MUDBOUND***** Excellent


This superb movie (Another challenge to Hollywood by Netflix) is an epic, small-scale film (There could be no more than a dozen or so characters) that, confidently, tackles the huge issue of (black) servitude – the legacy of slavery – and the struggle for freedom.

The story centres on two, dirt poor, families – neighbours – in rural Mississippi. One family, the McAllan’s is White and the other, the Jackson’s is Black. After being suckered by a sheister, the McAllan’s find themselves sharing a (symbolic) common plot of mud-drenched farmland with the Jackson’s. It’s a come-down in life. They see the land as a curse. The Jackson’s see it as a blessing. But despite the commonalities of their circumstances – the unforgiving rain, a long shared history, a family structure that almost mirrors each other’s, the daily grind to eek out a living from the land- the divide of race remains a barrier that can never be surmounted.

Even seventy five years after the end of slavery, the master/slave dynamic remains hard wired into the muscle memory; into a sense of identity, bound to a status quo that demands that the Blacks know their place: one of servility and deference. The scenes of rural poverty, of people literally stuck in the mud suggest that the belief of (White) racial superiority is the only thing there is to offer these poor Whites some semblance of self-respect. Without it, there is nothing. Only poverty (and Trump).

The two women in the families, Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Florence (a superb Mary J. Blige) share some sort of recognisably human bond (They’re both also meant to “know their place”): in times of trouble, Laura, herself trapped in a miserable life, depends on the healing hands of Florence. There are moments when human compassion and empathy override the racial relationship that defines their lives, when two people see each other as people, not racial types. But it is Poppy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), an embittered, racist KKK member, whose unrelenting hostility sets the tone.

The problem comes when the two sons, Jamie McAllan (Garret Hedlund) and Ronsell Jackson (Jason Mitchell, so very good in “Detroit”) return from the (2nd World) war. This war of liberation has for them become the theatre of their own personal liberations; their own personal epiphanies. For Jamie, the simple verities of White masters and Black slaves have been shattered by the necessarily shared values of fighting shoulder to shoulder (and by being saved by a Black fighter pilot). For Ronsell, the shock of being regarded as a liberator, as an equal, has so shifted his world-view that the demeaning servility expected of him back home becomes unbearable.

The two men form a bond, a band of brothers in a minor key.

But Jamie, with his not understood PTSS and Ronsell with his uppity ways, are strangers in their own town. And this cannot be permitted. The tradition of racism, so knitted to identity and self worth, must defend itself against the post-war disease of equality. The old ways will never yield to the new (as the KKK do their thing).

But director Dee Rees’ thesis that the individual can transcend his/her history and find fulfilment no matter the odds, leads to an ending that feels shoe-horned onto a gloomier and more honest conclusion.

It’s a minor blemish to a major work.

Apart from the excellence of this movie, there’s something radical and groundbreaking about it: many of the production crew (cinematographer, editor, composer, writer) buck Hollywood tradition: they’re mostly Black and they’re mostly women.

Way to go Netflix

 

MUDBOUND. Dir: Dee Rees. With: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige. Writers: Virgil Williams (Who wrote most of the “24” TV series), and Dee Rees from a book by Hilary Jordan. Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison (“Cake”); Production Designer: David Bomba (“Walk the Line”, “Godless”)

 

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PADDINGTON BEAR 2**** A Christmas Joy


THERE ARE A couple of scenes in this marvelous movie that are guffawingly funny. When the brilliantly realized, thoroughly clutzy, Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) decides he has to earn some money cleaning windows, Director Paul King (who directed the first movie) unleashes a series of comedy routines that are simply priceless.

This revisiting of Michael Bond’s good natured bear and his adopted family (or is it the other way around?) is as good as the first.

King’s fluid, roaming camera (that takes you with him to the edge of thunderous waterfalls and swoops over rooftops) gives the story (of a bear in search of a stolen book) an energy and a stylishness that’s irresistible. You can’t blame Hugh Grant’s (we presume apocryphal) story that his father queried whether the bear were real. As far as I’m concerned, Framestore’s magic made it so.

And as you’d expect in a story like this, there’s a hissable baddy: said Hugh Grant as the dastardly Phoenix Buchanan

This is Grant’s movie-dominating, scene-stealing, triumphant tour de force return to the movies (a return he tempted us with in “Florence Foster-Jenkins”). Even if you hate “kid’s movies” see it just for him. Grant isn’t just one baddie, but several. He’s a devious washed-up actor, desperate for some extra cash; and he’s a shifty nun, a piratical Magwich, a Medieval knight in armour, a bumbling bald train conductor and an all round deliciously entertaining comedian.

He’s backed up by a who’s who of Brit cinema: Brendan Gleeson as a career criminal who falls for marmalade, Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as Paddington’s adopted parents, Michael Gambon, Richard Ayoade, Jim Broadbent, Joanna Lumley being Ab Fab, Peter Capaldi, still nasty, Imelda Staunton and others

Here’s a version of England as the England – community spirited, diverse, forgiving – as we’d all like it to be. And giving the entire enterprise a jolly pep to its step (as in P1) is a swaying, smile-making Trinidad calypso band (D Lime featuring calypsonian Tobago Crusoe).

Who could want for anything more

 

PADDINGTON 2. Dir: Paul King, With: Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins. Written by: Simon Farnaby (from the books by Michael Bond) along with Paul King. Cinematographer: Erik Wilson. Production Designer: Gary WIlliamson

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS*** Occidental Tourists


THE CHALLENGE FACING Kenneth Branagh in his stylish re-imagining of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” was how to make a dated, preposterous story, engage an audience well accustomed to very high class murder mysteries on TV.

As a reminder of the story: Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Branagh), sporting (or I should say, fighting against) an absurd clownish mustache, finds himself on a train with an eclectic cast of characters, one of whom is brutally murdered. The train (said Orient Express chugging through snowfall from Istanbul to London) gets stranded by an avalanche and it behooves the world famous detective, armed only with his formidable intellect (and without even the aid of Google) to solve the mystery and reveal the murderer.

Branagh’s solution to his problem is to offer us a conjurer’s trick. He invites the audience to slip back into the effortless glamour of 40’s Hollywood, when everyone looked fabulous; when the clothes, like the complexions glowed with an otherworldly gossamer of elegance and sumptuous wealth. And not just the people: the scenery, the sets, the locations are all gloriously beautiful. There is one particular moment when the detective’s motor launch steams into the Bosporus that is picture postcard perfect.

And it’s while we’re engaged, preoccupied, by all this visual spectacle that he sneaks in a crudely cartoonish, tension-free version of Cluedo. Was it the butler with the hammer in the library or the count with the spanner in the bedroom?

The story presents us with a series of broadly drawn stock caricatures that this high quality ensemble of actors struggle to transcend. Judi Dench is the haughty Princess with her fussy dog, Daisy Ridley is the deceptively sweet governess, Johnny Depp (mercifully contained) is the brash gangster, Derek Jocobi is the snooty man-servant, Michelle Pfeiffer is the flirtatious American, Olivia Coleman is the dowdy German lady in waiting, Penélope Cruz is the distraught sinner etc. The twist of course is that below the caricature, there are real beating hearts, one of whom is a murderer. But caricature wins out over the beating hearts, whose stories never quite make it to the surface despite an endless yawn of interrogations.

Christie’s writing may have made this absurd assemblage easier to digest by colluding with her readers’ imaginations and escapist fantasies. But writ large on the big screen in a post “Gone Girl” world, these cartoonish characters all seem shop worn and passé.

In the end, the big, deliberately theatrical reveal, with a Poirot burdened with his choice between the law and Justice, seems all very anti-climatic.

