THE CLAN**** Excellence from Argentina


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THIS TRUE STORY of a family that’s in the kidnapping business is really a personification of the culture of disappearances in the early 80’s Argentina. And more than this, The Clan is a bigger, fascinating story about the nature of power.

The paterfamilias of the family is Arquimedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella from The Secret in Their Eyes). He’s a simple shopkeeper, helps his daughter do her homework and cheers on his popular athletic sons. An ideal family. But with his cold, stern visage and icy eyes, this is the banality of evil. He was part of the secret service and at the heart of its clandestine kidnappings of political opponents. But even as the politics have moved on (“This democracy”, says one of his, now imprisoned, colleagues, “How long can it last? No more than two years”), his ways remain unchanged. Only now he kidnaps for money.

He, like the shadowy commodore who protects him (and by implication the demagogues that ran the country), is the undisputed and never to be questioned figure of absolute authority in the family. His sons have been, reluctantly, dragooned into the family business. His wife and the daughters – like the nation – passively accept the beaten, bloodied victims of the kidnappings, hidden in the basement of their well appointed home. It is their accepted norm. Say nothing, offer no protest, carry on as normal and all will be well. Political power always overwhelms the moral imperative.

It’s one son, Alejandro (Peter Lanzani) – a popular, and dashing sportsman (in order to signify the class of the family, he’s a rugby player, not a, common o garden, footballer) – in whom, with his newfound love, the stirrings of conscience begin to be felt. But conscience is easily enough bought out with the right amount of cash. And can conscience dare challenge the ties of loyalty and love that bind families together? Once you’re deep enough in the web of complicity, is there any possibility of escape?
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Through the flashes of -actual- political speeches denouncing the past and locker-room chit chat of the sportsmen eager to take on the rest of the rugby playing world, director Pablo Trapero and his brilliant co-writer, Julian Loyola show us a nation eager to enact its own form of escape. The tones of the movie juxtapose the bright, daytime energy of the rugby players and the dark, nocturnal brutality of the family. It’s this darkness, this violent past that the new politics is so keen to drag itself away from. But, as we all know, though governments may change, the malignancy of their power structures remain in place.

Aquimedes Puccio and his types may now be out of political power, but their continued links to the real power keep the lines of corruption unchanged. It’s as though no matter how much the young nation, like Alejandro, the son, seeks to move forward, the future is fundamentally blocked by the dead weight of the past.

Until the center of gravity of the power shifts. Then things rapidly fall apart.

Like The Secret in Their Eyes, The Clan is another example of Argentine noir cinema. But unlike the more stylized (and glamorous) noir of Hollywood (and no wonder the remake of The Secret…fell flat), these movies offer enough of the mundane to be utterly and compellingly credible. This is not just another cute fiction of evil masquerading itself under a façade of normalcy, this is a frighteningly believable story about a nation and how power operates. And in Francella, a man with the coldest, deadest eyes in cinema, Argentine noir has its perfect protagonist.

The weakness in the movie is its editing, which at times was annoyingly choppy. But it’s a small to price for such a large cinematic reward.

The Clan. Dir: Pablo Trapero. Writer: Julian Loyola and Pablo Trapero. With: Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani, Lili Popovich. Cinematographer: Julián Apezteguia

 

COME HELL OR HIGH WATER**** Cowboys, Indians and Oscars in Sight


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COPS AND ROBBERS, Cowboys and Indians, the wild wild West. All the familiar elements are here, de-familiarized in David Mackenzie’s atmospheric, well-written tale of greed, poverty, racism and love.

The action is set in a dry, scorching Texas, where everyone’s armed and where the gap between the law and vigilantism is razor thin. We could be back in the wild, quasi-lawless 1900’s world of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; but we’re not. Welcome to Texas (the US?) circa 2016.

The cops of the story are Marcus (an inspired Jeff Bridges), an ornery, racist old timer, on the verge of retirement and forever slagging off Injuns: “And just wait ’till I get to your Mexican half” he says to his Mexican/Indian partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who gives as good as he gets. (When Marcus is proven right on a hunch, Alberto quips, “even a blind pig will sometimes find a truffle”).

