamped around the viewer’s eyes to prevent any kind of peripheral vision (like this). Elem Klimov’s Come and See is an astonishing – almost incomparable – film that lingers long in the memory for its brutal tale of a teenager on the Russian front lines. Hamburger Hill tells the ‘Nam story from the perspective of grunts and it’s devastating; Apocalypse Now takes a literary exercise and converts it to cinematic hallucination. I could go on. This? A cameraman tracks back for ten minutes in an unaltering medium two-shot in a trench making for a queasy opening, and then follows the pair of protagonists until two inevitably become one; then he enters a nightmarish world of a (finally) changing landscape and the dreary grey palette of northern France (actually Wiltshire) gets some studio lighting at last. The idea of presenting the story in real time derives from a mistaken sensibility that has a paradoxically theatrical affect preventing any level of deep character engagement:  and on that subject, it would help to have an attractive protagonist. MacKay communicates precisely nothing but he is given very little to work with. Ordinariness has its own rewards, just not for an audience. There is an old saw that goes, Don’t shoot the messenger. Well, if they had shot the right one, they might have had a film. Ostensibly, this is a film about war. Actually, it’s a film about avoidance. Hope is a dangerous thing

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

Smillas Sense of Snow.jpg

Aka Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  The devil assumes many forms. Copenhagen police say otherwise, but amateur scientist Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) who studies ice crystals in a university lab thinks her young Inuit neighbour Isaiah (Clipper Miano) was chased by an adult before he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment block. The daughter of an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, Smilla learns that the boy’s father died while working for Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris) in Greenland who heads a mining company and she is directed by former accountant Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) to get an Expedition Report from the firm’s archive.  She asks her father Moritz (Robert Loggia) for help interpreting the information but has to deal with his young girlfriend who resents her interference in their life. After sharing her murder theory with a mysterious neighbour called The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne) who never seems to go to work, she pursues her suspicions and her life is endangered as the impact of a meteorite hitting Greenland in 1859 is revealed in a reanimated prehistoric worm which proves toxic to human organs Why does such a nice woman have such a rough mouth? Peter Høeg’s novel was very fashionable in the Nineties and encompasses so many issues – identity, language, snow and ice, ecology and exploitation, friendship and bereavement, medical issues, astronomy, being far away from home, being motherless … that you can quite see how difficult it would be to fillet from this a straightforward thriller which is what the cinema machine demands. Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman does a good job streamlining the narrative threads which form an orbit around Ormond who has a tremendous role here but director Bille August doesn’t really heighten the tensions  sufficiently quickly that they materialise as proper threats. What works as a literary novel seems rather far-fetched on screen when stripped of all those beautiful words. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating story and it’s a shame Ormond’s feature career never had the momentum it once seemed to possess. Costuming by Marit Allen. The way you have a sense of God I have a sense of snow

Deep Impact (1998)

Deep Impact.jpg

This is not a videogame, son. One year after teenage astronomer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) spots a comet the size of Mount Everest heading for Earth, journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) mistakes the scoop of a lifetime for a story about the mistress of the US President Beck (Morgan Freeman). Once she’s allowed into the loop of the Extinction Level Event with the rest of the press pack she finds that with one year to go before it could hit the planet there’s a plan to build a system of caves while a joint US/Russian spacecraft nicknamed Messiah being led by veteran astronaut Captain Sturgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) is going to try to intercept its path with nuclear weapons … People know you. They trust you. A disaster movie par excellence, this mixes up men on a mission and race against time tropes with ideas about God, friendship, family and the all-pervasive sense of doom that settles upon people learning of an entire planet’s imminent destruction and how they deal with it. Leoni doesn’t quite have the expressivity to offer a mature performance although her particular role is buttressed by the subplot of her unhappiness at her father Jason’s (Maximilian Schell) new marriage while her beloved mother Robin (Vanessa Redgrave) suffers. However the entire drama is well structured and tautly managed. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin (as a vague remake of When Worlds Collide, 1951) and expertly handled by Mimi Leder, better known for TV’s ER, some of whose alumni feature here. Let’s go home

The Big Chill (1983)

The Big Chill.jpg

I haven’t met that many happy people in my life. How do they act? Following the funeral of Alex, who committed suicide, a group of his former college friends gather for a reunion at the South Carolina holiday home of their mutual friend Harold Cooper (Kevin Kline) and his doctor wife Sarah (Glenn Close) where they remember some of their best times but are forced to re-evaluate their lives. Sam (Tom Berenger) is a successful actor headlining a TV show; Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a real estate attorney who wants to become a mother but has no romance in her life; Nick (William Hurt) a Nam vet and former radio host; Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is a journalist writing for People magazine; Karen (JoBeth Williams) is married to Richard (Don Galloway) and he takes their boys home while she stays on and tries to resolve her feelings for Sam. Chloe (Meg Tilly) was Alex’s last lover and it appears she moves from man to man in quick succession … Nobody said it was going to be fun. At least nobody said it to me. Lawrence Kasdan’s loose remake of John Sayles’ cult low budget film Return of the Secaucus 7 is a very satisfying look at the perils of friendship into adulthood and early middle aage following years of distance, estrangement and misperceptions. A sensational cast brings to life a very disparate but charismatic bunch who may never have really known each other at all. Over the course of a few days when they eat, drink, smoke dope, watch TV, dance, jog, argue about politics and work and have sex, they learn what everyone is really like in a kind of post-Vietnam/baby boomer version of La Ronde. It’s never tacky, the friends and their issues are navigated with care and no little tension and it’s beautifully played by an extraordinarily gifted cast mourning a man whose death by suicide casts questions on everyone’s life choices making each character wonder whether they have actually grown up at all. Alex’s corpse was famously played by Kevin Costner, whose scenes were cut however the titles sequence gives us glimpses of him as he is alternately dressed for his coffin and drives his Porsche along the road. A striking piece of work. Written by Barbara Benedek and director Lawrence Kasdan. You know this day most of all we should remember we’re friends

Instant Family (2018)

Instant Family.jpg

Is it a problem, the whole white saviour thing? Building contractor Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and his interior designer wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) have a perfect life, flipping houses and making money. However their child-free status is starting to get to Ellie and she persuades Mark to think about fostering. They train under the supervision of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and get overwhelmed when they encounter wisecracking 15-year old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) but she has a little brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and the couple don’t want to break up the family, whose crack addict mom is in jail.  The honeymoon period is followed by serious tantrums and disruption … If I chatted to a random kid in the park I could get arrested.  A film constructed on such a hideously sentimental premise you might not look beyond the awesome shabby chic interiors and hear some very shrewd and witty observations about race, parenting and family.  But what the hell were they thinking to deploy the great Joan Cusack as the weirdo in the last scene? Cringe! Must be the flu meds. Ahem. Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders. I never get tired of watching white people fight