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All Over the Town

April 11, 2017

All Over the Town (1949)
Director: Derek N. Twist
Actors: Norman Wooland, Sarah Churchill, Cyril Cusack

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Synopsis: Nat Hearn (Norman Wooland) returns to his provincial hometown of Tormouth after serving during the Second World War. He resumes his job on the local paper, and quickly realises his newfound liberal perspective is at odds with the conservatism and vested interests of many in the local community.

Review: There’s nothing especially revelatory about this sweet little British studio film from the late 1940s, however those with an interest in the social history of Lyme Regis (which has been converted into the fictional town of “Tormouth”) and a fondness for the Ealing comedy brand of light farce will find this diverting.

Director Derek Twist does an exemplary job of honouring the film’s very title – “All Over the Town” – and overall conceit of ex-serviceman, Nat, returning to the homefront, and realising everything he fought for isn’t translating to the increasingly staid town he grew up in. The opening section where Nat walks down the main high street and reconnects with the townsfolk buzzes with vivacity as well as being a sage way of introducing all the dramatic personnel.

Although there is an inherent industrialism and predictability about the film’s narrative cogs, its commentary on provincial social politics immediately post-war is interesting. The send-up of the pomposity of the townsfolk with their risible am-dram theatre production is brilliant, and the performance of Cyril Cusack as the terribly cowardly and timid newspaper magnate, Gerald, is a real pleasure. (April 2017)

Why The House of Mirth is Terence Davies’ Most Underrated Film

April 5, 2017

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Follow the below link to read my piece championing Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci: Tarkovsky’s Reinvention of the Femme Fatale in Solaris

April 4, 2017

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On what would have been Andrei Tarkovsky’s 85th birthday, and to mark the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release of his majestic Solaris, please follow the below link to a piece I wrote proposing Solaris as a film with an unusual interpretation of the femme fatale tradition:

Love and Friendship

April 4, 2017

Love and Friendship (2016)
Director: Whit Stillman
Actors: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett

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Synopsis: Scandalous widow, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), sets hearts and tongues aflutter as she bounces between a selection of stuffy, conservative households in late 18th century England.

Review: Although nominally adapted from Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan”, Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship can be best read as a part-loving, part-satirical homage to the now hugely over-familiar Austen brand of romantic entanglements and sly social commentary.

Various features portray this intent to essentially manufacture an Austen pastiche for weary contemporary audiences: he introduces all the players in bizarre, comic poses with irreverent caption, and he makes Kate Beckinsale’s mischievous Lady Vernon a quasi-anachronistic conduit round which the pomposity of late 18th century English aristocratic society is laid bare. One lovely early scene that thematises Stillman’s undercutting of the usual, exalted Austen canvas is when Lady Vernon’s new residence, Churchill, appears in view, yet she describes it as “boring” although in any other Austen adaptation this would be a conventional country house for the drama to play out on. Another such scene is when Lady Vernon comes across Reginald DeCourcy – worthy of romantic hero status in any other Austen drama – but Lady Vernon’s sole intent is to undercut that nobility by making him totally emotionally subservient to her (which she succeeds in doing).

Stillman’s final triumph is in the grand inclusion of the colossally rich (but colossally stupid) aristocrat, Sir James Martin – incidentally, a great performance by Tom Bennett. Martin essentially becomes the means by which Vernon can retain her place in exalted society without the least bit of emotional investment, and Martin’s idiocy comes out in a series of ingenious skits – the best of which is when he claims there are “twelve commandments” and then haphazardly has to backtrack by claiming two can be removed at one’s own will when the other characters inform him there are only ten! It’s a lovely little skit that honours the pleasing charm Stillman is able to project over his subject matter. (April 2017)

While We’re Young

March 26, 2017

While We’re Young (2014)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Actors: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver

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Synopsis: Forty-something couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) find new zest in their lives when they befriend bohemian twenty-something newlyweds, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried).

Review:  The thing about you kids is that you’re all kind of insensitive. I’m glad I grew up when I did cos your parents were too perfect at parenting- all that baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs; you’re just so sincere and interested in things! There’s a confidence in you guys that’s horrifying. You’re all ADD and carpal tunnel. You wouldn’t know Agoraphobia if it bit you in the ass, and it makes you mean. You say things to someone like me who’s older and smarter with this light air… I’m freaked out by you kids. I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview.

The above is the seminal quote from Noah Baumbach’s outstanding ode to fortysomething inertia, Greenberg, and could almost be the epigraph or kickstart to his follow up While We’re Young which homes in on the actual travails of a middle-aged couple who briefly dabble in a ‘cool’, youthful New York lifestyle.

If, in truth, the actual narrative never truly breaks free from Baumbach’s conceptual concerns, it’s still a really interesting watch just because those ideas are so prescient, and actors of the ilk of Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Adam Driver prove exceptional with this type of material. Driver in particular showcases his skill – what I like about him is that beneath the clear methody tics there’s a really truthful performer.

At its best, While We’re Young totally nails its zeitgeist thesis on this generational clash – best outed in the perverse recognition that, in especially well-heeled metropolitan folk, it’s the younger ones who love the analogue nostalgia and hate the tyranny of mobile phones, while the middle-aged folk have become inexorably wedded to the ‘convenience’ of technology in all its forms. What’s inherently true though amid the film’s politicking is the sense that these Millennial youngsters – having grown up in this postmodern, digital culture where they can consume anything at the touch of the button – possess a disarming precociousness but also the nagging feeling that they “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Baumbach only slightly lets himself down dramaturgically by over-selling his rhetorical ironies. For example, having Naomi Watts’ in-crisis wife rushing from the aural trauma of a screaming baby party to a pumping hip-hop class is a touch obvious. That aside, this is another of Baumbach’s highly enjoyable social critiques, and one of the early perceptive cinematic looks at the socio-culture we’re fast creating. (March 2017)

Whisky Galore!

March 25, 2017

Whisky Galore! (1949)
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Actors: Basil Radford, Bruce Seton, Joan Greenwood

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Synopsis: The inhabitants of an Outer Hebrides island cannot believe their luck when their whisky drought is ended by a ship containing crates of the stuff capsizing on the shores of the island. Their only challenge entails keeping their bounty hidden from the authorities…

Review: The Ealing comedies really are a treasured high point of British cinema: exquisite delectations which, beneath their veneer of adventure and caper comedy, function as lovely little odes to the wry wit and inherent pluckiness of the British sensibility.

As comedies, they were in many respects ahead of their times. They were almost proto-spoofs – something the Fratpack movement in American film comedy of the last dozen or so years have expanded on but to much brasher effect. There’s plenty of slapstick in Whisky Galore! (mainly centring on the old chaps of the island keeling over with despair then delight at the respective losses then gains of their whisky bounty) but even more appealing is the exquisite current of social satire coursing through the film’s narrative. To list all the wry moments of social commentary would be impossible, but the high points include: the pompous Captain Waggett getting the response he least expects when reporting the looting of the whisky to his commanding officer; the sergeant wilfully letting the hapless islanders tie him up with their bumbling “panther crawl” manoeuvre; and the simply exquisite scene where the puritanical mother of the meek school teacher finally succumbs to the licentiousness of the scenario with the sly cut to a dram of whisky which was once full but has since mysteriously disappeared beside her.

What’s also so appealing about the Ealing comedy ‘brand’ is the sense that it lionises the importance of community values and a collective spirit. This finds its best representation in Whisky Galore‘s denouement when it seems as if the authorities have finally cornered the islanders, until – “homeguard” style – they unite to thwart those authorities, before making their own getaway by literalising the whisky as a form of escape – it becomes the “rocket fuel” powering their failing car to zoom off into the distance – a lovely image to encapsulate a lovely film. (March 2017)


February 25, 2017

Jackie (2016)
Director: Pablo Larraín
Actors: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup

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Synopsis: Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) conducts an interview weeks after the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy, and reflects back on the recent whir of events.

Review: Too often the biopic genre devolves into an odious parlour game where the opportunity to capitalise on the public thirst for the sensational re-enactment of famous (usually tragic) stories and figures becomes the sole modus operandi. A biopic of Jackie Kennedy – certainly around the time of JFK’s assassination – could easily have slipped into this category, especially as the two things she is most readily associated with are her iconicism and tragic stature. The beauty of this film and director Pablo Larraín’s intent are that he uses the hook of the JFK assassination/Jackie grieving ‘story’ to three-dimensionalise connotations of its “legendary” status.

Larraín’s first key decision he got correct was in recruiting Natalie Portman to play the central role. Affecting the persona of a well-known public figure can often be a trap for the disingenuous method actor – getting caught up in the inane, conceited endeavour of reconstructing tics (Cate Blanchett is a serial offender) that tend to obfuscate the truth. The beauty of Portman’s turn here is that her affectations are born out of understanding the sentiment of her persona, hence it’s a very truthful characterisation.

Equally brilliant is the construction of the story. The framing device which allows Jackie a voice to reflect back on the events of the previous weeks is less a convenient dramatic conceit and more an eloquent, meta-referential emblem for the film’s mandate: to try to refine and make sense of the cataclysmic position Jackie found herself in personally, publicly and existentially after her husband’s death. The film’s eloquence is in the way it probes at precisely what “Jackie” stood for in a series of scattered chronological threads (Jackie’s framing interview with the journalist, a 1961 featurette where Jackie took a TV crew on a tour of the White House, the death of JFK and its immediate aftermath, the build up to the funeral, Jackie’s ‘confessional’ conversations with a Catholic Father, the funeral) – all of which converge beautifully and sensually as we come to realise the film’s central purpose.

That central purpose is of course to understand and admire Jackie’s dignity and pathos, but more importantly – it’s to perceive the sheer brutality of a way of life being completely wrenched from someone in a matter of hours. Her husband was brutally murdered in her very arms, she was necessarily shoe-horned out of her house and public position within days, she was forced to manage her family’s intimate affairs amid frenzied global scrutiny, and then was left in an unenviable position of having essentially a bleak canvas of her remaining days left to exist in the melancholic afterglow of her lost “camelot” without even the driver/need of having to provide for her own family as other young widows in her situation would. That Larraín wraps all this cerebral posturing up in exquisite cinematography, production design and editing only adds to the richness of the film’s sophisticated command of its story. (February 2017)