The quality of the acting and the dialogue between these two makes the partnership engagingly believable. You always get the sense that there’s a genuine affection underneath the barbs and crotchety-ness.

The robbers are the banks, insidiously robbing dirt-poor farmers of their bone-dry lands through reverse mortgages and bankruptcy guaranteeing products. But Marcus and Alberto aren’t after the banks; they’re after a pair of old fashioned, small time bank robbers: brothers Tarner (Ben Foster), the dumb violent one and Toby (Chris Pine), the smarter, emotionally wounded one.

These two are the ‘real-world’ version of Butch and Sundance, stripped of the glamour and fame. They’re just two poor Cowboys desperate to rob back from a bank that’s on the verge of robbing them of their (deceased) mother’s farm. Thieves stealing from thieves. Like Marcus and Alberto, the bickering, affectionate, co-dependent relationship of the brothers is marvellously evoked.

They hit a few banks, always with the code of stealing only from the banks and of never harming the customers. But, as always happens, there’s a need for one last score, one final robbery before they’ve got enough money to stop the forfeiture of their farm.

Director Mackenzie leans heavily toward the brothers: desperate times, he seems to suggest, demand desperate actions.

More than this, the robberies are played out in an oppressive, fatalistic universe (the vastness and emptiness of the terrain suggests timelessness, a place where the inhabitants are miniscule and almost insignificant). Here an idea of history and (Cowboy) identity is dying. We come across a group of disgruntled Cowboys, for instance, desperately herding their cattle to safety against a raging out of control wildfire that seems to be burning away all the elements of pride and self worth. This is a brave new world, the new frontier, from which there is no escape; one where poverty is inevitable and where the veins of violence and hostility run deep (in one exchange, a Comanche tells Tanner, “You know what Comanche means? It means everyone is my enemy”. Tanner replies, “Then I am  Comanche too”) .

As the author of the robberies, all aimed at providing an out for his sons, Toby’s actions take on an existentialist, almost Operatic bravura. They are one man’s attempt to defy fate, to use the potential of his mother’s legacy (the farm) as a means of denying his kids his own legacy of drunkenness and violence.

Come hell or high water.

But the high water comes at a hellish price.

Hell or High Water is the first of the post summer, post blockbuster, Oscar intending movies.

And what a grand way to launch into Oscar season. Mackenzie’s sure-footed directing allows this very character-led story to unfold without undue sturm und drang. He paces the action beautifully, allowing enough deviations from the main plot to invite us into the lives of his protagonists; but always you know there’s a drumbeat toward the grand lethal climax. Mackenzie is working with an excellent script –terse, witty and observant of the Texan inflections of his characters -from Taylor Sheridan (Sicario); and Giles Nuttgens’ (Midnight’s Children) hot, bright cinematography evokes the aridity of the land (and the lives of the characters)

Way to go

 

Hell or High Water. Dir: David Mackenzie. With: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham. Writer: Taylor Sheridan. Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens. Production Designer: Tom Duffield (Lone Survivor)

 

CAFE SOCIETY*** Good Company


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WARNING: PLOT REVELATIONS TO FOLLOW

IT IS THE thirties…a time when Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford were just two of the legends that lit up the glittering escapist fantasy of Hollywood. At the centre of this world of glitz, glamour and gossip sits super agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a deal-making, name-dropping master schmoozer. And into his crowded life comes his nephew, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a gauche wide-eyed young man, escaping the claustrophobia of the family jewelry business back in New York and in search of all the possibilities Hollywood has to offer.

He finds more than possibilities. He finds Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to whom he’s introduced by her boss, Uncle Phil (“go show the kid around” Phil instructs her) and with whom he is immediately smitten. But she’s reluctant; she’s “seeing someone else”. Alas, she’s exactly Bobby’s kind of gal: smart, unimpressed by the vulgar showiness of Holllywood, fabulously beautiful and fun to be with. The problem is, her “someone else” is her said boss, Uncle Phil.

She loves Phil, but still manages to fall in love with Bobby.

Complications ensue (natch).

