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Oliver Twist

July 16, 2021

Oliver Twist (2005)
Director: Roman Polanski
Actors: Barney Clark, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Foreman

Surrender to the Void: Oliver Twist (2005 film)

Synopsis: Orphan, Oliver Twist (Barney Clark), finds himself at the mercy of the criminal underworld in London when he flees from his squalid provincial existence in a workhouse and as an apprentice.

Review: There’s nothing particularly to distinguish this as a Roman Polanski film, but it is none the worse for that. The material suppresses any potential for Polanski to gorge on his familiar auteur themes of intersubjectivity and dread. Instead, he commits to the task of adapting Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ as realistically as possible, and probably the main takeaway from the film is Polanski’s success in creating a tangible verisimilitude for his grimy and malign Victorian canvas. Some of the most compelling touches are the most impressionistic and incidental – from the slop of the gruel in the paupers’ bowls, and the greasy skin and rotting teeth of Ben Kingsley’s Fagin, to the swirling smog that personifies Nancy’s dread as she goes for her clandestine midnight meeting on London Bridge with Mr Brownlow.

It seems churlish to criticise the condensing of such a plotty and episodic novel as ‘Oliver Twist’, but it’s a shame so little time is spent on the mystery of Oliver’s identity that hugely accentuates the pathos for his character. Instead, Polanski and screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, seem to be pinning a lot on focusing the drama around those dominant anti-hero figures of Fagin and Bill Sikes. This is where the film snags a touch. Jamie Foreman lacks the dark gravitas needed for Sikes, projecting more as a snarly EastEnders grump, and I feel Ben Kingsley goes too far inwards, perhaps going against the ripe ingredients of the character and how people might assume he would approach the role (à la the gusto of his Don Logan in Sexy Beast), but in the end, getting lost in internalised character obfuscations when we needed a bolder shade of performance. (July 2021)

Strictly Ballroom

July 16, 2021

Strictly Ballroom (1992)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Actors: Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Bill Hunter

Strictly Ballroom – R. H. Rae

Synopsis: Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) is the star dancer of the Waratah ballroom scene, and when he starts to rebel against its stuffy conventions, he finds the perfect ‘surprise’ partner to shock everyone.

Review: What may now seem dated about this ironic, mocu-narrative set around the dramas of the Waratah ballroom scene, was actually fairly novel when this was released some 30 years ago.

It certainly heralded the bold, histrionic aesthetic that director Baz Luhrmann was to essay in even greater and more popular effect through Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). There’s Luhrmann’s unmistakably cartoonish feel for storytelling – from the quick cuts, the wacky close-ups, the garish colour scheme, and the screwball framing device of a retrospective interview involving all the participants.

Even if it all feels a tad forced and not particularly funny (most of the ‘wacky’ conceits didn’t wash with this viewer at least), there’s no denying that it’s carried through with a relentless farcical drive from its very first moments. And, if anything, I’d even go as far as to argue that it’s perhaps more appealing in the serious, dramatic moments than in its overarching comic tone. (July 2021)


February 11, 2021

Babyteeth (2020)
Director: Shannon Murphy
Actors: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn

Image result for babyteeth film

Synopsis: The unconventional relationship between a terminally ill middle-class teenager, Milla (Eliza Scanlen), and a troubled twentysomething, Moses (Toby Wallace), from the wrong side of the tracks.

Review: Babyteeth is a movie that is impossible to dislike. As Manohla Dargis so aptly put it in her own review for the NY Times, it’s such a ‘fragile, earnest and inoffensive thing’ that it feels almost an offence to critique it. But still, there’s something about Babyteeth that nags away at me – not an insincerity as such, but perhaps a slight superficiality or prettified view of its teenage rebellion and terminal illness subject matter. I don’t know if it’s the faux indie feel, the sense that this sort of rebuking of conformity and the bourgeois mindset has been done numerous times before in similar works such as American Beauty, and that its dreamy sensibility of youthful interiority (the scene in the suspiciously arty and bourgeois nightclub is especially hackneyed) has been mined before and is becoming something of a visual cliché as per the forebears of this genre – Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation spring most readily to mind.

The quirky intertitles introducing each scene don’t really add any value and could easily have been excluded – they’re far more appropriate for a film with a wry, literary sensibility such as in Wes Anderson’s cinema. The film’s narrative universe is also flimsy. A defence of the film would probably state that the episodic structure and Milla’s cancer not being explicitly centrepiece is because that’s how it would all feel in the whir of this teenager’s life. To me, if feels more like convenient dramatic elision though and a plot tool around which to generate easier pathos. I wonder how much braver it would have been to frame the story around a girl who didn’t have a terminal illness – a definite end point in her life – but had a more stealthy form of disaffection with the world around her?

Admittedly, the film does some things very well. It has a certain photogenic watchfulness and a real eye for cataloguing the human face. It is also exceptionally well cast and acted, with Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, and Essie Davis all superbly inhabiting their characters who are spun around the orb of Milla’s protagonist while simultaneously bearing their own private burdens and despairs. It’s in these quieter, less determined moments that Babyteeth moves away from its forced dramaturgical confections into something more meaningful and emotive. (February 2021)

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

February 1, 2021

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)
Director: Jason Woliner
Actors: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Balakova

Borat' Sequel Trailer Takes on Coronavirus and Pence - Variety

Synopsis: Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen), a disgraced former Kazakh journalist, is offered the chance to redeem his status by being sent on a mission to the US to deliver a monkey to US Vice President, Mike Pence. Borat’s teenage daughter, Tutar (Maria Balakova), accompanies him on the journey.

Review: And so it turned out that the MAGA acolytes weren’t the only ones hunting down the former Vice President Mike Pence in the closing days of the Trump presidency!

Sadly, its political prescience and that it also anticipated the increasingly unhinged Rudy Giuliani of Four Seasons Total Landscaping fame, can’t obscure from the fact that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm just isn’t very good or funny. It certainly doesn’t justify its feature length running time, and, much like the first film, might simply have worked better as a series of skits on a late-night comedy show.

The need to saddle the film with a personal narrative arc for Borat strangles the film of much of its satirical zest. Less spoofy dramatisation of Borat’s own relationship with his daughter was needed, and while I get the point Sacha Baron Cohen is making about Borat’s inherent misogyny, that could have been communicated in one or two wry scenes at best, rather than the tedious and elongated sadism that Borat inflicts on his daughter for most of the running time. It just isn’t that funny.

Now, the Giuliani scene is funny, but it would have been so much better if Baron Cohen could have let the scene unspool for a few more moments, so as to fully expose Giuliani’s lusty intentions. That missed opportunity and the excessive focus on the subplot of Borat and his daughter make this an unmemorable return to the big screen for Borat. (January 2021)


January 31, 2021

Tenet (2020)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Actors: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki

Christopher Nolan's Tenet to be released in August – but not in the US |  Film | The Guardian

Synopsis: A CIA agent, the ‘Protagonist’ (John David Washington), is drawn into a world of temporal inversion, as he is recruited by the mysterious Tenet organisation to prevent a Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), from destroying the world.

Review: This summer, in anticipation of the release of Tenet, I wrote a piece defending the position of Christopher Nolan as not merely a filmmaker of huge commercial clout, but as someone whose quality of work on an artistic, cinematographic, and emotional (yes, I wrote that!) level merits proper appreciation too. I did post a warning though that Nolan’s increasing reverence for tech and his control freak tendencies were threatening to outweigh that lovely dichotomy he had always been able to blend between all things genre and his metaphysically-inflected narratives.

With Tenet, Nolan totally oversteps that line and has turned in a work that runs dangerously close to self-satire. While I would argue his previous ten films have always possessed some portion of an emotional edge amid the viscerality of their storytelling, Tenet is, simply, a spectatorial dead weight. It is completely lacking in tension and is just a film endlessly stuck in the cycle of explaining and justifying itself and its conceit (perhaps an unintended, ironic echo of its central theme of inversion). Copious exposition is nothing new to a Nolan film, but comprehensiblity and an emotional core always co-existed with that philosophical bent. Even Memento – a film which loosely echoes the tricks of Tenet with a focus on a narrative being played in reverse – was able to conjure three-dimensional character arcs out of those thematics. In Tenet, however, the characters remain (unintentionally) flat, which is borne out when the Protagonist’s climactic conversation with Neil and his one last look at Kat don’t carry the dramatic pay-off Nolan is clearly angling for.

Even in Nolan’s lesser guise as a purveyor of spectacle, Tenet falls flat. For all the lustre, gravitas and awe Nolan applies to his action sequences (I’m thinking about the exploding jumbo, the billionaire’s yacht, the racing boats), he’s unable to aestheticise these for his audience the way his idol, Michael Mann, can. It’s because Mann’s action scenes are always connected to the ethics and emotion of his stories, whereas Nolan’s function as extraneous gorging on extreme financial, technological and industrial might. (January 2021)

The Holiday

January 27, 2021

The Holiday (2006)
Director: Nancy Meyers
Actors: Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law

The Holiday – review | cast and crew, movie star rating and where to watch  film on TV and online

Synopsis: Unlucky-in-love ladies, Iris (Kate Winslet) and Amanda (Cameron Diaz), escape their woes by house-swapping with each other over the Christmas holiday. Amanda goes to Iris’ cute cottage in the Surrey countryside, and Iris travels to Amanda’s flash LA mansion, Unsurprisingly, new romantic possibilities emerge for both women.

Review: This thoroughly preposterous, utter bourgeois fantasy of a romantic comedy has its devotees, but even as the guiltiest of guilty sins, its treacly confection is far beyond my palate.

As ever with a Nancy Meyers film, it’s framed in that deluxe, hazy white glow, and all the characters have lifestyles and first-world problems one can only dream of. Cameron Diaz is a niche editor of film previews, living a life of luxury in a palatial LA mansion, and even Kate Winslet’s supposed mousy, lovelorn Brit lives the kind of upper middle-class life very few of us in Britain would actually recognise. She’s a features editor for the Daily Telegraph and commutes each day to her eccentrically snug cottage in a picture book Surrey village that just happens to be graced with the most picturesque snow (snow at Christmas, particularly in the south of England, is an extremely rare event these days.)

To be fair, Meyers’ films have an intentional farcical quality and a knowingness about their essential ridiculousness – this distinguished the most likeable of her films, It’s Complicated. However, that doesn’t excuse that Meyers is positioning The Holiday as a drama as much as it is a comedy, and, dare I say, she’s trying to frame this as something of a modern woman’s picture. That aspiration is more than undersold by the cartoon cut-out rascally men (especially Rufus Sewell’s ludicrous cad called ‘Jasper’!), and the fact that these women are not positioned in any way as real, recognisable people, but as patronising Bridget Jones-screwball stereotypes. Diaz’s character is first introduced wackily throwing shoes at her cheating boyfriend, and Winslet’s love-lorn voiceover and the audio of her pathetic tears being amplified when she closes the door to her cottage in the early part of the narrative, immediately diminished my expectation that these women will be defined by anything other than their relationship with men. (January 2021)

Love Actually

January 27, 2021

Love Actually (2003)
Director: Richard Curtis
Actors: Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson

Love Actually' writer reveals character, plot details during movie screening

Synopsis: A series of interlinked stories in London about love over the Christmas period.

Review: Love Actually is the equivalent of a tin of Quality Street over Christmas. You know you shouldn’t – it’s shiny and tacky, and even its contents (the chocolate) are fairly synthetic – but, once a year, your guards are down and you can’t resist.

It is an absolute cheese-fest and, in many respects, it’s one big mess of a film. And yet – somehow, its whole adds up to greater than the sum of its parts. And though a lot of the stories in the portmanteau-style narrative are either woefully under-determined or their conceits are so laborious, it has a forceful unity that, to some extent, transcends those limitations.

There’s a natural hit-miss quality to the film’s scenario of charting the journey of love across various strands over Christmas, and I’m going to go against the grain of much of the film’s critical consensus by nominating some of the less-panned interludes as the ones that don’t work, or, at the very least, irritated me. The Martin Freeman-Joanna Page porn stand-ins who just so happen to have a very cute and genteel courtship while doing their lascivious posing is such a sketch-show concept and Richard Curtis seems far too enamoured of what is really a rather limited and obvious conceit. The Laura Linney subplot about her lovelorn character having to sacrifice a tryst with the office hunk to go and look after her mentally ill brother is a pretentious attempt to inject some sombreness and reality into the otherwise uplifting trajectory of the overall film, but it feels full of plot holes and is too thinly sketched. Why doesn’t Linney’s character just explain to her beau her domestic situation? And the famous Andrew Lincoln-Keira Knightley giant cards message scene is just plain creepy. Why would he do that when she’s just got married to his best friend, and what is the film’s position on this? It goes uncommented on, but Curtis seems to be presenting Lincoln’s character’s gesture as the apotheosis of cuteness and romance, when it just feels plain weird and manipulative to me.

Deconstructing the mini-narratives is somewhat academic though, especially as the film has this ethos of a pantomime, and there is some good fun to be had in the fringes of many of the stories. Hugh Grant is game in his preposterous role as British PM, and Bill Nighy and Colin Firth’s dry cynicism offers a nice counterpoint to the schmaltz elsewhere. And then there’s the best scene in the film, which ironically follows straight after the worst (the Lincoln ‘courtship’ one) where Emma Thompson’s wife opens up a Christmas present from her husband and realises the jewellery she saw him buying must, in fact, have been for another woman. It’s almost a shock to see such a well constructed and beautifully acted scene amid the rest of this film’s more mainstream machinations. (January 2021)

Lovers Rock

January 11, 2021

Lovers Rock (2020)
Director: Steve McQueen
Actors: Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling

Lovers Rock (2020) directed by Steve McQueen • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

Synopsis: Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) meet at a reggae house party in West London in 1980.

Review: This fascinating, sensorial tour de force by Steve McQueen is a complete sea change in tone and style from Mangrove – the previous film in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of films. Where Mangrove was very narrative-driven, forceful and centred on a specific historical event, Lovers Rock is largely exposition-free as it documents and sensualises a night spent at a reggae house party in the Notting Hill area in the early 1980s. Like Mangrove, it is still fundamentally documenting and celebrating the early fermentation of West Indian culture in the UK, but any social commentary and didacticism is much more stealthy here. 

Not entirely, but for the most part, Lovers Rock omits the context of white London’s reception of this social scene, and, instead, McQueen goes interior – soaking the film in the music, food and colour of his West Indian community. Reggae music is particularly to the forefront – especially when the party drags on and couples start to form, with lovers rock becoming the predominant soundtrack to the night. This is when the two main protagonists – Martha and Franklyn – fuse bodies and souls together on the dancefloor, and there’s such a clever ending to the film when Martha and Franklyn’s night-time idyll ends on their return to the outside world. Franklyn’s Jamaican accent, something he so proudly employs on the night out, is revealed to be subservient to the London accent he uses when pacifying his white boss the following morning. And Martha – from a proper God-fearing Jamaican family – just about shimmies herself back up to her bedroom in time to be ordered by her mother to get ready for church that morning. It’s an exquisite visual gag, but also a moving idea too – as Martha realises how it’s time to bottle up her secret nocturnal life for a return to her traditional family routine. And though the film is largely nostalgic and celebratory about its West Indian community, McQueen doesn’t omit some of the less palatable elements: black-on-black crime is hinted at, and the patriarchy and sexism inherent in a certain strain of Caribbean men is apparent too. (January 2021)

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

January 9, 2021

Home Alone (1992)
Director: Chris Columbus
Actors: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern

Home Alone 2: Lost In New York Review | Movie - Empire

Synopsis: Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) once again finds himself left behind by his parents who are going on an extended family holiday at Christmas. Kevin ends up taking the wrong flight to New York, instead of Florida, and passes some days in the Big Apple alone, once again having to avoid the attentions of the crooks he saw off the previous Christmas at his family home.

Review: The law of diminishing returns hangs over this tired and cynical trotting out of the Home Alone formula so shortly after its previous, highly enjoyable predecessor. While there was clear commercial value in quickly crafting a sequel to the first film, John Hughes and Chris Columbus left out the entertainment quotient and any semblance of originality this time around.

While setting the story in iconic New York seems permissible enough, the way Kevin moves so confidently and seamlessly around locations hitherto unknown to him to enact his ultimate ruse over the robbers seems so cartoonish and removed from reality that it dissipates any real investment in the events of the story. And it sorely lacks the situational specificity and just the vague whiff of ‘this could actually happen’ from the previous film.

The action set piece where Kevin traps the robbers was left to a short, final coup de grace in the first film, but here it becomes an elongated and increasingly unfunny scenario whereby it feels less slapsticky and wacky, and actually comes across as quite sadistic: Kevin simply throws bricks at his would-be assailants at one point in the scene. Even the addition of Brenda Fricker as this film’s seeming spooky weirdo who ends up being a supposedly three-dimensional boon to Kevin’s escapades feels a huge step-down from the moving subplot about the gruff next-door neighbour in the first film. All in all, this is one of those examples where a hasty sequel of an unlikely success story was not a good idea. And Donald Trump’s in it as well – as if to confer further status on it as a movie turkey! (January 2021)

Home Alone

January 9, 2021

Home Alone (1990)
Director: Chris Columbus
Actors: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Catherine O’Hara

Home Alone' Filming Secrets Revealed - ABC News

Synopsis: The McCallisters and their crazy extended family leave for a Christmas vacation in Paris, forgetting to take with them the youngest son, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), who was banished to the naughty room upstairs the night before. This leaves Kevin ‘home alone’ for a number of days and nights – an even more problematic scenario when it becomes clear two seasoned burglars are interested in raiding the house.

Review: This iconic piece of Christmas hokum from over 30 years ago stands the test of time as an entertaining and expertly crafted piece of light situational comedy. It has the ethos of pantomime with its high concept set up, the arch character types, and the game way that each performer goes about their work. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are comedy gold as the hapless robbers, and Macaulay Culkin’s robotic aura is strangely in keeping with the concept of his preternaturally resourceful character. There’s even some merit in viewing the film as a not completely unnuanced riff on the themes of family, safety and sanctity. More importantly though, it’s still a ridiculously enjoyable family favourite that’s worth a dusting down over the Christmas holidays. (January 2021)