Nicole Kidman

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 Killing of a Sacred Deer

04/11/17

Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous film, The Lobster is a real divider of opinion. Many people love this dark dystopian comedy, while others just can’t get their heads around the surreal craziness of the plot. I suspect the same fate awaits The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which, while it heads into much darker territory than its predecessor, still offers us a story that has very little to do with any kind of perceived reality. And yet, for all that, this bizarre fable about the nature of sacrifice is a powerfully compelling tale that exerts a real grip.

Heart surgeon Steven Murphy (a hirsute Colin Farrell) enjoys a successful career. Married to ophthalmologist, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and the father of Kim (Raffey Cassiday) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), he seems content with his life but talks only in the most banal terms about the dullest subjects – an early discussion with an anaesthesiologist about a watch that Steven is thinking about buying sets the tone.  

We soon learn, however, that Steven has a secret. He is meeting regularly with teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan) and, inevitably, we suspect that there’s something sinister going on. But the film is full of misconceptions. Martin, it turns out, is the son of a man who died on Steven’s operating table and the surgeon is simply trying to be nice to him, possibly because he feels a sense of guilt about what happened. Steven, we discover, is fond of a drink and may not have been entirely sober when he went into the operating theatre. As the film develops, Martin begins to inveigle his way more and more into the Murphy household and even insists that Steven should come to his house and meet his mother (an unsettling cameo from Alicia Silverstone), who Martin claims ‘has feelings’ for Steven. But then Martin says something that will change Steven’s life forever. It’s in the nature of a prediction – and means the surgeon having to make the most difficult decision of his life…

This is a fascinating tale, expertly told. Though it has no rational explanation, there’s a mounting sense of dread throughout and the story (co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou) seems to delight in exploding received wisdoms about how people will act under certain conditions. A mother will always put her children first, right? Siblings will always look out for each other, yes? Well, in this film’s worldview, nothing can be taken for granted.

If I’m honest, the movie overstays its welcome somewhat. With twenty minutes cut from the running time, this would have been stronger, but nevertheless there’s still plenty here to enjoy, not least Keoghan’s wonderfully dead-eyed performance as the teenage boy who comes to exercise complete control over the Murphys. Oh, that title, by the way, refers to the myth of Iphigenia, so those of you who have studied the classics might have some intimation about where the story is headed.

As I said at the beginning, some people will inevitably hate this film. For me, though not perfect, it’s even stronger than The Lobster, and I for one will be fascinated to see where this exciting and highly original film-maker goes next.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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

 

 

Paddington

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30/11/14

For what is ostensibly just another children’s movie, Paddington arrives surrounded by controversy. It has a PG certificate (mildly ridiculous when you think of the kind of big budget carnage that generally acquires a 12A) and others have complained that this new cinematic manifestation features a bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) that is decidedly ursine and not at all like Michael Bond’s original teddy bear creation. At the end of the day all this matters little. The film is a real delight, cleverly put together and featuring plenty of content to appeal to the more mature viewer. In fact, it might be true to say that much of it will be wasted on really young viewers and there are a couple of scenes here (mostly those featuring evil taxidermist, Millicent (Nicole Kidman)) that may actually traumatise them.

The film begins with an origins story (something that Bond never bothered with) which shows a family of rare bears in ‘darkest Peru’ that are discovered by British explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie.) From him they learn to speak English and acquire a liking for marmalade. When he departs, he leaves them with an open invitation to visit him in London. But it takes a tragedy (an earthquake) to galvanise young Paddington into heading for England.  At Paddington station, he meets the Brown Family – Hugh Bonneville as an uptight insurance broker and Sally Hawkins as a much more free-thinking book illustrator. The Browns and their two children take Paddington in as a guest and much hilarity ensues…

And it does ensue, most convincingly. In fact, the script by Paul King, never puts a paw wrong, milking the slapstick sequences for enough laughs to keep a young audience entertained, whilst delving into more wistful pastures for older viewers. There’s a wonderfully inventive feel to the film – a host of Heath Robinson-esque inventions, some really appealing visual tricks (a repeated trope of the Brown’s home depicted as a doll’s house is a particular pleasure) and of course Ms Kidman’s character which introduces a touch of menace that the original story lacked. Despite so many doubts, the film makers have done credit to Michael Bond’s original creation (he himself has said that he can ‘sleep easy’ after viewing it) and have successfully ‘opened it up’ to create a satisfying family entertainment, that only the grumpiest viewer will find fault with. A well-deserved hit for the festive season.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Before I Go To Sleep

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06/09/14

Another day, another literary adaptation. This one is based on S.J. Watson’s above-average page turner and it’s one of those situations where having read the source novel proves to be a distinct disadvantage. There’s a big ‘reveal’ towards the end of the story which simply doesn’t work if you’ve read the book. (Think Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, a devastating ending in the source novel that’s completely defused when you know what’s coming.)

Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) wakes up to find that she doesn’t know anything. (Well, we’ve all done that.) She is introduced to her caring husband, Ben (Colin Firth) who explains that some years ago she had an ‘accident,’ and now her short term memory is so badly affected, she remembers only what happens in any given day. Every night when she goes to sleep, her memory is wiped and she has to start all over again. She receives a call from a Doctor Nash (Mark Strong) who tells her he’s been working with her on her memory and instructs her to look for a hidden video camera, which records her day-to-day progress. He also tells her that her problem wasn’t caused by an accident at all but by a brutal attack…

What worked so convincingly in the novel doesn’t  translate successfully to the big screen. Though the film is well acted by its key players and there’s workmanlike direction from Rowen Joffe, seeing everything in visual terms only serves to accentuate how risible much of the storyline actually is. An ending which I found rather pat in the book, is presented here as double cheese with extra cheese, and prompts difficult-to-answer questions about some of the character’s motivations.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll almost certainly be disappointed by this lacklustre interpretation. If you haven’t, you’ll probably think of it as a moderately successful thriller. Either way, this isn’t going to rock your world.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney