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Scene Stealers: Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver

November 18, 2017

It was Scorsese’s 75th birthday yesterday. Follow the below link to read my tribute to his incredible cameo in his own Taxi Driver.


November 12, 2017

Elle (2016)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Actors: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny

Synopsis: Imperious French businesswoman, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is raped by a masked assailant in her own home. Over the course of the following weeks, Michèle’s personal and professional lives become increasingly fraught, with the masked assailant still on the loose, seemingly set on making another return to Michèle’s home….

Review: Elle‘s opening moments clue the viewer in almost immediately to Paul Verhoeven’s clear symbolic intent with this cinematic morality play, as well as thematising the extremely wry perspective he will shroud all the unfolding action in. Snatched sounds of a woman struggling (could it be love-making or the fending off of a violent act?) are kept tantalisingly just out of the frame’s perspective as an imperious cat watches dispassionately on. When we eventually capture the climax and aftermath to what was clearly a sexual assault, this opening coda is not a prelude to a police procedural or even a conventional whodunnit, but more its slipperiness encodes the riotous and almost amoral journey to catharsis and liberation its protagonist is about to embark on.

To even use the term protagonist to describe Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle is problematic when Verhoeven’s sly non-omniscient narration casts her, at times, as almost the piece’s villain or, at the very least, its antagonist. She cuts such a ruthless swathe through the people around her: she belittles her hapless son, she sleeps with the husband of her closest friend, and – best yet – she continually condescends her cliché of a dishevelled academic ex-husband by accidentally blinding him with pepper spray and knocking the bumper off his car due to her casual attitude to parallel parking.

Although, as mentioned earlier, it’s not a whodunnit in the conventional sense as the masked stalker is essentially a metaphoric representation of a grotesque patriarchal need to violate strong women, Verhoeven’s direction makes this a cracking genre film. His tongue is too firmly in cheek at most stages of the narrative to perhaps take this too much at face value as a genuinely taut thriller, but the sheer barrage of dramas and crises that Michèle undergoes – car crashes, attempted work coups, would-be financial interlopers into her wealthy family domain, plus the big biograpical conceit that she’s the daughter of a notorious mass murderer – conveys almost through its sheer relentlessness Michèle’s primal ability to endure and, even, thrive in spite of those ‘assaults’.

Even if, ultimately, it all descends into an absurd psychoanalytical extravaganza, it doesn’t negate the skill that Verhoeven and Huppert possess in taking us on that journey. It’s also one of the year’s funniest films. The farcical Christmas party that props up the middle section of the film features one of the wittiest jokes about bankers I’ve heard in a long time. Incidentally, is it just me, or does Verhoeven’s choice of a banker as the piece’s ‘bogeyman’ lend the film a clear political, as well as feminist, perspective as well? (November 2017)

La La Land

November 12, 2017

La La Land (2016)
Director: Damian Chazelle
Actors: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend

Synopsis: Aspiring musician meets aspiring actress in modern day LA.

Review: La La Land falls ironically foul of the dialectic it is trying so ardently to dramatise. The moral of its story is so blithe and obvious – the search for originality and truth amid two fields, movies and music, awash with commercialism, cynicism and wannabe starlets – yet Damian Chazelle’s direction is so calibrated and manufactured in the way that it cannibalises these ideas and genres of true artistic expression (classic technicolour musicals and the golden age of jazz) for the sum end-product of an elongated Gap advert.

As with his previous film much more closely immersed in the world of music, Whiplash, Chazelle is such an earnest dramatist that his need to communicate all the machinations, references, inspirations and subtexts of his films strangulates them of any nuance. Characters become mere mouthpieces, and everything is rhetorically obvious, especially the conceit that the Hollywood factory is superficial, impersonal and a wrecker of dreams. Some enervating motifs that explore this include the dozens of prototypical redheads being auditioned at the same time as Emma Stone’s Mia, and the girl on the phone in the background of Mia’s emotive audition interrupting it with some banal question about the lunch order.

Chazelle films jazz and music in such a boring way too. His camera and cutting literalises everything (Whiplash had a similar rhetorical attack), and Emma Stone’s supposedly cathartic audition song was eminently predictable and just really, really visually obvious. It seems an unfair comparison to make, but at almost every stage of its running time, La La Land makes for such an inferior reminder of the thematically linked Mulholland Drive which takes, in some respects, an extremely similar scenario to much more fertile, transcendent places.

Amid its cacophony of unoriginal set pieces – it’s like a musical for people who can say “it’s like the old Hollywood musicals” when they’ve really only seen one or two of them – there are a couple of nice things going on. The simple, recurring aural motif of Gosling’s character Seb’s spartan piano chords contains more power than Chazelle’s higher-concept concoctions. In sum though, La La Land just isn’t very moving or romantic: the bogus third act relationship break-up to affect the strived-for poignant ending is just a transparent narrative device and it doesn’t make any organic sense to the story’s continuity too.

For a much more interesting, whimsical confection about misfits falling in and out of love in a magical LA, I can heartily recommend Mike Mills’ Beginners – a film with much more heart and originality than this marketing man’s wet dream. (November 2017)

The Levelling

October 27, 2017

The Levelling (2017)
Director: Hope Dickson Leach
Actors: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden

Synopsis: Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returns to the family farm in the Somerset Levels to deal with the immediate aftermath of her brother’s violent suicide.

Review: Although this type of formal and almost self-consciously painterly cinema is fast becoming a staple – if not a cliché – of British arthouse cinema (think Better ThingsGod’s Own CountryThe Selfish Giant and Fish Tank to name but a few), that shouldn’t detract from just how accomplished an achievement it is for its debut director Hope Dickson Leach in pulling off such a tricky pictorial and dramatic scenario.

The film begins under a highly portentous and foreboding cloud as young trainee vet, Clover (Ellie Kendrick), arrives in media res to her estranged family farm to piece together the suicide of her brother, and her father’s shiftiness and intransigence around that death and all the other troubling matters on the estate. Tagging on the fact that the narrative is mired in the aftermath of a real-life event – the catastrophic Somerset Levels floodings of 2014 – only adds to the difficulty (and resulting success) Dickson Leach faced in delivering a story burdened with such meta-textual weight.

In a sense, that’s probably The Levelling‘s greatest triumph: it eschews the seemingly schlocky trajectory of its whodunnit scenario for a far more mature and macro picture of life on a struggling British farm. The lesson seems to be that there are no obvious villains, and that this form of rural life is fast becoming obsolete, if not a very complex and politicised way of life.

The acting is uniformly excellent, making tenable Dickson Leach’s tense and weighty metaphoric bent. Ellie Kendrick, in particular, succeeds as the audience’s proxy through the murk of the events on the farm, and David Troughton and Jack Holden nail their support roles with outstanding key monologues in the film’s climax.

If, strangely, there is nothing wholly original about Dickson Leach’s signature style here, then the skill with which she steers her narrative maturely through such a wrought cocktail of plot conceits proves that she’s definitely a filmmaker to watch for her next move. (October 2017)

A Man Called Ove

October 15, 2017

A Man Called Ove (2015)
Director: Hannes Holm
Actors: Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg

Synopsis: Crotchety and suicidal 59-year-old widower, Ove (Rolf Lassgård), has his life turned upside down by an eccentric Swedish-Persian family who move in across the street from him.

Review: Save the atypical Swedish canvas, this thick slice of soft Gothic whimsy hearkens uncannily to the sort of film Alexander Payne or perhaps even Tim Burton (think Big Fish) have made a career out of manufacturing across the pond. Of course, it’s not a crime to make a sentimental film – it’s a viable genre and sensibility – so there is much to commend A Man Called Ove for amid its calculating machinations.

Even if you can spot the character arc a mile off, Rolf Lassgård’s portrayal of the cantankerous Ove is a tour de force, and engenders the necessary pathos one needs to feel for his character as he goes on his Scroogeian journey of humanisation. Also, where much of Hannes Holm’s direction feels too conceited, literal and symmetrical (the neat framing mirroring the manic desire for order in Ove’s own psyche), he does conjure one or two witty skits. The best of which is a gallows image of Ove recalling his mother’s funeral. As his younger self looks back painfully at the church, he observes the microcosm that is life’s journey through a blissful married couple entering on one side of the church, while at the far end, the coffin of Ove’s mother is lugged solemnly away.

A Man Called Ove does have charm amid its syrupy confections, but any resonance or profundity is hampered by the glibness of many of those manipulations. The perpetually twee soundtrack is gratingly patronising, and the flashbacks designed to inform Ove’s present day crisis are far too schematic. Ove’s deceased wife is a cipher of saintliness who inexplicably falls in love with his naive, uninteresting younger self because the story needs that to happen for his epiphany in later life, but her devotion to him makes no sense other than as a sentimental excuse for his unattractive personality.

The flashbacks in general feel like a storytelling cop out, and, although admirable in sketching in a modern day, ethnographic context to its Swedish microcosm, Ove’s thawing at the hands of his new Persian neighbour transmits as too schematic. There’s even a highly unlikely subplot about Ove taking in a gay Muslim man called Mirsad which really is laying on the film’s message of liberal tolerance a little too thick. (October 2017)

The Meyerowitz Stories

October 13, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (2017)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Actors: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman

Synopsis: The sons and daughter of ailing New York patriarch, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), converge around their father as his increasing cantankerousness and (later) ill health require their closer attention.

Review: Crafting the sort of film that Woody Allen could only dream about making now, Noah Baumbach has come up trumps once again with his The Meyerowitz Stories: another zeitgeisty New York family dramedy to rival anything from the increasingly prodigious (and prestigious) body of work he’s proliferated over the last decade or so.

It features the dramatic ingredients now instantly familar to Baumbach or even Wes Anderson completists with its dry and ironic take on familial dysfunctionality. Baumbach makes his almost literary interest in the scenario manifest from the beginning with its full and unwieldy novelistic title, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Completed), followed by intertitled “chapters”, centred around one of the family members, driving the main body of the narrative.

Arguably the film is stronger in its opening sections: where Baumbach is content to let his scenario waft indeterminately around its gaggle of colourful Meyerowitz family members and associates. A gem of a sequence is the opening dinner scene at patriarch Harold’s Manhattan apartment where his crazy fourth wife, Maureen, cooks up a truly disastrous seafood meal for Harold’s son, Danny, and granddaughter, Eliza. Dustin Hoffman’s Harold even utters the immortal line “have more shark” as Danny (an impressive Adam Sandler) and his daughter look on in pained disbelief at the sheer paucity of food on show. Harold and Danny proceeding to go in overly formal tuxedos to the opening night of a sculpture exposition by one of Harold’s more successful contemporaries is also a marvellously sly way to out the subtle neuroses afflicting both of these key characters in the film.

If, ultimately, Baumbach’s decision to employ a third act health scare ‘twist’ to manufacture the strained reunification of the Meyerowitz children feels a little hackneyed (as well as essentially robbing the film of its most interesting character), it shouldn’t detract from the otherwise overriding pleasure and emotive quality of Baumbach’s storytelling. It’s another of his outstanding odes to family being both the catalyst for, and saviour from, the “slings” and “arrows” of life’s “outrageous fortune”. (October 2017)

On the Waterfront

October 6, 2017

On the Waterfront (1954)
Director: Elia Kazan
Actors: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden

Synopsis: Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a washed-up ex-prize fighter, finds himself at the centre of a moral quandary when he’s asked to testify against the mob boss who’s been taking to increasingly repugnant ways to keep his stranglehold on the union activities down at the docks.

Review: Indisputably one of Hollywood’s most iconic films, On the Waterfront also stands the test of time as one of its greatest films too: a parable of the conscience to rival any moral drama across the history of American cinema (only Michael Mann’s The Insider stands comparison, in my opinion).

There are so many factors that have contributed to the enduring popularity of On the Waterfront through the changing fads of cultural aestheticism down the years. It’s a film which is both a nod back to the inherent theatricality of cinema in its first half-century, while also auguring the greater interest in naturalism and the attempt to score the medium in the language and cadences of the everyday world. So while, on the one hand, there is a balletic feel to the action scenes and Leonard Bernstein’s musical score is suitably demonstrative, some of the Strasbergian acting and Elia Kazan’s decision to shroud the film in the glummer environs of Brooklyn and New Jersey gives the film an authentic, quotidian feel.

Marlon Brando’s majestic performance perhaps stands as ultimate emblem though for the skill of On the Waterfront‘s compelling stylistic balancing act. While it’s a largely naturalistic performance, there is something about Brando’s instinctive feel and singularity that makes every second of his presence in the film gripping. There’s a lovely scene where he and Eva Marie Saint (playing the developing love interest of Brando’s character, Terry Malloy) wander around Hudson Park as Malloy tries to insinuate himself in her affections. At one point, Saint’s character drops her gloves, and Malloy picks them up and idly puts one of them on. What’s ingenious is that this action goes without comment by either character; it’s one of those little gestures that happen all the time in meandering, real-life conversations, and Brando totally owns it in further outing his character’s awkward cocktail of flirtatiousness with an overarching vulnerability.

The film is also a reminder – if it were needed – that Brando really was such a mesmeric actor: at once masculine yet somehow sensitive, equal parts confident and bashful. His mesmeric tête-à-têtes with Saint showcase a grace and chemistry that very few big name male-female co-stars have been able to match since, and the remaining cast of Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger all do brilliant jobs with their crucial support roles. Even the slyly panoptic gaze Kazan casts over New York paints his otherwise rustic blue collar drama in a more grandiose, universal hue. The film’s message of finding one’s moral conscience amid a culture of philistinism and bullying seems increasingly prescient in today’s age, and, in short, On the Waterfront is well worth another visit, if only to reconfirm its position as one of American cinema’s finest achievements. (October 2017)