Sunday, 9 December 2018

My movies of 2018.

I live in rural Ireland, a long way from any ‘Art House’ cinemas,  and 25 miles from our little ’local’  multi-screen, so I don’t get to see a lot of films on first release – just 25 this year-  or a wide range.    But even on my limited viewing I think 2018 has been a very good year.    

So here are my top movies of 2018, and my bottom movies,  and a few that were entirely competent, but did no more than I expected.   They are in no order within these categories.   

You might have missed some of these, so there may  something here to encourage you to catch up with them – or even to watch them again, an activity that I usually find very rewarding.   Most of them are 'properly' reviewed below.   

Five Stars = great movies

BlacKkKlansman.  Spike Lee’s amazing retelling of a true story from the 1970’s, tragically still relevant, with John David Washington and Adam Driver.  

A Star is Born is a revelation of the combined writing, directing, acting and singing   talents of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.   Could this really be the best re-telling of this now classic tale? 

Black Panther Ryan Cooper’s film is certainly politically important, gender-wise and ethnically, but it is also a great movie by a new Directing star.     The ensemble cast includes Chaswick Boseman, Lupido Nyhong’o,  Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya and the amazing Michael B. Jordan (see Creed)

The Happy Prince is Rupert Everett’sunflinching andmoving account of Oscar Wilde’s last days.    It took Everett 10 years to get this on screen, and maybe a lifetime to prepare his performance as Oscar.   

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.   A morally complex tale, brilliantly written and directed by Martin McDonach, and wonderfully acted out by Frances McDormand,  Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson.  

Four Stars = really good

The Darkest Hour.   The acting by Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas earned the four stars for this historically important drama,  but one needlessly invented scene lost it the fifth.  Joe Wright Directed, much in the style of his Atonement.  

Widows.   Steve McQueen masters another genre, a thriller adapted by Gillian Flynne from  Lynda La Planta’s TV series.   It  also ‘just happens’ to be bring a multi-ethnic female cast together; Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Bailey Rhyse Walters and Elizabeth Debicki, and they are wonderful.   

Incredibles 2 is every bit as good as the first movie.  Need I say more? 

Avengers: Infinity War.   I have no idea how it works, but it does.   Cannot wait for part 2.   But, hey, I will just have to. 

Bad Times at the El Royale  Drew Goddard earned his writing spurs on Buffy,Angeland Alias,and co-wrote the genre-subverting Cabin in the Woodsover a weekend with Joss Whedon.   (Chris Hemsworth got his part as Thorthanks to Whedon seeing the rushes of that movie.)   When writing and directing Bad TimesGoddard revisited genresin the way that Pulp Fictionreworked pulp fiction, ably aided by Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Eriva, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman and others (including Hemsworth).   Great fun.  

Creed  is the best boxing film I have seen, created by Ryan Cooper, standing on the shoulders of the Rocky movies and bringing Stallone back on screen,  as he coaches the new boxing star (son of Apollo Creed), played by Michael B. Jordan. 

Phantom Thread.   Paul Thomas Anderson  wrote and directed this movie (announced as Daniel Day-Lewis’s last).  It is part of PTA’s own tour of genres (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood,  Inherent Vice, The Master, Magnolia...).  This is an acting class led by Day-Lewis,  Leslie Manning and  the Luxembourgian Vicky Krieps. 

Three an a half Stars = better than 3, but not quite 4.

Isle of Dogs Any Wes Anderson movie gets my attention, and while this may not be Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums orThe Grand Budapest Hotel,   I still liked it a lot.   Anderson seems to have his own rep company, and most of them are here. 

Mary Magdalene.   I really enjoyed Garth Davis’s previous film, Lion,and was not disappointed by his telling of Mary’s story.    Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix play well together and I thought there was nothing there to contradict the Biblical account, plus some fresh insights and a welcome denial of the slander by Pope Gregory that Mary was a ‘fallen woman’.     Seeing Phoenix in this and then You Where Never Really Here  was remarkable.  

Three Star = glad I saw them

Mamma Mia! Here we go Again.   

Solo: A Star Wars Story,   I previously saw Alden Ehrenreich (Solo) in the Coen Brothers Hail Caesar, and was impressed by him in both).  

The Little Stranger.   Worthy, well acted, but somehow underwhelming.  