That said, as a lover of great cinematography (Haris Zambarloukos of “Denial” and “Thor”), brilliant production design (Jim Clay of “Woman in Gold” and “Love Actually”) and inventive wardrobes (Alexandra Bayne of “Doctor Strange” and the “Avengers” franchise), it was a very watchable film. (Far more watchable, say, than the much-lauded faux jollyness of “Thor: Ragnarok” which, at best, was a great cure for insomnia)

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Dir: Kenneth Branagh. With Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman. Writer: Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”), Composer: Patrick Doyle (“Thor: Ragnarok”)

 

ANDREA WULF: THE INVENTION OF NATURE**** Just Brilliant

This gallery contains 4 photos.


A hundred years after his birth, in 1869, almost every major city around the world celebrated the man who, at his peak, was the most famous man alive: Alexander von Humboldt. There were fireworks, street parades, speeches and festivities. He wasn’t a soldier, or a politician or an artist. The world was celebrating the anniversary […]

THE DEATH OF STALIN***** From Russia with Wit


HAVING RIDICULED THE amoral, power hungry incompetence at the hearts of governments in his outrageously funny TV series, “The Thick of It” and “Veep”, where could writer/director Armando Iannucci turn to find a proxy for the infighting imbeciles in Whitehall and the dangerously powerful infants running the White House?

You turn to a country where amoral, power hungry incompetence is wedded to sleazy sex and a ruthless reign of terror: the Soviet Union. “The Death of Stalin” is billed, accurately as “a comedy of terrors”. And what a comedy! What terrors!

The story spans the (three year) period between the death of Stalin and the ‘election’ of Nikita Khrushchev, during which time, against a background of on-going summary executions, Stalin’s inner presidium went, briefly, from mourning to chaotic in-fighting, plotting and double- crossing to the eventual victory of the army-backed Khrushchev over the secret service-backed Beria.

And this is the stuff of comedy?

In Iannucci’s hands it is. He deftly manages to maintain a neat balance between the terror (never marginalized) and outrageous, often slapstick comedy. From the outset Iannucci establishes Stalin’s absolute authority when we see him demand the recording of a just finished live piano concert. It’s not an unreasonable request but for the fact that the concert hadn’t been recorded. Welcome to the world of Stalinist Soviet absurdity, as a panicked producer (Paddy Consadine) frantically locks everyone he can into the concert hall, dragoons innocent passers-by to fill in any vacant seats left (to ensure that the sound accurately replicates the original performance), drags a conductor (terrified) from his bed in his pyjamas (to stand in for the original conductor who’s passed out) and records the re-performed symphony. The flunkies awaiting the record are furious that it all took so long.

So when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is found comatose on his carpet (“in a puddle of indignity”), there is no absolute authority to tell his courtiers what to do. Chaos ensues. They can’t even carry his body from one room to the other without pratfalls and mayhem. It’s a woefully dysfunctional team of ruthlessly powerful sycophants and clowns who, relieved of the puppet master, turn on each other. Iannucci zeroes in on his cast of characters with laser like precision, peeling back their disarmingly banal character traits to reveal their deeper natures. Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) is the conniving master plotter disguised as the harmless clown prince; Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is the avuncular rapist and executioner; Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the empty figurehead; Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) is the soldier hero in love with himself; Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend) is the idiot son who needs to be either sedated or heavily managed; Svetlana Stalin (Andrea Riseborough) is the distraught daughter slowly fraying at the edges. And on and on. And somewhere out there, beyond the gilded walls of the Kremlin, slightly out of focus are the wretched people who suffer at every turn.

It’s a world of dysfunction, incompetence and the greed for power. “The Death of Stalin” may be set in Russia and may have itemised the events and characters in the aftermath of that eponymous death. But it’s really a story about the present state of the self-serving Republicans and the infighting Conservatives. Democracy or dictatorship. It’s almost as though the director were suggesting (seen through the lens of laughter) that the institutions of either of these opposite political systems were no more than facades for the interchangeable venalities and greeds of the people who run them.

As you’d expect from Iannucci, the writing (along with fellow writers, David Schneider and Ian Martin) is as spot-on sharp as it is scatalogical. Everyone curses all the time. It’s as though the conversations of his characters are as debased as their souls.

And the acting is outstanding. Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale carry much of the show, but the quality of supporting cast, even in the smallest of roles (such as Paddy Constdine’s distraught, dandyish concert producer or Michael Palin’s faux-courageous Molotov) ensures that the whole enterprise never flags.

Maybe Trump/Congress and May/Parliament should be made to watch this movie over and over again until the penny drops.

But that’d probably take years

 

THE DEATH OF STALIN. Dir: Armando Iannucci. With: Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, Ruper Friend, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale. Written by: Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin; adapted from the comic book of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Production Designer: Cristina Casali. Cinematographer: Zac Niclolson

 

THE PARTY**** May the farce be with you


FINALLY, AFTER SO many pre-pubescent attempts at humor by Hollywood, here’s an intelligent, adult, very theatrical, well-acted and laugh-out loud farce.

The story centres around the small gathering (and it’s certainly no party) that comes together to celebrate the elevation of Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) as a government minister and newly appointed shadow minister of health. And, as you’d expect from any self-respecting farce, there’s a loaded gun, a body and a – very British – knot of infidelities.

From the very beginning, we suspect that things aren’t quite as they seem: Janet, in the kitchen, is politely fending off an avalanche of congratulatory calls (from a phone she keeps in her bra), even as she whispers sweet nothings to her insistent lover. Within, in the living room, sitting slouched, centre-stage on a chair, is her slightly drunk, slightly catatonic husband, Bill (Timothy Spall). Between these poles of the gorgeous, well-appointed cheating wife and the sloppy, seedy-looking drunk husband, flit the guests. And what an odd collection they are: the lesbian lovers expecting triplets (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), the leftie best friend (Patricia Clarkson) with her German new-age partner spouting meaningless clichés (Bruno Gatz), and the coke-snorting, gun-toting banker (Cillian Murphy).

As their stories play out things slowly (inevitably) swing out of control. Chaos takes over, the catalyst for which, is a dramatic moment-stopping revelation.

Truth will out.

And with truth comes domestic violence, wild gun-play, burnt volevonts, infidelities unmasked and a near-death.

The cast are at the top of their form, particularly Kristin Scott Thomas who seems to delight in stripping away the sheen of her usual icy cool hauteur for a nastier, more atavistic core. Timothy Spall, whose every twitch speaks volumes, commands the screen, even though the totality of his script couldn’t be more than a paragraph’s worth of words; and Cillian Murphy, his character ever desperate to reassure himself that he’s a “winner”, is pitch perfect as the deranged, sweaty, self-obsessed picture of desperation.

The movie was written and directed by Sally Potter, an artist whose films (“Ginger and Rose”) have been consistently winning plaudits on the Independent Cinema award circuits. Maybe this one will move her up a notch or two of recognition.

It’s a delicate balance, this kind of comedy: the discussions about honesty and love, about democracy and governance; the overall appearance of normalcy and the genuine anger and fear on the part of the guests, all seem almost serious. It’s as though we’ve been invited to a genuine domestic drama, only to realize that we’ve been cleverly conned into a far from serious domestic farce. The clever trick is that everything is turned up just one notch extra (a nice touch at the beginning of the movie is when Bill turns up his record – and it is a record – one touch too high). As the move progresses, Potter turns up the ‘volume’ notch by excruciating notch. But the movie never slips into childish caricature. The characters remain –almost- real people…who have all slipped into a kind of – hilarious – nervous breakdown.

Perhaps it’s just an artist’s subtle sleight of hand. Perhaps this is no mere, lightweight, domestic farce. This is post-Brexit Britain, and the present government’s on-going, increasingly hilarious comedy routine.

A comedy of the absurd.

 

THE PARTY. Written/Dir: Sally Porter. With Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall. Cinematographer: Aleksei Podinov

 

BLADE RUNNER*** Out of the world


Beware: there may be some minor spoilers within

THIS IS A lush, sensuous piece of cinema. The terrific combination of director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”, “Arrival”), cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Sicario”, “Skyfall”), production designer Dennis Gassner (“Spectre”, “Skyfall”) and the brooding menacing score by Hans Zimmer (“Dunkirk”) have brought to life – quite spectacularly – the desolate, ruined, ever raining, garish, neon-lit world of LA in 2049. The figures are often dwarfed, lost in the unnatural light, the foggy mists of this post-apocalypse city where holographic Elvis concerts and sinuous naked women play out to faceless, indifferent passers-by.

The visual impact is stunning, and so seductively engaging that on many occasions, you’re forced to concentrate on what’s being said rather than being distracted by the eerie, melancholic strangeness on the screen.

The story follows the search by LAPD officer, K (Ryan Gosling) for one or maybe two babies that were born (miraculously) thirty five years before. They are potentially the offsprings of a human (maybe)/Android coupling; between the old blade hunter, Rick Dekard (Harrison Ford), whose humanity remains ambiguous, and his replicant lover.

Things have moved on since the days when Rick hunted down replicants gone bad. The newly created replicants, like K (whose name, humanized to Joe by his lover, deliberately mirrors that of Kafka’s alienated Josef K) are more obedient. And Gosling’s slightly bored, almost robotic acting style suits the role to a T.

But, in a world where the real and the unreal are almost the same, things begin to go awry for K after he begins to intuit that one of his childhood memories may well be real, and not just an implant.

Though there’s a boast that the replicants are more human than the humans, their mastermind, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto…replacing the original intention to cast Dave Bowie) bemoans their lack of two essential qualities: a reproductive womb and a soul.

K’s increasingly obsessive search for the babies shatters the myth of his replicant obedience. It makes him a target of the State lead by a ruthlessly badass, and ironically named, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). But it also leads him to Rick, the father of the twins, with whom he bonds.

This outer search is really K’s inner search for his real identity. Is he a replicant created in a factory, or human? And what really does being human mean? Certainly the love he has for Joi, (Ana de Armas) his AI “companion” who can morph from helpmeet to seductress (joy) in a blink of an eye (and with whom, in the body of a human prostitute he has one of cinema’s weirdest couplings) is real.

Can the realness of this love indicate the presence of a soul? Does this simply mean that he is human or that he’s become a replicant with a soul? And if the latter, then the fundamental divide aggressively maintained by the State, between replicants and humans becomes meaningless.

It’s a beautifully and intelligently scripted movie (by Hampton Fancher – “Blade Runner 1982” and Michael Green – “Logan”). No wonder Harrison Ford found it the best script he’d read. This is the kind of movie the Oscar types love: it’s so rich in that irreplaceable big screen, cinema experience and just enough profundity to make the experience ‘meaningful’, that the gaping flaws are overlooked (like “Gravity” and “La La Land”).

Watch this space.

The problem I found with the movie though, is that despite the script’s yearning for depth and the awesomeness of the production design, as a basic whodunnit narrative, there were countless gaps and holes in the storyline. One of the childten for example, is allergic to germs (symbolically allergic to the world she lives in) and holed up in an antiseptic bubble. Who put her there and keeps her there? Why? K flies around in a beaten up old LAPD car that turns into a rocket launching lethal weapon, taking out several other cop cars whose location he seems to have intuited. Huh?

And it was looong. It comes in at just under three hours. Though never boring, there were many moments when I wished they’d simply get on with the story, which often felt self indulgent…a bit too smugly pleased with itself. Joe Walker who has worked with Villeneuve on both “Sicario” and “Arrival” needed to have tightened the editing far more severely.

That said, it’s an enjoyable evolution on Ridley Scott’s initial story. Thank God he, or some canny producer, allowed him to relinquish control to Villeneuve (and not muck it up the way he’s done with the “Alien” franchise)
We’re always grateful for any small blessing.

 

BLADE RUNNER 2049. Dir: Denis Villeneuve. With: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright. Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green based on a story by Phillip K. Dick. Cinematographer: Roger Deakins. Production Designer: Dennis Gassner. Composers: Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer