Colette

13/01/19

Imagine this scenario, if you will. A celebrity decides he wants to write a novel. He can’t actually write fiction himself so he gets somebody else to write it for him, but insists that his name goes on the published book. When the book is a huge success, he gets the writer to turn out more stories on the same theme and resolutely refuses to give their creator any credit whatsoever. Shocking, right? And yes, I know, it’s a depressingly familiar occurrence in this day and age. But Colette is proof that it’s by no means a new phenomenon.

When we first meet Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly), she’s a young woman living in the Burgundy countryside, carrying on a secret romance with trusted family friend Willy (Dominic West). He lives in Paris, where he is carving out a precarious career as an ‘author,’ many of his books ghost-written for him by more talented acquaintances. Pretty soon, he and Gabrielle are married, and she moves in to his apartment in the city, where she realises that her new husband is not exactly trustworthy. When she discovers he has been unfaithful to her, he protests that it’s not really his fault: he’s a man and he needs stimulation!

On hearing Gabrielle’s stories about her childhood, Willy decides that there just might be a book in it. He encourages her to write, mostly by locking her in her room for hours on end. The resulting book, Claudine à L’école, becomes an instant hit, selling millions of copies and necessitating sequels. Colette, as she now calls herself, is only just beginning to realize her own powers. She agrees to continue the deception but warns Willy that she is attracted to other people too…

Colette feels weirdly prescient, yet another example of a talented woman being subjugated to the will of a manipulative man – and then fighting back. Knightly, who often faces accusations that she ‘cannot act’ is on splendid form here, giving a nuanced and thoroughly believable performance in the lead role, while West somehow manages the impossible, making the repellant Willy oddly charming, so that I understand how this man can bend so many people to his will.

Of course, vital to this biopic is the subject of intellectual property, and anyone who has published any sort of written work will doubtless share my horror at the scene where Willy callously instructs an employee to burn the original handwritten copies of the Claudine novels. It’s all I can do not to shout at the screen.

But at the heart of this tale is Colette herself, and – even if this were a contemporary tale – it would still feel pretty sensational, what with her (partially) open marriage, lesbian affairs and long-term relationship with the (probably) transgender ‘Missy’ de Morny (Denise Gough). The fact that it all happened back in the 1890s is the real eye-opener. Gough and Knightly imbue the latter partnership with real warmth, and it’s fascinating to see the contemporary reactions to their public intimacy.

I’m currently working my way through Colette’s short stories, which are rather fey and whimsical, it must be said. But I’m planning to read the novels soon, and hoping to find some of what made her so beloved, and eventually won her the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Meanwhile, do catch this sumptuous, witty evocation of Parisian life at the turn of the century. It’s really very good.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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Dumplin’

10/01/18

Another day, another Netflix movie – and it would seem that the company that once boasted so many below-average releases has really found its feet and is regularly producing work that challenges the output of the more traditional film studios. Take Dumplin’ for instance. This low-budget charmer combines the American preoccupation with beauty pageants with the songs of Dolly Parton, and has plenty of opportunities to turn into a outright shmaltzfest. But it’s surefooted enough to waltz past the potential pitfalls, emerging on the far side as a genuinely heart-warming feelgood affair.

Willowdean (Danielle MacDonald) is a plump teenager living in a small town in Texas with her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston). The plumpness, by the way, is an important plot point, not a judgemental description.

Back in her glory days, Rosie was crowned Miss Teen Bluebonnet at a local beauty pageant and has traded on the memory of it ever since, devoting all her spare time to organising similar events, making guest appearances and taking in sewing whenever she needs to make ends meet. For obvious reasons, Willowdean has not pursued a similar path through life and tolerates her Mother’s unthinking nickname for her – Dumplin’ – with as much good grace as she can muster. She works at a local diner, where she’s increasingly drawn to co-worker Bo (Luke Benward), but feels too self-conscious to take the situation further. She’s missing the companionship of her recently departed aunt Lucy, the woman who introduced young Willowdean to the music of Dolly Parton – and who did the lion’s share of babysitting while Rosie was on the road being a ‘beauty queen’.

When Willowdean discovers that Aunt Lucy once held an unfulfilled desire to enter the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant,  she decides that she will take part in it herself as a kind of protest against such an outmoded way of judging a woman’s worth. Naturally enough, this soon brings her into conflict with her mother – and with her best friend, Ellen (Odeya Rush). Can Willowdean work up the necessary confidence to see her unlikely mission through? And what exactly is she hoping to achieve?

This could so easily go horribly wrong, but screenwriter Kristin Hahn and director Anne Fletcher keep their eyes firmly fixed on the film’s central message – that our worth is about more than our looks – and let everything else fall into place. There’s an interesting detour where Willowdean and her friends get some tuition from a bunch of wonderfully nurturing drag artistes and, whenever proceedings threaten to lose impetus, there’s another Dolly Parton classic to power things briskly along. Whatever you think of beauty pageants – and I’ll happily admit they don’t figure highly on my list of favourite things – Dumplin’ is an enjoyable story that even the most pernickety will surely  enjoy.

Fans of Dolly Parton, by the way,  will have a field day.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Front Runner

07/01/19

It’s 1988 and Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is the voice of hope for a new generation of American liberals. He’s the clear front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and young people are queuing up to work on his campaign, relinquishing their jobs and moving away from their families, believing they can help to secure real change. Hart has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve in four key areas – economics, education, employment and ethics – and the charm and charisma to pose a threat to the incumbent Reagan-led Rebublicans.

But he’s naïve about the extent to which he will be held personally accountable to the public, believing his private life irrelevant to the political sphere. So, when he has a casual and ill-advised affair right in the middle of this most crucial campaign, the resulting press exposure completely kills off his career.

Jason Reitman’s film focuses mainly on this moral conundrum: where do we draw the line? Does it matter if politicians betray their spouses if they’re steadfast in their duties to the state? Or can we infer from their domestic infidelities a sense of how they will treat us, the people that they serve? Does the press have a duty to focus more on policies than peccadilloes? What matters most, in the end?

We’re not really offered any answers here and, while I applaud the lack of sensationalism, it does mean that there’s a certain lack of drama too. The storytelling is so nuanced and subtle that it verges on the dull. It seems a little dated too: in this era of Trumpian excess, an extra-marital fling seems almost too quaint to care about. Where are the porn stars and the Russian oligarchs, the pussy-grabbing and the bogus charities? Ah, maybe that’s the point. Have the tabloids so inured us to scandal that we’re unable to see when it crosses into something truly worrying?

There are some strong performances here. Jackman, of course, excels in the lead role, and Mamoudou Athie and Molly Ephraim stand out as the journalist and intern who, respectively, witness their idol’s fall, forced to recognise reluctantly both the limitations of the man and the demise of their Democratic dream. But Vera Farmiga (as Hart’s wife, Lee) and JK Simmons (as campaign manager, Bill Dixon) are criminally underused, and the whole film feels as if it needs a shot of caffeine or adrenaline.

In the end, this just isn’t compelling enough to make the trip to the cinema worth the effort. Close, but no cigar.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Bird Box

06/01/19

I’m not sure what to make of Netflix’s latest hit, Bird Box. On the one hand, it’s a decent little sensory-deprivation horror movie (is that a genre now?), nicely acted and directed, and it certainly takes me along for the ride. But on the other hand… well, there’s some pretty dodgy subtext here, and I’m not sure I want to overlook this stuff.

Sandra Bullock is Malorie, single and pregnant, ambivalent about impending motherhood. She wisecracks her way through her maternity appointments and avoids discussing crucial issues such as where a baby might be accommodated in her tiny artist’s studio. Of course she’s an artist: she has to work in a visual medium to underline the awfulness of what comes next.

Not that her art is ever mentioned again, once the mysterious beings arrive and begin their decimation of the human race. The conceit here is that ‘they’ can only get you if you look at them, but if you even catch a glimpse they’ll drive you to kill yourself. I like that director Susanne Bier never lets us see them ourselves, that their awfulness is left to our imaginations. But for the characters holed up in Greg (BD Wong)’s house, where they’ve fled in terror from the first attack, the beings are an ever-present threat, and survival is almost impossible.

There’s a great cast, featuring John Malkovich and Jacki Weaver, Sarah Paulson and Tom Hollander. Trevante Rhodes is Tom, and he’s a charming, likeable leading man. It’s always nice to see Parminder Nagra on screen, albeit this time in a minor role, as Malorie’s obstetrician. And the tension is palpable, even though the time-hopping structure means that we know from the beginning that Bullock ends up a lone adult, looking after two small kids, and pitting her wits against this unknown enemy.

But…

*MINOR SPOILER ALERT*

… there’s the heavy-handed extended metaphor about motherhood to deal with: the implication that Malorie has to endure all this heartbreak and struggle in order to accept her true calling as a mother; that her earlier consideration of adoption for her baby could never really have been the right answer.

And the depiction of people with mental health issues is problematic too. ‘They’ (because they’re different from ‘us,’ right?) don’t commit suicide when they see the beings; they become converts to the beings’ cause, committed missionaries, cajoling and persuading as many people as possible to take off their blindfolds and see the light. It’s unsettling, actually, to see such a toe-curling division drawn between the sane and the insane; I thought we understood things better than that now.

So, on the surface, a fun way to pass an evening. But it doesn’t really bear much scrutiny. If you really want to see something in this ‘genre,’ A Quiet Place is far superior.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Welcome to Marwen

05/01/19

Robert Zemeckis is a veteran director who refuses to rest on his laurels. Over the years, he’s been responsible for some major hits – Back to the Future, Forest Gump, Who Killed Roger Rabbit?  – and, of course,  there’ve been a few misfires –  Beowulf for example? And The Polar Express is a film that tends to divide viewers.

Welcome to Marwen is a ‘so weird it must be true’ story, based on the life of artist, Mark Hogancamp, though it should be noted that, like a lot of ‘true’ stories, the scriptwriters don’t hesitate to jettison those facts that don’t fit with their vision of the tale.

Hogancamp’s backstory is a harrowing one. A talented artist with a passion for World War 2 imagery and an obsession with wearing women’s shoes, he drunkenly confessed this to some strangers he met in a bar, who then ambushed him and beat him mercilessly, putting him into a coma for nine days. When he finally came back to his senses, he found that he had lost all memory of what happened to him before the night of the attack – and he could no longer remember how to draw.

When we first encounter Hogancamp (Steve Carell), he is engaged in a long-established photography project that is an attempt both to rekindle his artistic abilities and to come to terms with the awful hate crime that has robbed him of his former life. In his garden, he has constructed Marwen, a miniature Belgian town, occupied by Nazis and populated by dolls. It’s here that his avatar, Captain Hogie, a fearless maverick (who also has a liking for high heels) is running an energetic resistance movement, backed up by five female freedom fighters – all based on women who are important in the artist’s life,

It must be said that the women in question seem to take his somewhat creepy depictions of them with unbelievably good grace, but I guess they knew him before he was attacked, and are prepared to cut him some slack.

Of course, this being a Robert Zemeckis film, Hogie’s adventures are recreated through state-of-the-art motion-capture and there’s no denying that the ensuing scenes are an extraordinary technological achievement. But the main problem is that the film can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. For the most part, it’s about a man going through a slow healing process and gradually gaining the necessary strength to confront his assailants in court, but the real life scenes are regularly interspersed with more of those mo-cap sequences and I can’t help feeling there’s rather too many of them and that – until the very end – they all seem to play out in exactly the same way, without really advancing the story.

There’s a tendency too to punch home the film’s messages with a heavier hand than seems strictly necessary. Déja (Diane Kruger)’s significance, for example, is immediately apparent, but spelled out laboriously for the hard of thinking,

Carrell, it must be said,  is terrific in the lead role and Merritt Wever is appealing as the manager of the local toy shop who quietly carries a torch for him.

Welcome to Marwen is never less than interesting – but, despite all that cutting-edge brilliance, there’s something here that doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying night at the cinema.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney 

 

 

Free Solo

04/01/19

There’s something endearing about people who have a mission in life: an obsession so integral to their being that it defies all rationale. There are not many – not even many rock climbers – who would look at the sheer cliff face of Yosemite’s El Capitan and think, ‘Yeah, I’d like to scramble up that. On my own. Without a rope. Without anything, except a good pair of shoes and a light dusting of climbing chalk on my hands.’

But Alex Honnold is as single-minded as they come, and free-solo-ing means the world to him. He knows the dangers. Ironically, within the parameters of what is undoubtedly a hugely risky business, he’s actually pretty risk-averse. He plans carefully. He practises. He doesn’t let the fact that there’s a film crew following him influence his decision about when to climb. But still… There’s no denying that his death is only ever one unlucky slip away, and the tension generated by this movie is almost unbearable.

It’s a fascinating story, actually, despite the narrow focus. Honnold is an engaging character, good-humoured and self-aware. An extra layer of human interest is added when Alex hooks up with Sanni McCandless, and finds himself negotiating a serious relationship for the first time, testing the boundaries between his compulsion and his love.

The crew are an active part of this documentary, present on film, serving almost as a Greek chorus: commenting on the action and offering their opinions. They’re all climbers; they’d need to be – and so they understand the enormity of the undertaking. Their responses inform ours, and we spend a lot of time sharing their awe and disbelief.

The landscapes are stunning, and we are left in no doubt as to the scale of this feat. I will never understand what motivates someone to do something like this, but there’s no denying how impressive Alex’s success is. It looks like something beyond human capability. And yet there he is, just doing it.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Life Itself

02/01/19

There’s a lovely little movie trapped inside Life Itself. An arch, playful, beautifully acted and intriguingly populated film, with a gently emotive storyline. It’s all there: ripe and ready. Unfortunately, it’s covered in an unwelcome layer of fridge-magnet cod-philosophy, with a side helping of pomposity thrown in. Oh dear.

Things start well. We meet Will (Oscar Isaac) as he stumbles drunkenly into a coffee shop, clearly having hit hard times. His therapist (Annette Bening) encourages him to talk about his relationship with his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), and their back-story is revealed in a series of flashbacks. The idea of the unreliable narrator is introduced early on, and reinforced by Abby’s student thesis on the subject. Life, concludes Abby, is the ultimate unreliable narrator, more random and unpredictable than anyone cares to acknowledge. Her friends like the idea, but she fails her course, because the essay strays too far from literary criticism.

Still, as the film goes on to show: she’s right. Time and again, writer-director Dan Fogelman pulls the rug from under our feet, throwing us swerve balls and catching us unawares. The action moves, almost arbitrarily,  from Will and Abby’s New York to Javier González (Sergio Peris-Mencheta)’s Spain – where all the dialogue, naturally, is in Spanish – and back again to New York, where we meet Will and Abby’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke). All this I like. The characters are captivating, and the seemingly unrelated strands are pulled together expertly. Segmenting movies into ‘chapters’ seems to be a bit of a recent phenomenon, and it works well here. Antonio Banderas is wonderfully understated as the emotionally needy Mr Saccione, and Laia Costa, as Javier’s wife, Isabel, really lights up the screen.

So why doesn’t it work? Because that premise, of life being the ultimate unreliable narrator, is overworked. It’s not left to be played out; we’re not trusted to understand without an actual lecture, delivered in the final chapter by Elena (Lorenza Izzo), Dylan’s teenage daughter, who, we discover, has been narrating throughout. There’s not enough substance to the idea to merit this much talk; it’s a simple – dare I say banal? – concept, enough to carry a story but not to bear such scrutiny. It takes itself too seriously, accords itself too much weight. And that’s a real shame.

There’s a filmed Q and A at the end of our screening, but it reinforces rather than alleviates our concerns. The interviewer, Jenny Falconer, talks of weeping copiously as she watched, but we both feel curiously unmoved. It’s clearly a movie that wants to tap into our emotions, but the narration distances us from events, and makes that level of engagement difficult. I don’t mind this – the film is at its best when it’s witty and stylised, which it is, a lot of the time – but it feels muddled, as if the ‘message’ is getting in the way of all the good stuff that’s on offer here.

3.3 stars

Susan Singfield