The rest – did what they said on the poster, but no more. 
Mission Impossible: Fallout  
Deadpool 2
The Spy who Dumped Me 
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom 
Ready Player One
Red Sparrow

Biggest disappointments?

Hereditary  - started so well as a stylish psychological thriller, but then degenerated into standard schlock horror.

A Quiet Place - good to look at, sold as horror, but actually just bad sf.   I say much more in m review! 

Black ’47-  this could have been an important movie about the Irish famine, but turned into standard action movie.   A misguided mix of genres. 

2018 movies I hope to catch up on

Get Outpartly becauseI spotted Daniel Kaluuya as a teenager in the 2011 BBC series The Fades,and predicted stardom for him.   

UnsaneWith Clair Foy. I will always try to catch a Steven Soderbergh movie. 

The Sisters Brothers.  John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, directed by Jacques Audiard. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Poat, with Chloe Morentz.   

The Old Man & The Gun. Robert Redford, Daniel Glover and Tom Waits. 

Mowgli.  Andy Serkis, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hollander. 

Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens, Tim Blake Nelson (when a DVD is released).

Creed IIMichael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, but not directed by Ryan Cooper, who was busy on Black Panther.

Crazy Rich Asians.Michelle Yeo.

The Favourite.  Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone.

Ant-Man and the Wasp.  Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly.

First Reformed.   Ethan Hawke, Paul Schrader. 

Still to come in December
Mary Poppins Returns. 
Aquaman
Mary Queen of Scots
Vice.
Destroyer
They Shall Not Grow Old.


Caught up with this year; 

Lady MacBeth.   William Oldroyd took Alice Birch’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novel and cast Florence Pugh in the lead.   Stunning.   Ms. Pugh has recently starred in the TV serialization of John le Carre’s novel The Little Drummer Girl.  

Black Hawk Down.  I have no idea why it took me so long to catch up on this.
Ridley Scott took a great cast and put them through the US  Ranger’s Boot Camp in order to honourably recreate the disaster that overtook  US heliborne troops in Mogadishu, when they were part of a UN Peacekeeping force.  Visceral.   

Audition.  I really have to watchMiiki Takashi’s fascinating tale again to see if the final horrifically violent act is ‘for real’, or simply the imagined fears of the protagonist.   Fascinating.  

Eye In The Sky.    Drone warfare poses  a host of ethical questions and this movie, starring Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, does a decent job of dramatizing them.    I notice that Colin Firth was one of the producers of this film, as well as Lovingand The Happy Prince,  two films I am grateful for. 

You Were Never Really Here.  Lynne Ramsey and Joaquin Phoenix produced a  brutal, fascinating,  compelling and somehow (amazingly, puzzlingly) beautiful portrait of a deeply traumatized and very  violent man.   

Wonder Woman. Broke the DC mold the way Black Pantherdid  for Marvel.

The Death of Stalin  Brilliant (stellar) ensemble playing to a hilarious Ianucci script.    I am sure the actual events surrounding Stalin’s demise were just as farcical, but no-one is saying.   Or ever will.      
   
Love and  MercyPaul Dano plays Brian Wilson’s early days in The Beach Boysand then and John Cusack his tragically delayed  his recovery. A film about much more than music, but such music! 

The Handmaid Park Chan Wook’s take on a Sarah Water’s novel is a beautifully composed,  deeply complex and very erotic adaptation.   

And seen again from a Galaxy far away and long ago;  

Tom Jones,  the 1963 British romp, with the young Albert Finney, Susannah York and Diane Cilento  and the not at all young Dame Edith Evans.   Still fun after all these years.

The Godfather.      It was a long time since I watched this, but it was well worth seeing it again.    This time I paid attention to the lighting by Gordon Willis,  who had just shot Kluteand went on to  All The President’s Menand a host of  Woody Allen movies.     I had not known that the opening wedding scenes were shot at night, as they were behind schedule, and had also been advised to see how Willis  helped develop character by the way he lit Brando and Pacino.   

Dances With Wolves . I think this is a fine movie, and enjoyed  seeing Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica),  Graham Green and Kevin Costner all over again. 

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.   I recently read John le Carre’s  latest novel, A Legacy of Spies,and it explores the repercussions of this 1960’s tale, so going back to the (faithful) movie version was quicker than re-reading the original book.    Richard Burton,  Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner fleshed it out well, and Martin Ritt directed with great discipline.    Shot in stark black and white it is a worthy adaptation of one of the few spy books to rank as a first class novel.   

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Women in the Movies; an update.

In the midst of all the revelations of discrimination and abuse in the movie world, mainly concerning women, I thought it would be good to point to the fact that in the last year, and reaching into the winter of 2018,   I see there are at least fifty films directed by women,  starring main female leads, sharing equal female/male billing or featuring strong  female roles.       I would rate at least twenty of these as  significant, either to do with their box office breakthroughs,  their critical success or for their sheer innovation.   I have not seen all of these,  but count at least a dozen of them among my favourite recent movies.     Surely this (not my opinion but the numbers mentioned) must be good, rays of light in the dark news still being exposed. 

Films I have seen and admired in the last year.
A Star is Born
Black Panther
3 Billboards
The Phantom Thread
Incredibles 2
Wonder Woman
Lady Bird
The Spy Who Dumped Me
A Quiet Place
Mary Magdalene
Bad Times at the El Royale
You Were Never Really Here
Mission Impossible; Fallout
Red Sparrow
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The Post
The Shape of Water
Molly’s Game
Ghost In The Shell.
Hereditary
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Mama Mia: Here We Go Again
Deadpool 2

Films I have not yet seen, but which are admired - or much anticipated - by  others. 

First Man
Annihilation
Widows
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Suspiria
Crazy Rich Asians
Mary Poppins Returns
A Simple Favour
Peppermint
The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Halloween
Breaking In
Revenge
Chesil Beach
Overboard
The Party
Tomb Raider
Girls Trip
A Wrinkle In Time
Calling Grace
Fifty Shades Freed
I, Tonya
The Beauty and the Beast
Sing
The Breadwinner
Pitch Perfect 2
Victoria and Abdul
The Hate U Give

Thursday, 13 September 2018

BlacKkKlansman rings true and urgent alarms bells.

Harry Belafonte trained as an actor in New York alongside Marlon Brando,  Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau and Sidney Poitier.  He began to sing to pay for his acting classes, and his musical career took off first, singing Jazz and Folk and then pioneering Calypso.  Two of his albums sold more than an million copies each and he was a regular guest on American TV shows, a handsome, athletic and intelligent and versatile performer.

Alongside his musical career he acted in big movies such as Island In The Sun,  Odds Against Tomorrow,  and The World, The Flesh and The Devil.     Between 1953 and 2013 he appeared in over 30 movies, many of them documentaries he also produced that demonstrated his political civil rights commitment, starting with King: A Filmed Record,  Montgomery to Memphis in 1970, then Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker,  We Shall Overcome,  Fidel, and the Bobby (Kennedy).   
During the Civil Rights struggle in the 50’s and 60’s Belafonte was one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s best friends.  He provided financial support for King’s family, bailed King out of Birmingham City Jail and raised thousands of dollars to release other civil rights protesters.  He financed the 1961 Freedom Rides, supported voter registration drives, and helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington.  He later bankrolled the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committeewith $60,000 in cash.  
But he was not only committed to work in the USA.  In 2001 he  supported the campaign against HIV/AIDSin South Africa and was awardedthe Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award by Africare for his efforts.  A few years later he was in Kenya working to improve access to education for Black children. 
Back home in 2016, Belafonte endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Primary, saying"I think he represents opportunity, I think he represents a moral imperative, I think he represents a certain kind of truth that's not often evidenced in the course of politics", Belafonte was an honorary co-chair of the Women's March on Washington, on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. 

And why am I writing about him now?  Because when Belafonte may have thought that  his movie career was over Spike Lee came aknocking on his door asking him to appear in  BlacKkKlansman– and to play Jerome Turner,an elder statesman of the Civil Rights Movement, passing on the baton to a younger generation.  No actor is better qualified to take that roll, and to authenticate it.   I think this a fitting tribute to a remarkable man in this remarkable film.    It is a tragedy that such a film needs to be made in the 21stcentury.   I thank God that we had Spike Lee and his team to make it. 

Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallward, a Black Policeman in Colorado Springs, who in the 1970’s infiltrated the local Ku Klux Klan and established a relationship with their national leader, David Duke. 

Stallward is played by John David Washington.   In an interview with Rolling Stone (RS) magazine Spike Lee said  He is Denzel Washington’s first son.  That’s a big, big burden.  But he’s also his own man.  I have a history with him.  His first film was Malcolm X.  At the end of the movie, when the kids say, “My name is Malcolm X!” He’s one of the kids. He was about six years old. (an interview with Jamil Smith, 2nd August 2018.)  

Adam Driver (from The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the Star Wars movies The Last Jediand The Force Awakens, andPaterson) plays Stallworth’s colleague and co-infiltrator, Flip Zimmerman. Laura Harrier (Spiderman Homecoming) is Patrice Dumas,  President of the  Colorado Springs Black Students Union, who invites Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael’s adopted name, and played by  Corey Hawkins) to talk to her Union members.   Attending that talk is Stallsworth’s first undercover role, and he is profoundly moved by what he hears – and also deeply attracted to Patrice.   Then, on a whim,  he answers an advert looking for KKK recruits, and his telephone persona is warmly accepted, first of all by David Duke, the KKK national leader, (Topher Grace, Venom in Spiderman 3), and then by Walter (Ryan Eggold),the local organiser. Jasper Paakkonen (a leading Finnish actor) plays another KKK member, Felix, and Ashlee Atkinson plays his wife, Connie, a woman as committed to the cause as her husband. 

This is necessary and compelling story, told with verve, courage, skill and humour by one of the  most gifted and determined film makers in America – of any colour – and one who has always addressed America’s race problem,  obliquely or directly.  Here he does so head on.   And yet this is not  a single-sighted movie.    

Despite the attitude of the Black characters, most of whom are  protesters who have seen and experienced so much Police harassment and brutality and regard the cops as ‘pigs’,  the film is not anti-police.    Spike Lee has said that the tone of the film was influenced by The French Connection, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon– and that was not just about the 1970’s vibe.   Stallworth is proud to be a cop, and proud of the white colleagues who support his work, particularly Zimmerman, who has to stand in for him when actual meetings with the Klan take place, occasions when Stallworth obviously had to stand back, and Zimmerman’s life is in jeopardy.   And Zimmerman was Jewish, having to respond to obscene anti-Semitic attitudes and remarks by appearing to go along with them.  In one scene he actually outdoes the Klansman who denies that the Holocaust ever took place.   ‘Of course it did,’  says Zimmerman, ‘and it was beautiful.’   You cannot see him grit his teeth. 

Even though many of the Klansmen are portrayed as stupid, utterly bigoted, blind to America’s true history and criminally violent, they are not demojnised.  Walter is a calm, thoughtful man, and Topher Grace plays David Duke as equally reasonable, utterly convinced that God is on his side and he is on God’s side.    He does not rant; in fact he is almost charming. For Topher Grace finding the balance between the former KKK leader’s charm and his racial hatred was the toughest challenge. “He’s very charismatic.”  Grace has said. “That was the worst part. How seductive he was, how smart he was to put a new face on the Klan, how terrible that’s been for our country.”

In fact the whole film is built on dualities. One is, of course between the neo-Nazis in the 1970’s and the present, and between David Duke and Donald Trump. We will come back to that.  
When one of the cops says that the KKK are like a family, ‘sticking together right or wrong’, Stallworth says, ‘Like us, you mean.’   The most transgressively racist cop, however,  eventually gets his comeuppance. Just as Stallman has to ‘pass’ as white his colleague Zimmerman, has to ‘pass’ as gentile.  Both find themselves examining their own racial/cultural identity for the first time. Zimmerman has to questioning his previous  acceptance of anti-Semitic prejudice.   Stallworth has to question his role as a Black cop, arguing his point with Patrice, sometimes humorously, sometimes in more earnest as it threatens their relationship. 
We also see a chilling scene between Kevin and Connie as they snuggle up in bed and she heartfully thanks him not only for his love, but for giving her life direction.  
The dualism is played out  most effectively towards the end of the film.   At the start of the film we see clips from  D.W.Griffiths 1915 Birth of A Nation, the film that glorified and virtually resurrected the KKK.  It is being projected onto the face of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, (Alex Baldwin) as he splutters his racist rants about America becoming a ‘mongrel nation’ and looking back to when America was great, but as he does so his white face is sometimes ‘blacked up’ by the very film he is using.   Spike Lee said in the Rolling Stone interview  “My problem is that as far as ‘Birth of a Nation’ goes, we were told D.W. Griffith is the father of cinema, but other stuff got left out,” he said. “We were never told as students that this film gave a rebirth to the Klan; the KKKhad been dormant.”  Lee made a short film drawing attention to this, an was nearly thrown out of film school for it. 

And then towards the end of this film we see the 1970’s Klan members as they watch Birth Of A Nation again, obviously a regular and festive occurrence for them, as they whoop and holler at the scenes of White on Black violence.   Lee intercuts this with a gathering of a Black students and activists as they sit quietly at the feet of Jerome Turner, the veteran activist played by Harry Belafonte, and he tells the tragic tale of the lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916 - just a year after the release of Birth Of A Nation.   Here Spike Lee uses the crosscutting technique pioneered by Griffith - a rather subtle revenge.   Every movement needs ‘foundation stories’ and here their juxtaposition is deeply disturbing and revelatory.    

But then we see shots from the white supremacists rally in Charlottesville in 2017, footage that  includes shocking images of anti-racism activist Heather Heyer being mowed down and killed.   In that same Rolling Stone Interview Lee said We were in preproduction when Charlottesville happened.  I was watching TV, my brother Anderson Cooper. Agent Orange”— his nickname for President Trump — “the Klan, the alt right, David Duke. They wrote the ending.”   “I knew that was going to be the ending. I first needed to ask Ms. Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, for permission. This is someone whose daughter has been murdered in an American act of terrorism — home-grown, apple-pie, hot-dog, baseball, cotton-candy Americana. Ms. Bro no longer has a daughter because an American terrorist drove that car down that crowded street. And even people who know that thing is coming, when they see it, it’s like, very quiet. People sit there and listen to Prince singing a Negro spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep.” Did you hear the song at the end?”  (RS) He went to say, “This thing is not just about the United States of America. This is happening all over Europe: Britain, France, Italy, the rise of neo-Nazis in Germany. I want people to understand that. This rise of right-wing, fascist groups is not just an American phenomenon.” (RS)

BlacKkKlansman's musical director was Terence Blanchard, a prolific jazz composer, who scored Talk to Me, Inside Man, Summer of Samand many others. Chayse Irwin, cinematographer shot   BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade, and has collaborated with Kahlil Joseph in many award winning art projects.   It was edited by Barry Alexander Brown, the Englishman who has edited Lee’s films all the way back to Do The Right  Thing  1989.  

No film can ever be perfect, and one as controversial as this is bound to be closely scrutinised by those who agree and who disagree with its premises.   Toby Young wrote in the right-wing British paper The Mail that 'Spike Lee fails to include elements that might make his film entertaining — such as plot, character development, romance, action and suspense.'  Well, he would, wouldn’t he.   In fact Young has named the very elements that I think the film handles well.   The plot, while being to some extent fictionalised and dramatized,  moves swiftly, with few narrative hiccups.  The two main characters, Stallworth and Zimmerman do indeed develop as their story progresses.  The romance between Roy and Patrice could have been given more emphasis – and I am sure some would have wanted it to be more explicit – but the film makes the point that both of these people’s commitment to their cause – or rather to how they would work for the same cause – divided rather than united them.   And there is certainly action and suspense galore.     

Some who are in sympathy with Spike Lee’s intent may think as they are watching this movie that he has treated his subject too lightly, with too much humour, too many tropes from conventional thrillers.   I do not think that opinion will survive the end of the film.   Lee has set us up for a sucker punch, and when it comes it is a knockout blow. 

The acting, direction, soundtrack, cinematography and editing come together to make a film that will – or ought to – engage move and shock us all when we see the present day Duke and Trump.   Duke admiring Trump,  Trump refusing to condemn the Charlottesville neo-Nazi murderous violence.   

Earlier on we have seen Roy talking with his boss, Sergeant Trapp (Ken Garito), who believes that Duke and his allies are developing an electoral strategy based on ‘potent, divisive issues like immigration, affirmative action and tax reform that could eventually lead to the White House.’  Ron laughs.  He sees the Klan as dangerous, but also ridiculous.“America would never elect somebody like David Duke president,” he says. The sergeant asks, “Why don’t you wake up?”

Spike Lee has said“I’m going to go back to “Wake up.” That’s been in almost all my films. Wake up. Be alert. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t go for the okeydokey. Don’t go for the shenanigans, subterfuge and skulduggery. Don’t go for it. Let’s make the best of the time we have on this earth, and not get into this hate and all this other bullshit.”    This film is not about the need for Black Power, but for‘power to all the people,’  as Kwame Ture says.    

The BBC program Panorama broadcast on the 12 September  2018, looking at Black Power in America, retells some of the stories of Police killings of Black men, stories that lead many African-Americans to arm themselves in self-protection.   It seems that if you are a Black American man aged between 15 and 34 you stand 11 times the risk of being shot by the Police than if you are White.   In 2015  1100 Black Americans were killed by Police Officers.   In that same period the British Police shot dead 4 people.   

In 2015 the number of KKK clans more than doubled, from around 70 to 190.   But Dan Murdock, who made the program concluded that “Many of the Black Americans I met felt little fear from the white men burning crosses in the woods.   To them White Supremacy is a system of oppression that stretches through politics, education, the prisons and the economy, but most obviously through the policing.”     

It is a tragedy that this film needed to be made in the 21stcentury.    I thank God that we had Spike Lee and his team to make it – and not to turn it into an anti-racist rant, but into a genuinely engaging and entertaining story that nonetheless tells appalling and abiding truths. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Here are some of the movies I watched this summer.


 They are, in order; 

Audition
A Fish Called Wanda
The Death of Stalin
You Were Never Really Here
Creed
Loving
Mud
The Leopard
Black Hawk Down
1000 Times Goodnight
Mamma Mia; Here We Go Again
Mission Impossible; The Fallout
The Happy Prince.


Starting  with Audition,  Miike Takashi’s  film based on a short story by Ryu Murakami, released on the Tartan Asia Extreme label – and it really is extreme.    A widower, Shigaharu Aoyama,  is persuaded by his teenage son that he really needs a new wife and a colleague suggests that they hold auditions for a video, one that his company will never actually shoot,  in order to meet some ‘suitable’ young women.    Shigaharu does indeed meet and court a beautiful young woman, Asami Yamasaki.   

What happens next to deeply ambiguous.   Either Asami turns out to be psychopathic torturer - or we enter into the dream world of Shigaharu’s  deepest fears and guilt.    I will watch this compelling movie again soon,  and try to track the moment when either version kicks in.    

A total change came when some friends gathered to watch A Fish Called Wanda.  We had all seen it before (of course), and all agreed I was well worth seeing again (and again).    The veteran director Charles Crighton came out of retirement to Direct the script that he and Cleese wrote together.    What a wonderful coming together of talents.   The script is diamond sharp, and the performances spot on.  John Cleese is deeply sympathetic as Archie Leech – the name is of course an in-joke) and we really do see him fall in love with Jamie Lee Curtis’s utterly seductive, witty and intelligent Wanda while she runs ring round Kevin Kline’s (maybe, sometime CIA) dim hit-man Otto, a performance that fitting won Kline a Best Supporting Oscar), all in the company of Michael Palin’s victimised Ken.   I still think this is the best work ever by Cleese, Curtis and Crighton,  funny and heartwarming.   

The Death of Stalin is another ensemble piece, starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Angel Riseborough and James Tambor,  directed  by Armado Iannuci and adapted by him and David Schneider from the comic book of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thiery Robin.    This is a very different comedy, an imagining of the panic that descended on the Soviet Union’s inner political circle when Uncle Joe suddenly died,  and any of those who surrounded him could be pitched into the outermost  political circle - or the deepest circle of hell - at any time.   This is not a history lesson, but I am sure it accurately represents the fear and paranoia, machinations and betrayals of the time.     Wonderful performances keeping the show just this side of pantomime.  

I was not really looking forward to seeing Lynne Ramsay’s film You Were Never Really Here.   I knew it starred Joaquin Phoenix  as a deeply traumatized mercenary hired to recover an abducted girl/child and inflict ‘just punishment’ on her abductors.   I knew there  would be brutality and psychosis.        I am not a great fan of brutality on screen, but this was  Joaquin Phoenix, an actor I deeply admire, and Lynne Ramsay,  the Scottish Director of Rat TrapMorwen Caller andWe Need To Talk About Kevin,  so this combination prompted me to gird my loins, strap on my  seatbelt and watch it, while also being prepared to eject the DVD at any time.     I did not do so.  I could not take my eyes from the screen.    

The images often seemed as chaotic and incoherent as the inner world of the hit man, and yet both were compelling.    Brutality and tenderness, damnation and redemption, ugliness and a kind of beauty vied for my attention and sympathy.    I cannot remember ever seeing a film like this (The Night Porter and The Dark Knight suggest themselves, but neither of them touches  the parts of me that this film does).     I am not in a hurry to watch it again very soon, but eventually I will, and I am sure I will be rewarded by doing so, as I enter even more deeply into its horror and humanity.    Maybe I need to watch Phoenix in Inherent Vice or Magdalene again first! 

Having seen, enjoyed and admired the Black Panther I picked up a DVD of Creed, also directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan, both of whom came to attention in their first film together, FruitvaleStation.    Creed reworks the themes of the Rocky movies, and some of their characters, including Rocky himself, now recruited to coach the son of Apollo Creed, the heavyweight who defeated Rocky  many years earlier.     I do not think that Creed is a boxing movie; it is a movie that involves boxing.   The ring work,  however, is as convincing as any I have seen.    I was never a Rocky or Sylvester fan (though I did admire his rather subtle work in Cop Land, 1997) .  Jordan is as magnetic here as in Black Panther,  and Coogler’s direction as sure-footed.     I really enjoyed this movie.  

Then I watched Loving again.  I have written about this before, saying how much I admired it the first time round.    Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols it is one of the most simple and subtle films I have seen for some time,  and both qualities shine in the direction and performances.   Neither of the lead actors, Joel Edgerton or Ruth Negga, have much to say, and neither of their character emote a lot, and yet so much is communicated.    This is a true story, and its telling rings with integrity.   

I also caught up with a previous Jeff Nichols film, Mud (2012), starring Michael McConaughey and Tye Sheridan.    Nichols used the same photographer, Composer and Editor later in Loving.   This has been described as a ‘Mark Twain story, adapted by Ernest Hemingway and shot by Sam Peckinpar’.    I think that is unfair on the actual writer/director,  Nichols, who did it very well all by himself.    

This is one of  McConaughey’s remarkable recent performances, going back to Killer Joe,  Magic Mike,  The Dallas Buyer’s Club,  InterstellarFree State of Jones, and of course his TV work with Woody Harrelson in True Detective.     But the real star is Tye Sheridan.  I first saw him as the youngest of the three brothers in Terrence Malik’s  2011 film The Tree of Life.  He did not have a large part in that, but working with Malik meant being able to improvise, at length, as the Director kept the camera’s running.    He made Mud a year later, aged 16.    Sheridan has gone on to play in X-Men; Apocalypse and lead Stephen Spielberg’s  Ready Player One.   In Mud he played a Mississippi teenager looking for a father figure – and a girlfriend – and choosing badly in both cases.   His performance is understated and utterly convincing.  Reece Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon also appear.   Well worth watching.    

I have wanted to see Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of the Lampedusa novel The Leopard for many years, and eventually saw a copy in a Charity Shop.    

It is st in Sicily in the 1860's, and it has been said that  ‘The Leopard was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.’   Roger Ebert, doyen of film critics,  said that. “The first of these claims is irrefutable, because Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a Sicilian aristocrat, wrote the story out of his own heart and based it on his great-grandfather.  Whether another director could have done a better job than Luchino Visconti is doubtful; the director was himself a descendant of the ruling class that the story eulogizes. But that Burt Lancaster was the correct actor to play Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, was at the time much doubted; that a Hollywood star had been imported to grace this most European - indeed, Italian - indeed, Sicilian - masterpiece was a scandal.”

But in time Lancaster’s invaluable contribution has been recognised by most.  Not only did he bring in the studio money that made the film possible, but his performance was superb.     Although -  or because - he was a circus acrobat of Irish descent his physical grace lent itself to the role of a Sicilian Prince.    Being called ‘The Leopard’ fitted him.   At 50 Lancaster had learnt enough of his craft to  achieve more by doing less.   He was reserved, self-contained and dignified.     He was also still sexually attractive enough for his (unspoken, un-acted upon and absolutely unconsummated) relationship with Angelica, the fiancĂ© of his young nephew Tancredi, played by the gorgeous 25 year old (and Sicilian) Claudia Cardinale, to be credible.   
In the last 45 minute Ball room scene we see them dancing together,  their mutual desire is palpable, their mutual reserve is impeccable.   

As so often, Roger Ebert puts in well;  Finally the prince dances with Angelica. Watch them as they dance, each aware of the other in a way simultaneously sexual and political. Watch how they hold their heads. How they look without seeing. How they are seen, and know they are seen. And sense that, for the prince, his dance is an acknowledgment of mortality. He could have had this woman, would have known what to do with her, would have made her his wife and the mother of his children and heard her cries of passion, if not for the accident of 25 years or so that slipped in between them. But he knows that, and she knows that. And yet of course if they were the same age, he would not have married her, because he is Prince Don Fabrizio and she is the mayor's daughter. That Visconti is able to convey all of that in a ballroom scene is miraculous and emotionally devastating, and it is what his movie is about.’  

The film was shot by Giuseppe Rotunna and scored by Nino Rota, and this Ball is a masterclass in cinema.  

In these last 45 minutes nothing of importance is said, but the whole film is recapitulated and summed up.    Prince Don Fabrizio knows that the old order is about to crumble, as Garibaldi’s reforms forces sweep the land.   It is not yet the end, but it is the beginning of the end.    So as his estates and fortunes will need protection the Prince knows his family must come to terms with the future.  His nephew, bearer of his hopes, will marry Angelina, the daughter of the mayor,  a man who has land and money, but no aristocratic breeding.     The Ball is a kind of requiem, a requiem for something that Visconti, Marxist though he was, knew was worth recognising.    

The future can only be built on the past, and just as the future order will not (yet) be perfect,  nor could the past be perfect.  That is no reason why it should not be honoured as it passes.    

Working for most of my life in an institution with 2000 years of tradition I came to see that being a Traditionalist did not mean trying to preserve the past, but to honour it, learn from it, and build on it.    Sometimes that may mean tearing down parts of it to build on the foundations.   

Black Hawk Down is based on the true story of what happened when a Black Hawk helicopter crewed by US Special Forces, part of the UN Peace keeping force in Somalia,  was shot down in Mogadishu.   Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott went to great lengths to authenticate the actual events and characters, and the Special Forces trained the actors, Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor,  Tom Sizemore, Eric Banner, William Fichtner, Ewan Bremmer and Sam Shepard,  in how to move like real soldiers engaged in Urban Warfare.     The work pays off, and this visceral movie feels almost documentary.   It came out in 2001 but I did not see it then, despite my admiration for Ridley Scott.   I am glad I eventually saw it on DVD, partly because in the cinema it might have been somewhat overwhelming, but also because of the extras on the 3 disc Columbia/Tristar edition.   

1000 Times Goodnight stars Juliette Binoche, and that is usually enough to get my attention.   Ms. Binoche is a risk taker and makes some extra-ordinary films.   Sometimes they do not work for me but when they do, and this one does, they work well.   This film is about the personal conflicts encountered by the men and women who travel to the world’s trouble spots, even war zones, to document what they see through their photography.   1000 Times was written by a former photo-journalist, the Norwegian Eric Poppe, who turned to film making after a work-related injury in Columbia,  and it incorporates pictures taken by the famed British photojournalist  Marcus Bleasdale. 

But this is women’s story,  as we follow Rebecca, the Binoche character,  first of all in Afghanistan  where she photo-documents a group of Taliban women ritually preparing a female suicide bomber.   Later, having returned home to recover from her subsequent injuries, she is confronted by her husband and two daughters, the people who stay at home and worry; those who fear for her very survival.    In a sense she gets the rewards but they pay the cost.    

While we were watching the DVD my friend asked ‘Why would any woman, any mother, do this?’ which prompted the further question ‘Why would any man, any father, do this?’   

This movie does not provide easy answers, and we can see the conflict played out not only between family members but also within Rebecca herself, as Binoche uses all her subtle skills to speechlessly convey her dilemma.    Any actor can show us courage, cowardice, fear, guilt or shame, but the ones I admire most are those who can also convey vulnerability.    I did not really ‘get’ Colin Farrell’ until I saw In Bruges, where I saw exactly that, but I have long seen that ability in Binoche’s work.     

This is a Norwegian/Irish production, starring the French Binoche, the Danish Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as her husband,  the Irish Lauryn Canny as her eldest daughter and Maria Doyle Kennedy as her sister in law.  It is a ‘Euro-pudding’ as they say, one of those movies needing a raft of support by many production companies from across Europe to get made,  and that can compromise and damage a film.   In this case I do not think that compromise happened.    I recommend it.

On a wet weekend I also saw Mamma Mia; Here We Go Again, and Mission Impossible: Fallout.     Of course they both delivered exactly what is expected. 

I also saw The Happy Prince again, and that was time well spent.  

I hope you had some worthwhile movie watching!