’20th Century Women’

HO00004115The latest from Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker) is a beautifully balanced late 70s nostalgic ensemble piece of likeable people.

As a single mother, the matriarch, a never better Annette Bening (American Beauty, The Kids Are Alright) quite rightly takes centre stage, persuading Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning help raise and guide her 15 year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Arguably not the most sensible choices as mentors – Gerwig’s feminist influences leave Jamie in fights with school friends over clitoral orgasms and Fanning heads off on a road trip with Jamie in tow.

It’s a film full of contradictions and it does occasionally slip into anecdotal gratification but relative newcomer Zumann is a delight and, possibly for the first time, I personally liked Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) on screen.

Rating: 69%

‘Neruda’

neruda_ver3Tedium sets in early in director Pablo Larrain’s latest bio. As with his Jackie, Larrain is never rushed in his storytelling and even a manhunt across Chile in the aftermath of World War II verges on inert.

“The most famous Communist on Earth”, Pablo Neruda, is a persona non grata in his own country and is hunted by Inspector Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal – The Motorcycle Diaries, Amores Perros) from hiding place to hiding place. Neruda is a man unwilling to play by the rules – but the problem is that as played by Luis Gnecco (No, Perez) the poet is not particularly likeable.

Rating: 44%

‘A Man Called Ove’

A_Man_Called_Ove.pngSome 85 films were submitted for consideration for the 2017 best foreign language Oscar. Sweden’s entry, A Man Called Ove, made the final shortlist of five before losing out to Iran’s The Salesman. The other 80 must have been appalling if the Hannes Holm-helmed dramedy was seen as one of the best of the year (Julieta, Elle, Neruda, My Life as a Zucchini are just a few that failed to make that final five).

Lonely, grumpy widower Rolf Lassgard (After the Wedding, The Hunters) learns to smile again after a new family moves into the neighbourhood. Off-kilter humour early on gives way to crowd pleasing tosh, resulting in disjointed comedic sentimentality. Deeply unimpressed.

Rating: 31%

 

‘Land of Mine’

under_sandetOscar-nominated Danish film, Land of Mine is the riveting story of a group of young German POWs forced to clear a beach of thousands of buried landmines.

Based on true events where thousands of (mostly teenage) German POWs lost their lives in the immediate months following the end of World War II clearing landmines, director Martin Zandvliet (Applause, Teddy Bear) focuses on a small group under the watch of an angry Danish sergeant (Roland Moller – A Hijacking, Northwest).

Avoiding excess melodrama or grandstanding, the stark economy of dialogue and action result in concern for each of the boys whilst understanding the anger of the Danes towards what they represent. Beautifully photographed with understated performances, Land of Mine is a deeply moving anti-war film full of chilling suspense.

Rating: 82%

‘The Salesman’

SalesmanThe best film in a foreign language Oscar winner, The Salesman is a confident, assured piece of cinema.

Surprisingly low key and minimal, to label it a revenge thriller would be doing Asghar Fahardi (A Separation, The Past) a disservice. Yet Shahab Hosseini (A Separation, About Elly) is determined to discover the identity of the man who assaulted his wife (a superbly resigned Taraneh Alidoosti – Modest Reception, About Elly) in their own home.

As with the magnificent A Separation, Fahardi builds the tension (without overly altering the pace) primarily through words, leaving you somewhat breathless as the narrative builds towards its compelling finale.

Rating: 81%

‘Loving’

C4aLimZXUAAHSse.jpgQuiet, understated, honourable – Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) has crafted a loving portrayal of a young couple caught up in the race relations maelstrom of 1950s Virginia.

Based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, Nichols’ film tells of the dirt poor couple whose mixed-race marriage broke all the rules on the statutes and led to changes in the law via the Supreme Court.

But the nuanced performances by Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Black Mass) and Ruth Negga (World War Z, Warcraft) avoid all grandstanding and courtroom dramas. Instead, over 10 years, Loving is their story of love , raising a family and survival.

Rating: 77%

‘Silence’

silence-posterA labour of love long in gestation by legendary director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Departed) is a contemplative work reflecting on the meaning of faith, love, colonialism and the questioning of authority.

Padres Rodrigues (a quietly solid performance by Andrew Garfield – Hackshaw Ridge, Spiderman) and Garupe (Adam Driver – Paterson, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) arrive in 17th century Japan in search of the reported apostatised Padre Ferreira. The last Jesuit priests, outlawed, arrive to christian persecution.

