‘Green Room’

24294961211_b5cd5a9465_oWitnessing a murder at the remote forest headquarters of a neo-Nazi group is not the best part of the day for a touring rock band. Cue a gruesome, over-the-top thriller as the four plus one try to stay one step ahead of the game and stay out of the reach of the skinheads and their dogs.

In spite of its premise, there’s a great deal of dark humour from director Jeremy Salnier (Blue Ruin, Murder Party) amidst the midnight-screening style splatterfest.

But Green Room also works against its genre – crisp dialogue, well paced and with fully rounded performances. Anton Yeltsin (Star Trek, Fright Night) and, against type, an excellent Imogen Poots (She’s Funny That Way, Filth) are stand outs.

Rating: 65%

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‘Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures’

46240A no holes barred look at the life and work of controversial American artist Robert Mapplethorpe, from childhood to a tragic early death from AIDS at the age of 42.

His imagery is as much iconic as it is provocative, his focus, ambition and determination as an artist unwavering.  Interestingly, Mapplethorpe became interested in photography almost be default.

Like so many biographical documentaries, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Inside Deep Throat) try to cover too much and, surprisingly considering the subject, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is a remarkably straight-laced film. But it still provides a candid insight into the man and his time, with interviews with the likes of Debbie Harry, Fran Leibowitz, Brook Shields as well as former lovers and family members.

Rating: 68%

‘An’

an-sweet-red-bean-paste-posterA sweet confection of a film turns on its emotional head at the half way mark, providing a quietly moving finale that may be obvious but is no less powerful.

Veteran actress Kirin Kiri (Still Walking, Mom and Me and Sometimes Dad) is a quirky delight as Tokue, desperate to work at the corner dorayaki (a pancake-like snack) house to make her home made an (red bean paste) and revive the fortunes of down-at-heel chef, the cynical Sentaro. A gentle, believable friendship develops between the two.

An is a quiet, gently nuanced film where, from an ‘action’ perspective, little happens. But the dignified performances and a simple, unfolding storyline makes this modest film look to the detail of life rather than broad brushstrokes.

Rating: 69%

‘The First Monday in May’

first-monday-in-may-lgThe Metropolitan Museum’s fundraising gala for the Costume Institute takes place on the first Monday in May – and director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) obtained a much desired fly-on-the-wall spot to film behind the scenes.

It’s curator Andrew Bolton’s gig, but it’s very much Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s party. The theme for 2015 – China: Through The Looking Glass – takes over more than the usual basement galleries dedicated to fashion. But then raising $12 million for the institute tends to speak volumes!

As a documentary it tries to cover too much (and therefore covers little) but The First Monday in May remains an enthralling peak into the preparations for a gig where the tickets are $25,000 each…

Rating: 67%

‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara

9781447294818On the front cover of the book are single word quotations from UK newspapers, including ‘astonishing’, ‘devastating’ and ‘extraordinary’. These are all true of A Little Life – and more. Profound, intense, moving, capacious all appropriately spring to mind.

Yet, that’s only the half of it. The reality is that over its 720 pages, A Little Life is also deeply traumatic, emotionally exhausting and, at times, unbearably harrowing. The investment in the characters (and Jude in particular) is such that, on the one hand, you never want the book to end: yet such is the litany of horrors, it needs to be over.

A story of friendship, grief, loss and love, A Little Life is essentially a parable of our time with Hanya Yanagihara choosing to tell the story of the bonds and ties that bind in male friendship over a 30 plus year period: whilst present, women, as friends, wives, mothers and sisters, are essentially secondary.

But this is no macho, beer-swilling, sports-mad strut.

The four central characters, contemporaries and roommates at college in Boston, all become eminently successful in their chosen careers. From a wealthy, mixed-race background, the ever-diplomatic Malcolm studies architecture. Having lost his father at a young age and the only male in a Haitian household, the irascible JB, spoilt by the women in his family, eventually becomes a successful artist via drug and alcohol addiction. Blonde and blue-eyed, Wilhelm has matinee idol good looks that jettison him to success on stage, television and film. But it is the enigmatic Jude who is the central character of the group (and novel).

It is only over a period of time we find out the full story of Jude – an orphan emotionally, physically and sexually abused so profoundly that even as one of New York’s most successful litigators, he cannot recognise his own worth. Trust is almost impossible, even with the closest of friends. A physical relationship: out of the question. His body is so scarred from the abuse as well as his own self-harm (Jude cuts himself to such an extent that his long-suffering friend and doctor, Andy, believes he should be hospitalised), he can never remove any item of clothing in public.

Of the four friends, a special bond exists between Jude and Wilhelm – who himself has lost his parents and a brother who died from hydrocephalus. Yet even Wilhelm cannot ask of his friend that which he knows Jude cannot answer (no matter how much Jude wants to tell him). To Jude, so disgusting and depraved are his secrets, silence is the best option.

And Jude suffers for his silence – but he also physically suffers, unable to walk without intense pain. And it is this constant mix of emotional and physical distress that dominates Jude’s life and the lives of people around him. But their love for him is so profound, their need for his approval so deep, they accept this is part of who Jude is.

In spending 30 years evolving the story over 720 pages, A Little Life demands a great deal of investment from its readers. It puts you through the emotional wringer as Yanagihara addresses issues of social and personal importance of relevance today – abuse, eating disorder, physical self-harm, wealth accumulation, addiction, obsession to the point of madness, the measurement of success, suicide et al.

But in putting them into the minds and bodies of extremely successful men, there’s a very different take. Malcolm and his wife Sophie may be in Shanghai discussing his latest project or Jude and Wilhelm holidaying in Bhutan or JB opening a retrospective at the Witney, but it’s only an intervention that ensures Jude does not starve himself to death or JB self destruct on ice: it is Malcolm who talks of the couple’s decision not to have children.

A Little Life is an extraordinary book. The joy, the pain, the disappointment, the anger, the frustration – they’re all shared. But occasionally that pain is just a little too much and a little distance is required (sometimes I chose not to read for a couple of days). Its rawness and honesty is both its recommendation and its disparagement.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, A Little Life as favourite and anticipated to be the first American winner since the change of rules lost out to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.

‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’

The_Man_Who_Knew_Infinity_(film)A solid, interesting if uncreative telling of the extraordinary story of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

A poor, Tamil Brahim growing up in Madras, Ramanujan was invited to Trinity College, Cambridge, arriving days before the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914. In this hallowed environs, he is confronted with racism, snobbery and academic prejudice – despite his innate mathematical brilliance.

Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is engaging and Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune, Being Julia) as Ramanujan’s mentor, G.H.Hardy, brings a sense of gravitas to the film. But The Man Who Knew Infinity is a little too polite, a little too 1 + 1 = 2 to be as memorable as it could have been.

Rating: 54%

‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

X-Men_Apocalypse_International_PosterIt’s big, bold and brash – exactly what you’d expect from the on-going saga of mutants, humans and the battle for supremacy (or acceptance).

It’s thrilling stuff (albeit laid on with a trowel), with director Bryan Singer (X-Men, X-Men 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past) proving once again he is the man to turn to with this particular franchise. The opening Ancient Egyptian scenes are particularly sumptuous with Singer choosing to focus  on action rather than much dialogue. The result is that, in comparison to those other superheroes and the Avengers clan, X-Men: Apocalypse takes itself a little more seriously.

But what it fails in character development (interestingly Raven/Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is arguably the central role), Singer more than makes up for with thrills and spills. Not the best X-Men, but certainly enjoyable.

Rating: 54% 

‘Mia Madre’

mia-madre-posterA film director is struggling to remain focussed on her latest feature with her mother seriously ill in hospital. Things are not helped by the leading man unable to remember his lines.

In its understated simplicity and slice of the everyday, Mia Madre is a beautifully observed story of loss and grief. Margherita Buy (The Caiman, His Secret Life) is superb as Margherita, a professional  woman needing to be in control but who therefore struggles to give voice to her emotions. It is only with her brother Giovanni (Nanni Moretti) she can be herself.

A bombastic, almost caricaturist, performance by John Turturro (Quiz Show, Barton Fink) as the (loud) Italo-American film star upsets the quietness of Mia Madre. Instead of light relief, Turturro undermines its intimacy, ensuring the two ‘parts’ of the storyline are never fully integrated.

Rating: 64%

‘The Witch’

THEWITCH_PAYOFF_WEB1We’re in Salem witchcraft country with The Witch, a visual success buoyed by excellent performances. But in its exploration of black magic, witchcraft and possession, the denouement lets down the genuinely menacing tone established early on.

A cast of six (two adults, four kids) hold the 1630s storyline well as the family’s own fears result in their faith questioned and lives ultimately unravel. Anna Taylor-Joy (Vampire Academy) as the eldest daughter and Ralph Ineson (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the father are standouts.

Oozing confidence, director Robert Eggers collected the 2015 Sundance Directing Award for his feature film debut.

Rating: 59%

‘Marguerite’

getmovieposter_margueriteExtraordinarily, Marguerite is a second film based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (see previous posting here), dubbed ‘the worst singer in the world.’

This French version  is ‘inspired’ by true events and takes considerable liberties. A wealthy French comtesse in the 1920s, Marguerite Dumont is certainly a terrible singer surrounded by sycophants and hypocrites. And a misconceived public recital leads to her death. But that’s about it in terms of following the life of the heiress and the plot of the ‘other’ film.

Directed by Xavier Giannoli (The Singer, In the Beginning), Marguerite is placed in the context of the emerging Dadaist art movement, lauded by some, abhorred by the establishment of which she is a part. Her obsession, bordering on madness, is superbly realised by award-winning Catherine Frot (The Page Turner, Haute Cuisine), oblivious as she is to the mutterings of her ‘friends’ to her off-key voice.

Marguerite is a celebration of the music beloved by the comtesse. She may murder it, but others around her do not. The film itself outstays its welcome and slips dangerously close to farce towards the end, but its sumptuous telling of the story and superb performances outstrip anything offered up its ‘competition’.

Rating: 63%