WHAT A DELICIOUSLY well structured, seductively engaging movie…about murder, deception, obsession and passion.

If that sounds quintessentially French, it sure is.

The story loops forward and backward in time so that the initial scenes (a young man on a bicycle with a goat strapped to his back in an Abidjan (Ivory Coast) slum; a woman gone missing, lost somewhere in the blank whiteness of a snow choked northern France: a pretty young Insurance agent who leaves the family home one morning to visit one of her clients with whom she proceeds to have oddly disengaged sex.)

How are they all related? How do these disparate incidents and people interconnect? Why is the woman making out with this man who is clearly not interested in her? Is her husband aware of her infidelity (as he claims to be) and if so, why is he so indifferent to it? Who is this woman that’s gone missing? And what does all of this have to do with the young man on a bike in central Africa?

Like any good murder mystery, the sordid details of the often bizarre entanglements of the central characters slowly come into focus.

And what characters they are: the insurance agent, Alice (Laure Calamy), denied the passions of her husband seems desperate for the affection of (any?) other. Her husband, Michel (Denis Ménochet) is surly and withdrawn, living a dark secret life in his farmer’s office behind the shadow of his penned sheep and the glow of his computer. Her -Alice’s- equally surely lover, Joseph (Damien Bonnard)- another perennially hay dusted farmer – is equally withdrawn and still in shock from the death of his mother (whose body he, apparently, kept hidden until it decayed. As one does.) We are introduced to the story of the missing woman, Evelyn (Valerie Bruni Tedeschi). She is a married, fourty-ish, wealthy executive, whose loveless open marriage opened her up to flitting dalliances. She isn’t looking for love; just hot sex. But the dalliance she tumbles into bed with (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) is in search of love, not just sex. A bad combination. And our youth in Africa (Guy Roger N’Drin) ) is just a small time hustler, out to make his mark; and perhaps earn the love of the mother of his child.

In his conversation with the local voodoo shaman, the young African man is queried about his understanding about love. “Love,” informs the shaman “is giving what you don’t have. Anything else is just pleasure”

Aah, pleasure. These characters lie, cheat, steal and murder; all in the name of love, but maybe simply in service to pleasure. Where there is (physical) passion, the emotional charge is always in a one-way direction. It’s as though the givers and the receivers of love simply can’t align. For despite the lubricants of (a lot of) sex and (smatterings of) money, where there is love, it is never mutual.

It’s a very clever, intricate plot…so nice to indulge in a movie where the director (Dominic Moll) has made the effort to minimise the often gaping loopholes and to reel in his audience so that revelation upon absurdist revelation, the slow striptease unraveling of the mystery, becomes such a delight.


ONLY THE ANIMALS. Dir: Dominic Moll. Screenplay: Dominik Moll and Gilles Marchand (From the novel by Colin Niel). With: Denis Ménochet, Laure Calamy, Damien Bonnard, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Valerie Bruni Tedeschi, Guy Roger N’Drin. Music: Benedict Schiefer. Cinematographer: Patrick Ghiringhelli



NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS*****definitely, decidedly, unreservedly, now

AT THE DEAD centre of this thoroughly engaging movie, the stoic, unmoving visage of the central character, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan in her first movie) cracks. This naive, determined, innocent girl, in response to questions about her sexual experiences – and in particular about forced, coerced sex – never, rarely, sometimes, always, can no longer hold it together. For a moment, the blank defensive wall of her private world opens up, just long enough for us to glimpse the scars within.

The story follows the secret (from her family) journey of pregnant Autumn and her bff, Skylar (Talia Ryder…who starred in Matilda and soon to be seen in Spielberg’s version of West Side Story) to New York, the big, alien, hostile big city. She’s in search of an abortion. The two friends rarely exchange words: this is a friendship deeper than any words…an almost intuitive union. It’s a union of love and companionship and protectiveness that’s set in direct contrast with the other union, which resulted in the child growing within her.

The men we meet are all sleazy, sexually predatory. They embody the contrast between the emotional trust and tenderness of these two girls v the physical danger (of the city, of the men they know, of the protesters outside the abortion clinic, of the future perhaps) they must learn how to handle.

Throughout their odyssey, they drag around an old wheelie suitcase. It contains clothes – which are never used – and that seems to grow heavier with every passing hour. They drag it up steep stairs, run with it through the rain, and hoist it up to be checked by security guards. It’s a lovely symbol of the baggage they, everyone, must drag through life. It’ll weigh you down, the story suggests, if you let it.

Filmed in a rough and ready, seemingly artless, cine verity style, we follow these two teenagers over the few days they spend, living from hand to mouth, snatching moments of sleep in public waiting areas, scarfing down cheap Chinese buns and simply eking our the few dollars they’ve scrabbled together.

The entire movie focuses intimately on the faces and gestures of its two principals. Their faces carry the movie. And they’re both superb. The protagonist, Sidney Flanigan, reminds me of Saoirse Ronan in the tremendous expressiveness of a blank face. Her friend, Talia Ryder, believable empathetic and supportive, is a fresh, stunningly beautiful face. Stardom awaits.

The English critic Peter Bradshaw wrote that a good movie must combine and balance the intellectual the emotional and the visceral. By those standards, this is a sure fire five star winner.

After its short ninety minutes, director/writer Eliza Hittman leaves you in no doubt what it must be like (the terror, the danger, the reserves of strength needed) for the naive small town girl to brave a world that is at best indifferent and at worst, physically threatening.

And God knows what dangers their return ‘back home’ await them.

On last word on this movie: It was written, directed, scored, shot, cast, designed, costumed, sound designed and co-produced by women!


NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES NEVER. Director/Writer: Eliza Hittman (who is also an editor, actor, production designer and producer) With: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder. Cinematographer: Helene Louvart.





THIS IS A stunningly original and thoroughly engaging examination of the shared corporate omertà that kept (keeps?) the likes of Harvey Weinstein in power…over his cowed employees and over the flow of women dazzled by dreams of fame.

The story follows a day in the life of Jane, the eponymous assistant (Julia Garner from Ozark). She is withdrawn, insecure, clearly highly competent and increasingly concerned by the predatory reach of her boss. Said boss, some sort of mega powerful studio executive, is never seen. He’s simply “he”…a malign force-field hidden behind closed doors, heard only in muffled conversations and belligerent shouts. We see groups of people come and go, seeking his direction, his approvals and, for the young women, his entry ticket -they hope – to stardom. Their jobs are clear-cut: to serve his every whim. Total compliance is the only route to career growth, not to mention job security.

For everyone, from the lowliest (the assistant, Jane) to the most senior, depend entirely on him. As Jane’s father tells her, “It’s a great job. You’re fortunate to have it”. In other words, work hard, see nothing, say nothing. This is how – this- business functions.

The camera is focused almost entirely on the expressive face and the actions of Jane’s daily duties and her barely concealed and growing rage. It follows her as she answers his calls (including to a distraught wife), manages his travel and appointments, executes the menial tasks (of photocopying, cleaning up the messes left behind after conference meetings, even neatly stacking dozens of hypodermic syringes). One of her jobs also is to clear away the evidence of his dalliances (a dropped bracelet here, a lost earring there). Her job is even to safely conduct the naive young things to the expensive hotels he accommodates them in…a mutual accommodation of sorts.

As the day progresses and the story arcs to its distressing conclusion, the viewer is left in no doubt that the defences he’s built around his reputation are total. And the only hope is that, as the oleaginous head of HR (Matthew Macfadyen) tells her, “You’ve nothing to worry about. You’re not his type”

The brilliance of this quiet (with its sound design of only natural sounds and voices), understated (and inexpensively produced) movie is the incisiveness of director/writer Kitty Green’s observations, and her astute decision to let the story carry its own potency. There’s no false or heightened drama. There are no cathartic speeches, no overt expressions of outrage or demonstrations of conscience; just the hum drum banality of office life, office gossip and the casual acceptance by everyone that this is all par for the course.

She may be the focus of the tale, but in a sense they’re all assistants, passively assisting in the continuity of abuse that you reveal at your own peril.



THE ASSISTANT. Dir/writer: Kitty Green (Casting Jon Benet). With: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh. Cinematographer: Michael Latham




MOVIE SHORTS. Misbehaviour and Extraction

A new style movie watching…from my couch

The Plot:
It’s the twin stories of the rise of feminism and the cracks in the 1970 Miss World contest (previously an all White affair). The parallel stories are told through the eyes of the two principal characters: Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), one the early feminist leaders, and Jennifer Hosten, (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) the Grenadian who won the beauty contest . Sally is a quiet, conservative woman/wife/mother/student of conscience who finds herself the unwitting spokesperson for the fledgling movement as it barrels its way toward a huge, televised disruption of the beauty contest, starring Bob Hope.

The Idea
The movie examines the common thread that links racism and sexism: both accepted expressions of a patriarchy dominated status quo. Both of course still dominate a status quo that’s still patriarchal. But the movie celebrates the huge personal courage and moral principle It took to make these first hugely publicised moves

Why You Should View It
It’s a gripping drama that’s nicely directed (by Phillipa Lowthorpe) and vastly entertaining. Uptight Sally (Knightley), egged on by her outlandish side-kick and rabble rouser, Jo (Jessie Buckley from Chernobyl) are compellingly watchable. Their relationship (A sort of feminist version of a buddy movie) is engaging, their characters feel real and there are enough nicely observed moments of patronizing sexist behavior, exemplified by a reptilian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), to boo hiss at.
As Miss Grenada, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is bland. The part feels underwritten, as if though thematically convenient, her character (probably accurately) lacks the angst and moral outrage of Sally.
It’s not a major movie…skims along superficially on multiple issues. But it’s a fun watch

The Plot
An emotionally wounded, alcoholic mercenary – his daughter has died- (Chris Hemsworth) is called our by his sexy handler (Neha Mahajan) to rescue the kidnapped son of a wealthy Indian drug dealer. The child is incarcerated in a heavily guarded mansion in Bangladesh

The Idea
Even the most ruthless, savage killing machine can have a conscience and a human heart (OK I’m struggling here)

Why You Should View It
If you like non stop kinetic action, lost of mayhem, and terrifically well choreographed car/truck/motorcycle chases in heavy Bangladeshi traffic (by director Sam Hargave; stunt coordinator of various Avenger movies), then this is the film for you. The body count is very high (I lost count, but it’s well over a hundred) and it’s fun to see Thor pretending to bleed just like a normal person.





NOW THAT WE’RE all home bound, and a few select movies have come out on early streaming, here area few I caught up with:

Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and ace driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale) are contracted by the Ford Motor Company, eager to inject some spunk into its boring brand. Their no-expenses spared mission is to rebuild both the brand and the Mustang into a lean, mean super-fast machine that can take on and beat Ferrari’s mastery on the track.

It’s a wildly entertaining, ahem, ride, driven by director James Mangold (Logan), written by Jez Butterworth (Spectre) and John Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and piloted by his two top gun stars, Matt and Christian. The nub of the story pits the pure, macho, literally death-defying competitive mania of the Shelby Team (of Shelby and Miles and their crew) against Enzo Ferrari’s unbeatables. This sporting ‘purity’ is contrasted with the Ford world of compromise, commercialism and committees. The real challenge Shelby and Miles face isn’t just outracing Ferrari, but retaining their integrity in the grubby world of Ford marketing.

They want to race the perfect lap. Ford just wants to sell more cars.

And beneath the sweat and the speed is a movie about the endurance of friendship (or what Hollywood prefers to macho-up with the term, “Buddy movie”). Here are two life-long friends, whose entire, and entirely meaningful, and unwittingly hilarious, conversation is ALL about cars, chassis, gear boxes and RPM’s.

Gear up for a delightful ride

Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) is the emotionally and physically battered wife of a maniacally controlling Optics genius husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). After escaping, her fear of being tracked by him is alleviated by news of his suicide. Of course he’s not dead. Just invisible. And he’s found out where she lives

There’s a great new trend in (low budget) high concept horror (Us, Get Out etc). They combine all the chills you’d expect rom the horror genre while delivering equally chilling insights into society and human behaviour. The focus of the hold-your-breath shivers of The Invisible Man is the all too common reality that battered wives/women is a crime invisible to society.

Despite being ‘dead’, Cecilia knows he’s there. Initially she can feel his presence…that strange, hair-raising tingle you get when you feel the presence of another (There’s a wonderful moment when we can see his frosty breath next to her). And then this presence gets (much) more heavy-handed. And no one believes her. She must be mad. She’s depressed. She’s on drugs etc.

Just how much does a woman need to get beaten up for someone to believe her?
The answer: when men start to get beaten up too.

Elisabeth Moss is the hugely impressive centre of the story. Her multiple levels of expressiveness focus and channel our anxiety, our nervousness, our blind terror and finally the “fuck you” determination to get even

Leigh Whannell’s directing (and writing) avoids the usual clichés of the horror genre (even if he did direct Insidious: Chapter 3). He lets the terror of an invisible stalker speak for itself.

And there’s a wonderfully clever ending.


PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE*****The Face of Excellence

THIS IS BY far one of the year’s best movies.

Set sometime in the early eighteenth century on a remote island in Brittany, the story follows the brief encounter (a scant two weeks or so) between and artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, Héloise (Adele Haenel).

Marianne has been commissioned – by Héloise’s mother (Valerie Golino) – to paint her daughter’s wedding portrait, she having been promised to a wealthy Milanese bachelor. The simple enough task is fraught with problems: Her mother fears that Heloise, who refuses to be painted, will yield to the same fate as her sister (who had been promised to the Milanese bachelor) and kill herself. Marianne’s task therefore is to complete the commission covertly under the pretence of being a “walking companion”.

The mission begins auspiciously when, as she approaches the island on a small boat, in choppy waters, Marianne’s crated canvases fall overboard. The artist immediately leaps into the dark sea to rescue them (And the sea as symbol of death and survival is an image that threads the movie). Having struggled with them up to the vast, dark, suffocating house of her patron and subject, we next see Marianne naked in front of a fire drying out herself and her canvases. The symbolism is clear: the artist and her canvases are co-joined. So that what’s on the canvas is never just a record of an external world; it’s always an expression of a deeper internal reality.

As she begins to forge a relationship with Heloise, secretly sketching fragments of her – her hands, her ears, her turned face etc.- she begins her wedding portrait in the privacy of her room. It’s finished soon enough. And it’s of a beautiful woman for sure; and is clearly a likeness of Heloise. But, a likeness to a subject does not a portrait make. It looks only tangentially like her, having entirely failed to capture her spirit.

Art that is based on dishonesty and pretence will always be lacking.

Slowly as a relationship develops, dishonesty is replaced with a growing trust. Marianne ‘fesses up that she’s there, not as a paid companion but as a paid artist. And with honesty comes a growing bond and a growing intimacy between the two women. Their romance evolves outside the prison-like house and blossoms in the new-found freedom (from her convent, her mother, society) that Heloise begins to experience.

And we, the audience, experience the emergence of their affection through the gaze of the camera, just as they begin to pay close attention to each other. Marianne’s observing artist’s eye begins to notice every tic and nuance of the other’s emotions. It is a loving, almost symbiotic, gaze that is mirrored by Heloise, who also begins to observe with equal acuteness, the hidden ‘tells’ of her portraitist. The parallel observing eye of the director’s camera frames the increasing tenderness with which each of the two women gaze upon the other. There are long close-ups of each of the two protagonists as they listen and talk and simply look at each other.

It’s as though the movie were staking out its claim that close observation – of the face…of the soul – is at the heart of love. And as the bond between the two women grows richer and more intense, the quality of Heloise’s portrait, reflecting the artist’s honest emotional truth, grows in both physical and psychological accuracy. At the beginning of the process, Marianne noted to Heloise that she never smiled (There is a long history of the potency of the smile in portraiture). By the time their love is acknowledged, Heloise can barely stop smiling.

Their love is directly contrasted with the ‘love’ of their maid (Luana Bajrama), whose relationship has left her pregnant and in need of an abortion. Will such loveless-ness be the plight of the soon to be married Heloise?

Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) punctuates her story through a series of portraits of Heloise, each signifying an emotional milestone. This is a love story signalled through art. The first portrait we see is one, executed by a previous artist, with the face scrubbed out. This, from an artist who simply couldn’t come to terms with the passions of her subject. But as Marianne grows more fondly familiar with Heloise and her portraits grow more aesthetically and emotionally accurate, she is moved to sketch a more intimate scene of her recumbent lover. This one, their shared secret, is the ultimate portrait…where the subject is not just that of Heloise, but of their tremendous love. There is one last portrait, obviously painted at a later date, and kept private for the gaze only of the artist. It is set on a dark background; Heloise is standing gazing out at the viewer. Her dress is on fire. Is she unaware that it’s on fire? Or is the symbolism of passion only apparent to her enamoured painter?

This is such a refreshingly well-done movie; as the style – honest, gentle, un-rushed, erotically but never exploitatively charged – so well synchronises with the story of the movie. The French seem to have mastered the storytelling of love so well. No apologies. No mawkishness. No embarrassment. No irony.

Just love


PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE Dir/Writer: Céline Sciamma. With Noémie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino. Cinematographer: Claire Mathon. Production Designer: Thomas Grézaud. Costume Designer: Dorothée Guiraud. Composers: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini




JORDAN***** Magical

ON THE SURFACE, Jordan, surrounded by zones of danger and threat, seems to be a sea of even -tempered tranquility. It’s the Switzerland of the Middle East, which squeezes it this way and that. As we (there were a scant four persons) sat on the deck of a small tourist vessel in Aqaba, calmly gliding into the sunset, we could see Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and, with a dollop of imagination, Saudi Arabia. Three hundred miles to our north, on the country’s northernmost border, you could stumble into Syria.

Zones of danger, all.

That’s Egypt we’re looking at

No wonder, along the endless stretches of near empty highways, police and army outposts punctuate the beat of produce-heavy trucks. Theirs is a reassuring presence.

And not unexpectedly, three million of Jordan’s ten million inhabitants are refugees. About a million are Syrian and Just under two million of them are Palestinian, hoping any day to return to a land, their land, free from the boot of Israel on their necks.

Some hope.

Sometimes the mountains in Jordan seem a painted backdrop

The land is stunningly beautiful. It changes colour, from the pale rust-streaked ochres of the dry South, where the silent deserts drift into infinity, to the more verdant, fecund greens of the North fed by the River Jordan. And both extremes share the drama of their mountains: vertical cliffs that seem, only yesterday, to have punched their way up out of the soil.

The ever-changing colours of the magical mountains

They’re show-offy these naked cliffs. No demure covering of trees or lamb-nibbled grassland for them. Not them: they flaunt their waves of embedded minerals, the ores and phosphates that daub them with painterly exuberance. Some are polished smooth with soft undulating curves, as if to invite caresses. They look otherworldly. But perhaps that’s because I’ve seen them in The Martian and Star Wars. The faces of many display distinct cuneiform shapes; their personal biographies etched by nature. Geology as writing instructor.

These are the faces of an ancient land.

This is the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here walked Moses in his search of a promised land. And John the Baptist, in search of a promised saviour. And Elijah, in his chariot ascending to heaven.

Of course these humble events (duh…the birth of Christianity!) representing no grand conquest, have left no marks. There’s a spot at Mount Nebo, where Moses supposedly saw the Promised Land and there’s still the rough stone floor of a church built where Christ was supposedly baptised. Imagination, or faith, is required. Both places are graced with understatedly attractive memorial places of worship. All this Christian eschatology in a Muslim land!

The area where the famous baptism took place

No such physical reticence was shown by the all-conquering Romans. The presence of Zeus (and his daughter Artemis) in this ancient land is strong, especially in the incredibly well preserved city of Jerash (or Antioch). The highly prosperous city was destroyed by an earthquake two thousand years ago and rediscovered, almost untouched at the end of the nineteenth century. In its awesome colonnaded avenues and reverential temples, the might of Rome still forces visitors’ eyes downward to the elaborate, well preserved mosaics with their lovingly patterned flora and fauna and upwards to the flora of the commanding corinthians.