Scorsese’s latest is a slowly unfolding epic which looks beautiful (cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto – Babel, Brokeback Mountain – the only Oscar nomination for the film) but is slowwww and, at times,tedious and unengaging.

Rating: 57%

’13th’

the13th_27x40_1sheetThe thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude – except as punishment for a crime. The stirring documentary 13th explores how, since the abolition, crime enforcement has perpetuated a link to modern day slavery and social inequity.

A hugely disproportionate number of black males are incarcerated in US prisons, many the result of the policies of US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton along with sentences handed out to black offenders as opposed to white. Statistics show a white male has a 1 in 17 chance of being imprisoned sometime during his life: for a black male this statistic is 1:3.

Director Ava DuVernay (Selma, Middle of Nowhere) explores the results of these policies alongside historically restrictive laws and practices in an Oscar-nominated documentary that ought to be mandatory viewing (particularly in the US).

Rating: 79%

Who’s going to win? Oscar thoughts.

academy_award_trophyWith the Oscars dished out this coming weekend, and, having seen all nine features up for best film, thought a little personal ruminating would not go amiss (there’s enough of others out there).

Naturally, it’s a personal take on those nine films. Some I do not think should even be on the list; others are noticeable by their absence (Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals in particular). But of those nine, my choice for best film falls unequivocally for Moonlight.

The Golden Globes got it right when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association voted it best film – drama. The two separate categories for best film – drama and comedy/musical – certainly helped the Barry Jenkins-helmed feature avoid competing against the critical behemoth that is La La Land. But it’s the better film (personally speaking). Resonant, poignant, performed by an ensemble cast with quiet dignity, it’s a quite extraordinary film.

La La Land, the odds-on favourite to win a swag of Oscars including best film, fell into that ‘it’s good but not that good’ category for me – and is only fifth of the nine on my list. But in its celebration of LA and Hollywoodland (and a quite haunting soundtrack), it will probably win the big one (at least).

Any other year, the indescribably sad Manchester by the Sea would have likely topped my favourite of the year. Like Moonlight, it’s another quiet drama with superb performances from all and sundry, although in her few scenes Michelle Williams is devastating (as is Casey Affleck).

It’s hardly original – and we’ve seen Jeff Bridges play laconic lawmen for what seem forever (partly because he’s so good at it!) – but Hell Or High Water is a particularly fine example of its genre but unlikely to cause any surprises (it’s a film that appears to be constantly finding itself second or third in all its categories).

Lion surprised me by the respect it gave to the early part of its narrative – almost half its running time is set in a subtitled India. It’s a true story very well told and it was good to see Dev Patel gain recognition at the BAFTAS for his performance (it would be a major surprise if he repeated the feat and picked up Best Supporting Actor over Mahershala Ali in Moonlight).

The rest of the nine films are likely to be also rans, although Fences is a powerhouse in terms of acting. August Wilson’s film betrays too much of its theatrical roots to be truly convincing as a feature film. Arrival is an intelligent sci-fi but, like Hell or High Water, features high on lists of five or ten without topping any of them. Hackshaw Ridge surprised by finding itself in the running for best film. Highlight of Mel Gibson’ war film is the superb editing and cinematography (sadly no recognition for Simon Duggan in the latter category). And then there’s Hidden Figures which was a great true story disappointingly told.

So I’d love it if Moonlight took home the best film award but it’s hard to see it beating out La La Land.

Personal ratings of the films nominated for the best film Oscar

Moonlight (91%)
Manchester by the Sea (88%)
Hell or High Water (80%)
Lion (75%)
La La Land (73%)
Fences (69%)
Arrival (67%)
Hackshaw Ridge (63%)
Hidden Figures (57%)

‘Hidden Figures’

timthumb-phpAn extraordinary story of three highly-intelligent black women working at NASA at the same time in the early 1960s in segregated West Virginia. Sadly, the episodic Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi (Saint Vincent) is a PG-palatable telling of their story and the institutionalised racism and sexism they had to overcome.

Each of the women broke through the restrictions imposed upon them with Hidden Figures choosing to focus on mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Think Like a Man). But her close friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer – The Help, Fruitvale Station) and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae – Moonlight) could have easily been a similar focus.

Some have liked the quiet telling of the very human story of the three women. But the lack of passion and friction undermines their struggle.

Rating: 57%