The complications drive Bobby back to New York, back away from the false and superficial world of schmoozing and Hollywood to the false and superficial world of schmoozing and his gangster brother’s night-club. Both worlds exist in their own alien universes. These are worlds of wealth, beauty, haute couture, idle chatter, smart repartee, gossip, insider trading, gangsters and an ever-flowing stream of golden champagne. Here the only currency is the caliber of your contact list. Nothing else matters in these intersecting orbits of like-minded, nocturnal souls. Bobby, all grown up has become just another version of Phil.

The war, bubbling up somewhere far away in Europe barely merits a mention.

This is the universe of the café society; an artificial place far, far away from the real world of the Bronx, of grubby tenement apartments, badly fitting clothes and Yiddish. It is a world where the only – fleeting and genuine – escape comes from the honesty of love. Both Bobby and Vonnie marry –others- ‘happily’ (Bobby’s wife is not coincidentally also called Vonnie, or Victoria). But as they discover when they’re thrown together briefly once again in New York, theirs was a connection – a moment of something genuine in their worlds of artifice – they once had and now have forever lost.

It’s a tale of love won and lost and the melancholia of its lingering memory.

Café Society is a charming, lovely and slight movie that plays like a sort of Woody Allen greatest hits (not a bad thing) – the period settings lovingly shot (medium close-up) by Vittorio Storaro with Suzie Benziger’s sparkling costume designs. All his top tropes are here: the clarinets in the background, the angst about Jewishness, the gauche, nebbish protagonist who is irresistible to the prettiest dames on the block, the occasional lapses into philosophical musings and a well plotted story line that always veers away from cliché even when it seems to highlight it.

But this is no Blue Jasmine, with its thoughtful characterizations and compelling insights. Fortunately, it’s also no To Rome With Love either.

Jesse Eisenberg seems to have quickly become a type; his character is an imitation of Woody’s characters…with all their nervous tics and hesitations (so much so that we never quite believe in his so called pushiness or, really, his ability to run a gangster-controlled night-club). Blake Lively has a brief cameo role as Bobby’s wife. It isn’t much of a part, but she looks spot on: she shines as an embodiment of golden, bedazzling old time Hollywood star power.

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Steve Carell (who replaced Bruce Willis…who couldn’t remember his lines) manages great restraint in what could easily have been a caricature of the pushy Hollywood big shot type. But it is Kristen Stewart (again) who gives us a real person. She allows us to always glimpse two people vying for supremacy: the striving name dropping small town girl who landed the big fish and the sad, needy person so ripe for the pickin’

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As with anything Woody, there’s always much to discuss; more than this, even in such ephemeral fare as this, he’s worthwhile company… delivers a mood and an aura that’s a fabulous way to spend a few passing hours.

 

Café Society. Written and directed: Woody Allen. With Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively. Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro. Production Designer: Santo Loquasto

JULIETA**** Buenissima


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PEDRO ALMODÓVAR, AFTER after a messy side trip into comedy (I’m so Excited) is back in fine form with Julieta, a top-notch, if flawed, tale of guilt, passion and solipsism. Julieta is brilliantly portrayed by two actors: Adriana Ugarte as the young Julieta, and Emma Suarez as her older self.

We first get to know Julieta as a young woman teaching The Odyssey – the archetypal journey – to groups of adoring students. The story, that unfolds through a series of mirroring tales, is Julieta’s own odyssey…her life’s journey from a young carefree woman who falls in love with a fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao) to an older version of herself burdened by the guilt and despair caused by the self exile of Antia, her daughter (Priscilla Delgado). (Though Almodovar wickedly inverts the story and it is Julieta who becomes the Odysseus with her two partners mere pining Penelope’s).

The story begins with a chance encounter between the older Julieta and a woman who was once a friend of her daughter. The woman has herself unexpectedly re-encountered her estranged friend, who, she tells Julieta, is now married with three kids. This memory of her daughter, which Julieta has been trying to exorcize and escape for the last twelve years, forces her to re-examine her past, which re-examination – in the form of a letter/memoir Julieta writes to her daughter – energizes the arc of the meticulously structured movie.

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Told through flashback, this is her attempt to understand and come to terms with the nature of her daughter’s flight. Antia was eighteen when, erroneously blaming her mother as the cause of a terrible family tragedy, she fled from everyone…from one life to another…simply disappeared.

A heart-broken Julieta is too self- absorbed to see the parallels in her own story, which is itself a series of flights, or escapes from her own feelings of guilt…her inability to deal with things.

Perhaps, Almodóvar seems to be saying, as Julieta journeys from place to place…from life to life, every journey is a kind of escape

And these escapes are as much sexual as they are geographical.  Both her father and her husband mirror escapes from the despair of ailing wives into the waiting pleasures of others. Indeed, sex is something you either escape to, or like her daughter (who, it is implied, had a lesbian fling) something you escape from. Julieta’s escape is a much deeper, more damaging one. She retreats into a kind of selfishness that locks her away from an ability to empathize with the people she loves: husband, father, daughter, friend.

This is a Southern Gothic/Carsons McCullers tragedy by way of Spain.

The movie’s weakness is that Almodóvar is too often willing to sacrifice his characters’ emotional truths for the thematic truths of the narrative; and at times, his people do things that that simply feel out of character… leaves you nonplussed

No matter. He manages to pull of a marvelous balancing act: in spite of the gloominess of the tale, and the hurtful self-centeredness of his characters, they all remain compellingly engaging. (OK, they’re also compellingly good looking. But that’s not the point.) Almodóvar has a light touch that veers toward life’s absurdities rather than its gloom. So much so, that when the movie ended on a note of ambiguous optimism, with Julieta once again on a journey, now away from escapism to discovery, from despair to hope, I myself had hoped for a few more hours in their delightful company.

Perhaps I’ll just go see it again

 

Julieta. Dir/writer: Pedro Almodóvar. With Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Emma Suárez, Inma Cuesta, Daniel Grao. Cinematographer: Jean-Claude Larrieu. Production Designer: Antxón Gómez

 

THE SHALLOWS*** Castaway meets Jaws


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THE SHALLOWS IS a no-fuss, heart-stopping rush of unapologetic B movie excitement that once again confirms: if you must swim, stick to a pool.

It’s a simple enough tale: a young woman (Blake Lively: The Story of Adeline; Cafe Society)  – abandoned by her friend – journeys to a beautiful and deserted beach (supposedly in Mexico, but actually filmed in Australia) to surf and experience the place in homage to her dead mother. There are a couple of other surfers there, who, as the sun begins to set, leave her alone…alone in a paradisical place, with its swelling sea, its increasingly infrequent waves and, hidden beneath the beauty of it all, the mother of all killer sharks.

We’ve all been trained by Spielberg to fear the sight of legs dangling below the waterline; that image of absolute innocent vulnerability. It’s a fear that director Jaume Collet-Serra (Run All Night + several of Liam Neeson’s vengeance movies) takes full advantage of, as the single surfer on a lonely sea with an angry shark soon enough have their first bloody encounter.

From this point on, with just a few gratuitous filaments of back story to break up (and increase) the tension, it’s woman – stranded on a shard of rock, fast sinking under a rising tide – versus shark. About a hundred yards away, bobbing and swaying in the heaving sea is a warning buoy. As the waters rise, can she get there before the shark gets to her?

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Fortunately, the woman is a medical student who knows how to suture a shark bite with earrings (it’s probably a course option at medical school). No matter. Between the shark bite, blades of flesh ripping coral and glowing jellyfish stings, the shark seems to have all the cards stacked in its favour.

You know who’s going to win! But Collet-Serra’s spare, brilliant directing and the thoroughly convincing agony of Bake Lively (frankly, a lot more convincing than Leonardo’s Revenant) make this ninety minute duel in the sea absolutely absorbing and compelling fun. Lively’s wordless, wounded stoic determination is as watchably engaging a solo performance as Tom Hanks’ castaway or Will Smith’s I am Legend 

The movie is a master class of B movie structuring. It begins with a shocker of an image just to grab our attention. From this point on, Collet-Serra layers his simple plot line without an irrelevant scene: the driver who gets her to the beach at the beginning, the two fellow surfers, even a wounded seagull all slot perfectly into place to lead us to the thrilling (and slightly nonsensical, but who’s complaining?) denouement.

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It’s a B movie, so don’t look for too much heavy thinking. Just this: when the locals tell you, “there are no sharks in these waters”, go somewhere else

The Shallows. Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra. With Blake Lively. Written by: Anthony Jaswinski. Cinematographer: Flavio Martinez Labiano (Non Stop, Unknown)

JASON BOURNE** The Bourne Disappointment


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TAKE A DEEP breath before Jason Bourne starts, because you won’t breathe again for the next two hours in this fast paced, but ultimately flavorless (money-grubbing?) reboot of the Bourne franchise. Director Paul Greengrass clearly made the (wrong) decision to go for a revisited Bourne that was bigger, louder, more effects laden than past Bourne’s.

The story hinges on the discovery by Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles), still in hiding and now turned Edward Snowden type hacker, about the involvement of Bourne’s father in ‘the programme’. As you’d expect, her every move is being monitored by an omniscient CIA, now deeply integrated with a reluctant tech giant called Deep Dreams – a Facebook-esque company.

So far so good. Perhaps we’re entering a world where themes about the nature of patriotism and the responsibility of spying are about to be aired.

Nope.

When we meet Jason, he’s an itinerant fighter; a lean, mean, muscled fighting machine. Bourne and Parsons agree to meet in Syriza square in Athens… for no real reason but that it allows Greengrass to up the ante on the tense cat and mouse drama at Waterloo station that unleashed the action in The Bourne Ultimatum. The nerve-wracking tension of that meeting is now replaced by spectacle: the frenzy and chaos of rioting crowds battling shield-carrying police. Greengrass’ signature style of his jerky hand held camera really does plunge the viewer into the confusion, danger and panic of the crowds. And compared with the brilliance of the Waterloo encounter, this one is a far more elaborately and densely plotted piece of filmmaking. But it’s symptomatic of what’s lacking in this empty reboot: it lacks either tension or nuance.

For the success of the Bourne franchise lay not only in the incredible and inventive action scenes (who can forget the chase along the rooftops in Tangier?) but in those characters who felt real, from an anguished, guilt-ridden Bourne to a sympathetic Pamela Landy (Joan Allen)… to the layers of narratives (inter-agency conflict; Bourne’s love affair; the grand scale of public deception etc), to Bourne’s cleverness (like blowing up an apartment using a magazine stuffed in a toaster).

And that feeling of “the real” was delicately woven into the structure of the stories through those little, seemingly irrelevant touches, like the dark shadowy Noah Vosen (Jason Strathairn) ordering the “heart healthy omelet” for breakfast with Landy or the touching intimacy between Bourne and Parsons at a diner when she seemed to confess to a past they may have shared.

These were the things that kept us (fans) seeing the movies over and over again.

In Jason Bourne (the name itself signifies the cop-out nature of the movie), gone are those “flavor enhancing” elements. Bourne himself has lost the human beneath the cold eyes. Now that he remembers everything, gone is that engaging existential angst. This new Bourne is simply a blunt instrument, a mere action hero; one who you never feel is ever in danger.

Gone too is the cleverness. At its heart, there was a whodunnit intrigue to the stories, as our embattled innocent hero tried to figure out not just who he was, but who was framing him and why. In Jason Bourne, the plot device of his father’s putative involvement in the program (The one that turned David Webb into Jason Bourne), remains a plot device; there merely as an excuse to unleash lashings of action without any real sleuthing.

Gone also are the clever chases. It’s all just Fast and Furious without a trace of finesse.

Nor are the characters particularly compelling. An even more craggy Tommy Lee Jones as the CIA director is a paint by numbers bureaucrat with an itchy trigger finger. And Alicia Vikander, as Heather Lee, the amoral, careerist analyst, betrays no obvious signs of sentient behaviour… with a portrait of such monotone flatness you wonder if she’s been body snatched by her robotic alter ego from Ex Machina.

Greengrass’ uninspired, leaden script probably doesn’t help either. Gone is Tony Gilroy who wrote and scripted the previous movies (and who also wrote Michael Clayton and the magnificent Proof of Life)

In a recent interview, Matt Damon said that he’d convinced Greengrass of the need to revive the franchise “to give something back to the fans”.

But not this. The/we fans deserve a lot better.

 

JASON BOURNE (2016) With Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vince Cassel, Julia Styles. Writers: Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse. Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd (The Big Short. Captain Phillips). Editor: Christopher Rouse (Captain Phillips. Green Zone. The Bourne Ultimatum etc)

 

THE BFG****A Giant of a Movie


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NOBODY CHANNELS THE inner child as brilliantly as Steven Spielberg, in this slow moving but stunningly well-realized piece of magic. His adaptation of Roald Dahl’s touching tale of Sophie, a little lonely orphan girl who one night is kidnapped/rescued by a gentle giant, is a treat.

The giant (the eponymous BFG or big friendly giant), who can very cleverly ‘disappear’ in plain sight to avoid being seen by humans, has the magical ability to hear all the whispers in the world. Perhaps, her whispers of loneliness were ones he’d heard. It’s his job to bottle up dreams – both the pleasant kinds and the not so pleasant kinds. In a sense therefore, to this lonely little girl, lost in her world of books, the BFG is the man/brother/ father/protector of her dreams.

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He takes her, in a moment of Spielbergian terror, his large hand like a tentacled monster reaching into her room. Then, leaping over highways, mountains and oceans, like a sprite, he gently sets her down in the cave where he lives – nestled in a valley of giants. But unlike the BFG, there’s no F to these giants (with wonderful names such as Gizzardgulper, Childchewer, Bonecruncher and Butcher Boy). They delight in eating little children…or, for fun, bullying the BFG – a tiny runt compared with them.  Clearly he himself is as much in need of protection as she is.

The BFG and Sophie: they’re an odd pair, whose pairing must defeat the ogres and protect the defenceless children.

Game on!

The timing of this movie seems particularly astute: as the world continues to spin out of control, here’s a story told without a shred of irony, cynicism or moral ambiguity. It’s a little oasis of purity and light in a dark, dark world. Spielberg’s movies have never stooped to the kind of defensive self-referential glibness… the longing to be hip, the worldly ennui… that plagues so many movies (like the barely watchable Deadpool). In The BFG, the world he creates (with his long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski) is absorbingly charming…from the cluttered, childish, cave-like dwelling of the giant, aglow with his jars of dreams, to the fantasy, story-book rooms of an imagined Buckingham Palace (where an activist HRH (Penelope Wilson), with her retinue of corgis, commands an army of nineteenth century looking generals to take on the giants).

This is a Spielberg opening up his imagination (via some extraordinary special-effects wizardry) , and ours, to his own magic kingdom.

And if he delivers, with style, his storytelling genius, it’s the brilliance of Mark Rylance as the BFG that’s the icing on the cake. In a recent interview on BBC, Spielberg told the interviewer that he considered Rylance to be by far the greatest actor he’s worked with (first on Bridge of Spies and slated for the next two Spielberg movies). And you can see why: in what could easily have been either an over the top fe-fi-fo-fum giant or pure schmaltz, Rylance’s sly, understated performance, even in the face of occasional slapstick, is as genuine and affectlessly honest as the movie itself. Speaking in an invented Cornish sounding accent (which I guess is how giants speak) Rylance delivers Melissa Mathison’s elaborately inventive Dhal-ian malapropisms with musical beauty. And there’s a real chemistry with his tiny co-star, Ruby Barnhill, whose confident first-time outing delivers a sense of open eyed wonder that mirrors ours.

If there was one disappointment: John Williams’ score did its job, but without the punchy memorableness we’ve come to expect from him.

A small matter. One word of warning. If you go to this, leave your adult reserve at the door; and better yet, go with a child or two

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The BFG. Dir: Steven Spielberg. With Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilson (Downtown Abbey), Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3). Screenplay: Melissa Mathison. Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Production Designers: Rick Carter (most of Spielberg + Avatar) & Robert Stromberg (Alice in Wonderland). Composer: John Williams