Hadrian’s gate at Jerash

Before the Romans, you’ll find the Greeks. And before the Greeks, the Nabataeans. And all those old Biblical names of the Ammonites and the Edomites and the Moabites (who did battle with the Biblical King David and later King Solomon). The early religions that celebrated Dushara turned into the worship of Zeus that, with Constantine, evolved into early Christianity. Though the sword of Mohammed brought Allah, here Islam coexists peacefully – it seems – with Christianity.

They are not enemies. The enemies lie to the West: Israel (not Judaism) and to the East: the Saudi Wahabi zealots.

A submerged tank. (A good place for them all)

Here history is far from academic. the past is the present. It’s not a little unsettling to be presented with an ontology of events that denies the mythos of King David’s all-conquering Israelites. That, we were told, is our Western version. Even pride in Nabatean hydraulic engineering skills – And remember this was two thousand three hundred years ago – is still strong. To us, Petra is a place of breathtaking beauty. To the Jordanian (a country of barely one hundred years) it’s their living legacy; a physical embodiment of identity.


Petra is breath taking. And worthy of its accolade as one of the Modern Seven Wonders of the world. You approach it via the Siq, a long winding passageway that snakes through a narrow high-cliffed chasm, created, it would appear as if sundered by an angry god. Its colours – reds and golds and slashes of black on exposed white seams – vary continuously with the ever changing light. The Siq itself is worth the journey

The canyon leading to the Valley of the tombs

It is when, wearied with the long walk, you suddenly glimpse the first, partially obscured sight of the vast, imposing, multi-tiered Treasury building, deftly built into the rock, that all weariness evaporates. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair” Indeed. This is a sight to lift any spirit. And here begins your experience of this extraordinary place. There are, on either side of the wide flat ‘avenue’ that separates the towering cliffs of this ancient necropolis, hundreds of tombs, some simple, others more elaborate, gouged into the rock face; caves where some Bedouin still live; the vast hemisphere of a stone stadium built for seven thousand; and stairways carved into the hill (for maintenance of the channels and sluices that guide the flow of water to underground cisterns).

Te iconic image of The Treasury (so called because of Pharaonic treasures hidden there)

The hills house the living and the dead

Here the living and the dead co-existed. No place of the dead feels so filled with the spirit of life.

Here the Nabateans lived and died and withstood armies…until Rome (whose strong imperial presence is an acknowledge part of history – and great for Tourism – but not a part of identity…it seems to me, the casual observer)

The past is the present.

Balfour’s broken promises of 1918 (when King Faisal’s promised reward for ousting the Ottomans – with the help of Lawrence of Arabia – was banishment) still rankle. The multiple crusader forts remain reminders of brutal conquest and brutish iconoclasm. And just to the West across the River Jordan (diverted after the Six Days War to Israeli ruled Jericho) lies the ongoing anger of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine (The collective memory forgets the inconvenient fact that the Jordanians had themselves occupied and colonised Palestine)… and of the West’s continued intransigence and of Trump’s inflammatory ignorance.

The dangers are without, not within. Here there is great tribal pride…and harmony. The present and revered Royal family are Hashemites. The terms trips off the tongue in a way “Windsor’s” never can. For this is a society seemingly proud to be monarchical. We saw (and broke bread with) the Bedouin. They remain nomadic, herding sheep and goat and living in tents and, with their camels, shifting their locations seasonally to beat the weather. Just as they’ve done since the beginning of time. And even those who have settled into brick homes still have carpeted tents outside for guests and entertainment.

Bedouin with his camel

Our guide was from the Farmer, northern tribe. Some of the women wear veils, many don’t. The masking hijab is nowhere to be seen.

“I am large. I contain multitudes”

Of course, in Jordan you’ll find the beaches and the beach chairs and the infinity pools and spas and tanned bodies and snorkelling and a splendid Yellow Submarine and what have you. And we sure enjoyed all of those decadent pleasures.

decadent pleasures

But if that’s all you’re after, go to Barbados. Jordan offers you a reorientation of the Middle East where you begin to appreciate just how closely clustered these countries are; where the present still burns with the insults of the past and where the future reality of the Middle East remains a cuneiform as yet unwritten