Elle Fanning

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

14/05/18

How To Talk to Girls at Parties has been openly derided by many reviewers, the main criticism being that it tries to cover too many genres. On the other hand, its rare – in these movie-saturated times – to find a slice of cinema that’s trying for something truly original and, for this at least, the film deserves some respect. Partially based on a Neil Gaiman short story and directed by John Cameron Mitchell (of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame), it feels  – more than anything else – like a gutsy little independent production, but one that’s somehow managed to persuade an A-list cast to climb aboard for the voyage.

It’s 1977, the year of the Queen’s Jubilee, and Enn (Alex Sharp) is a teenage punk, disgusted with what’s happening around him and currently running a fanzine which he does with the help of his mates, John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (Abraham Lewis). In their down time, they eagerly discuss the great issues of the day, such as the Clash signing to CBS and, of course, most baffling of all, the age-old problem identified in the film’s title. Meanwhile, they attend punk rock concerts helmed by local icon, Queen Boudicea (Nicole Kidman sporting a blonde wig and a faintly dodgy cockney accent). But when the three friends go in search of an ‘after-show’ party, they chance upon a gathering of what they first take to be American art students, but what actually turns out to be a crowd of visiting cannibalistic aliens.

Amidst the confusion, Enn bumps into disaffected young extra-terrestrial, Zan (Elle Fanning doing that sleepy–eyed wild-child thing she does so brilliantly), and she asks Enn to teach her more about ‘the punk.’ Which he gleefully agrees to do. It’s not long before the two of them start to fall for each other. But it appears that their time together is to be short, because the leader of the alien visitors is planning something very drastic indeed…

HTTTGAT is undeniably ramshackle and the plot machinations are, frankly, of the fruit-loop variety – but, having said that, the film has a gutsy charm that makes you forgive its excesses and it somehow manages to capture the exuberance of the Punk Rock movement in a way few other films have. Sharp and Fanning make an agreeable twosome and the off-the-wall alien costumes, created by veteran designer Sandy Powell, are delightfully eye-popping. This certainly won’t be for everyone – it’s very quirky – but I thought it was great fun, no matter how many genres it gleefully straddled.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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The Beguiled

15/07/17

In The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, received wisdoms are questioned at every turn. For a start, we’re clearly positioned on the women’s side, with their talk of ‘our boys’ at odds with the dastardly Union soldiers and the havoc they wreak (disrupting schooling, stealing chickens, killing brothers – the list is long). It’s easy to forget, while watching, that history is on the Unionists’ side: Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney is fighting to end slavery. Even if he is a mercenary, he’s doing the right thing.

But this is history Jane Austen-style: the politics and horrors of the outside world barely penetrate these school walls. Oh, their impact is felt and heard: there is shooting in the distance; the girls can’t go home; soldiers pass by the house or come in to search the place – but the focus is on the interior domestic world of women, ostracised by the fighting, trapped indoors, biding their time.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is the headmistress; the school is her family home. She clings to a sense of tradition in the face of uncertainty, citing the lineage of everything, even her father’s desk and gun. There might be shells exploding on the horizon, but the gates are locked and the girls must learn their French declensions. Everything is very ordered and proper, and decorum is everything.

Into this world comes the injured Corporal McBurney, as charming and handsome as, well… Colin Farrell. He’s discovered by Amy (Oona  Laurence), one of the younger pupils, on a rare and forbidden foray into the woods. She’s looking for mushrooms, but she finds the wounded and immobile soldier instead, and takes him to the school for her teachers to assess. “I couldn’t just leave him to die,” she says, seeking approval, clearly conflicted. Miss Martha agrees: “The enemy, viewed as an individual, is often not what we expect.” (The same can be said, of course, of these privileged women, whose ‘side’ is that of the oppressor, not the oppressed.) But the act of charity is doomed: the house is a hotbed of repressed sexuality, from Miss Martha’s uptight propriety to Alicia (Elle Fanning)’s burgeoning self-awareness, not to mention Edwina (Kirsten Dunst)’s blushing neediness and the little girls’ barely understood desire for male attention. These are women without men in a patriarchal world: Corporal McBurney offers them the chance to relieve their frustrations. They vie for his affections, and begin to fall apart.

It’s a tense, exciting kind of film, in the same way as The Falling or Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s slow and sensual, forbidding and unsettling. The claustrophobia is palpable, and it’s clear that something must erupt from this seething undercurrent of repressed passion. The acting is superb, each character utterly and devastatingly believable. There’s a lovely ambiguity too: who’s really in the wrong? Does Miss Martha really have to take the drastic action she does (I can’t say more without revealing far too much), or is she acting to protect the girls and regain control? Is McBurney to blame for looking out for himself, for using what he’s got to keep himself safe? These are all flawed, credible people, acting and reacting to the cards they’ve been dealt, making mistakes and having to live with the results of them. It doesn’t pull many punches, and it’s really very good indeed. Sofia Coppola’s best director award at this year’s Cannes film festival is very well deserved – let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another fifty-six years before another woman gains this accolade.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

20th Century Women

18/02/17

Not so much a film about women as their life-changing influence upon one young man, 20th Century Women has the great misfortune to be released amidst a crop of bigger, more hard-hitting films, which means it isn’t really getting the degree of attention it  deserves. This is a shame as it many ways it’s one of the most remarkable releases in what has already been an exceptional year.

It’s 1979 and teenager, Jamie (an appealing performance from relative newcomer, Lucas Jade Zuman) lives in a great big crumbling house in Santa Barbara with his eccentric mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), a divorced woman who lives by her own quirky set of values. Fearing that Jamie might be missing a father’s touch, and after he fails t0 bond with live-in handyman William (Billy Crudup), Dorothea enlists the help of two young women to help her son broaden his horizons. Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s girl friend, a wayward spirit who sneaks into his room and shares his bed most nights but resolutely refuses to allow things to go any further, even though he clearly longs for more. She teaches him about friendship and the importance of looking good when you smoke a cigarette. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is the artistic lodger who has recently survived a run in with cervical cancer and who is an absolute authority on clubbing, gender theory and the importance of speaking your mind. All three women submit powerful performances that linger in the mind long after the closing credits have rolled.

The story is presented as Jamie’s memories as he looks back on the events of 1979 from some unspecified point in the future and the resulting film, written and directed by Mike Mills, has a gorgeous elegiac feel, with Jamie’s occasional voiceovers commenting on what happened then and in some cases, what will happen to the lead characters later. The cinematography helps to reinforce this feel – it’s a series of shimmering images, brilliant, evocative, almost iridescent at times. I should also add that the script is very funny in places, though nobody would describe this as a comedy – it’s a lovely, life-affirming jewel of a picture, which I would urge you to see at your earliest opportunity, before it escapes the cinemas and heads for the small screens, where it will inevitably lose some of its mesmerising power.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Live By Night

18/01/17

Ben Affleck has already proved his worth as a director – Gone Baby Gone and Argo are just two examples that spring to mind – and adaptations of the novels of Dennis Lehane have already yielded cinematic gold on several occasions, so it’s hard to pin down exactly why Live By Night fails to measure up to expectation. It’s a handsomely mounted production, its 1920s setting lovingly evoked and there’s a stellar cast in evidence, with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning submitting strong performances in what amount to little more than cameo roles. But there’s an overpowering conviction that the film is simply trying to cover too many bases for its own good, that a simpler, more linear narrative  would have exerted a stronger grip on its intended audience.

Affleck plays Irish-American Joe Coughlin, an ‘outlaw’ with his own moral code. As he puts it, he doesn’t mind working for gangsters, he just doesn’t want to be one. Which is, it has to be said,  a fairly nebulous difference. After a violent brush with New York Irish mob boss, Albert White (Robert Glenister), results in a lengthy stay in the chokey, Coughlin goes to work for the Italian mob, run by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and finds himself relocating to Florida, where he becomes a major player in the burgeoning rum-running business. He also romances and marries Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and it begins to look as though a pleasant future is assured for both of them. But when Pescatore’s plans for a big casino go awry (largely because of Joe’s refusal to be as villainous as he actually needs to be), it soon becomes clear that there will be the inevitable deadly reckoning…

This is by no means a terrible film and, every now and then, events do spark into fitful life. An early car chase featuring vintage automobiles is decent enough and Elle Fanning’s role as a former heroin addict who turns to religion for salvation is briefly diverting, but too often events become bogged down in a lot of talking and not enough action. And the screenplay seems to want to have a bit of everything, involving as it does the Ku Klux Klan, Latin American swing music and whatever else happens to be wandering across the cinematic horizon. Even the film’s climactic shootout is followed by another half hour of loose ends being tied, all of which goes to dilute its appeal.

Which is a shame because it’s evident that much love and care has gone into the making of Live By Night. A stronger hand in the editing booth would probably have delivered a different viewing experience but, as it stands, this is to be filed under M for ‘Meh.’

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Film Bouquets 2016

 

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It was an interesting year for film. Here, in order of release, rather than stature – and with the benefit of hindsight – are our favourite movies of 2016.

Room

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This superb adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel got 2016 off to a cracking start. There were powerful performances from Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay as the central characters in a tragic yet oddly inspirational story.

The Revenant

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu delivered another dazzling movie, this one as savage and untamed as the grizzly bear that mauled Leonardo Di Caprio half to death – but made up for it by helping him win his first Oscar.

Anomalisa

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Writer/director Charlie Kaufman gave us a quirky (and deeply disturbing) animation that was a Kafkaesque meditation on identity and the bleak nature of the human condition.

Dheepan

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Jacques Audiard’s fascinating study of the lives of refugees never fell into cliche. There was violence here, but it felt horribly real and totally devastating. There were affecting performances from a cast of newcomers.

Victoria

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Sebastian Schipper’s film really shouldn’t have worked. Delivered in one continuous take, the fact that it hooked us in so brilliantly was just the icing on the cake – a real ensemble piece but plaudits must go to Laia Costa as the eponymous heroine.

Sing Street

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John Carney may have only one plot but when it was delivered as beautifully as it was in Sing Street, we were happy to indulge him. This was a beautiful, heartwarming film with appeal to anybody who has ever dreamed about pop stardom.

The Neon Demon

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The fashion industry as seen by Nicolas Winding Refn is a hell hole and here, Elle Fanning as Jesse, was the latest recruit. A weird mash-up of sex, violence and extreme voyeurism, this was the director’s most assured effort yet.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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New Zealand director Taika Waititi offered up this delightfully quirky story about a troubled teenager (Julian Dennison) and his friendship with crusty curmudgeon, Hec (Sam Neill). This film reeled us in and kept us hooked to the end credits.

The Girl with all the Gifts

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Just when we thought the zombie movie had stumbled as far as it could go, Colm McCarthy’s film gave the genre a hefty kick up the backside – and there was a star-making performance from young Senna Nanua in the lead role.

Under the Shadow

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Babek Abvari’s film had all the tropes of the contemporary horror movie and a powerful political message as well. Set in post war Tehran, young mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) struggled to keep her daughter safe from the forces of darkness.

I, Daniel Blake

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Ken Loach’s return to the screen resulted in one of the most powerful and affecting films of the year – a searing look at ‘benefits Britain’ that would have the most stony-hearted viewer in floods of tears. Should be required viewing for Tory politicians.

Train to Busan

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Another day, another zombie movie – but what a zombie movie! Korean director Sang ho Yeon gave us a galloping ‘zombies on a train’ thriller that nearly left us breathless. There were some incredible set pieces here and a nerve-shredding conclusion.

Paterson

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Jim Jarmusch presented a charming and quirky tale about a would-be poet living in a town that had the same name as him. Not very much happened, but it didn’t happen in an entirely watchable way. A delightful celebration of the creative spirit.

Life, Animated

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This compelling documentary squeaked in right at the end of the year – the true life tale of Owen Suskind, an autistic boy, initially unable to speak a word, but rescued by his love of Disney movies. It was funny, uplifting and educational – and our final pick of 2016.

The Neon Demon

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12/07/16

The films of Nicolas Winding Refn are never less than thought-provoking. His thriller, Drive, had him teetering dangerously close to creating a mainstream hit, while the ‘mad-as-frogs-but-utterly watchable’ Only God Forgives offered a weird mash up of sex, violence and extreme karaoke. In The Neon Demon, Refn takes on the fashion industry and the result might be his most assured effort yet.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a naïve would-be model, newly arrived in the charnel house of Los Angeles haute couture, hoping to carve out some kind of career for herself. In her own estimation, she can’t write, sing or act, she has no talents at all but she is pretty and she can sell that. She is blessed (or possibly cursed) with an innate quality that makes casting directors look favourably upon her, much to the chagrin of others in the industry who only perceive her as a rival. She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ruby (Jena Malone) a makeup artist who services top models in the daylight and attends to the look of the recently deceased by night. Jessie, meanwhile, lives in a sleazy motel operated by the world’s creepiest landlord (Keanu Reeves) but as her star begins to ascend, it looks as though she might just be on the verge of major success…

Refn’s cinematic influences are apparent at a glance. The ‘Gallo’ films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava are referenced in the opulent use of colour and in the pulsing, electronic soundtrack, while the storyline has echoes of traditional fairy tales, particularly Snow White. (The Grimm brothers would surely have approved of the stomach-turning excesses displayed here – cannibalism, necrophilia and voyeurism all rear their unsavoury heads. Be warned, this is not for the faint-hearted.)

With so many potential pitfalls waiting to claim the film, it’s to Refn’s credit that he steers his story so expertly through the rapids. Yes, he seems to be saying, the fashion industry is a vile, sexist construct that feeds upon the objectivism of the female form and ultimately consumes and destroys those who dare to enter into it – and he’s not afraid to show exactly that; and yet, his film never feels gratuitous, never comes across as a case of the director having his cake and eating it. We are appalled by what we’re watching, which is just as it should be.

With its slow, languorous direction and eye-popping visuals, The Neon Demon is a stunning slice of contemporary cinema that will have you discussing its content long after you’ve left the cinema.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Maleficent

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2/11/14

I love fairytales. I Iove them in their original forms (the grimmest of Grimm for me) , but they’re also ripe for reworking. Like Shakespeare’s plays, fairy tales contain such universal themes and truths about humanity, that they can work well transposed into almost any time or place and their characters are familiar enough for the impact of the reimaginings  to be clear.

Maleficent then, is essentially the tale of Sleeping Beauty, with the ‘wicked fairy’ moved to centre stage. Here, she is given a back-story; a compelling psychological reason for her vicious turn at the Princess Aurora’s christening. Angelina Jolie is never less than impressive as Maleficent, as malevolent and magnificent as the name implies, sporting a set of cheekbones you could slice a loaf of bread with. This ‘fairy’ is ironically a deeply human character, with flaws as well as virtues, weaknesses as well as strengths.

The film looks stunning. The cinematography works perfectly, combining with state-of-the-art special effects to create a convincing fairyland from a river and some woods, and the supporting cast, including Elle Fanning as Aurora, all do a decent job. Unfortunately the dialogue is clunky and expository in places and this mars the film significantly. Make no mistake, whatever else, this is Jolie’s film and it is her performance you’ll remember at the end.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield