Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Hannah and Her Sisters

Year of Release:  1986
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen
Starring:  Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Woody Allen, Max von Sydow, Carrie Fisher
Running Time:  103 minutes
Genre: Comedy drama

This film concerns the lives of three sisters over the course of two years.  Hannah (Farrow), is kind, loving, strong and stable, her husband Elliot (Caine), while he loves Hannah, is infatuated with her sister Lee (Hershey), who is living with mercurial artist Frederick (Sydow).  Meanwhile, the third sister, Holly (Wiest), a former cocaine addict, struggles to achieve her dream of becoming an actor while managing a catering company with her friend and rival, April (Fisher).  Also Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen), a hypochondriac television producer experiences an existential crisis when he becomes convinced he has a brain tumor.

This is possibly one of Woody Allen's finest films, managing the very tricky art of successfully balancing both comedy and drama.  It manages to be tender and sentimental without being saccharine, profound without being pretentious, warm without being cloying and, where necessary, being biting without being cruel.  Allen manages to get good performances out of his large cast, and seems to have genuine affection for all of his characters.  If you are familiar with Woody Allen movies, than you'll know the kind of humor on display here, mostly wry, neurotic, intellectual wisecracks.  Of course, these days Woody Allen is problematic to say the least, and also this is a film almost entirely about very wealthy white people, in Allen's New York, people of colour are barely glimpsed.  Although this is a very affecting film about sisterhood, love, ambition and just trying to find a meaning to life.

Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest are Hannah and Her Sisters   

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Third Man

Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Carol Reed
Screenplay:  Graham Greene
Starring:  Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli (as Valli), Orson Welles, Trevor Howard
Running Time:  108 minutes
Genre:  Thriller

In war ravaged, Allied-occupied Vienna, Austria, in the years immediately after the Second World War, racketeering thrives.  Holly Martins (Cotton), an American writer of pulp Westerns, now fallen on hard times, arrives in Vienna because his friend, Harry Lime (Welles), has offered him a job.  However, no sooner has he arrived, than he learns that Lime has been killed in a traffic accident.  With the help of Lime's girlfriend, Anna (Valli), Martins investigates his death, but becomes suspicious that it may not have been an accident.  To his horror, he learns from a British major (Howard), that Lime was a callous, murderous racketeer.

This British movie is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.  It is a suspenseful, dark thriller.  Filmed in crisp black-and-white in an almost expressionistic style with harsh light and deep, inky black shadows, and shots frequently photographed in a distorted  "Dutch angle" style, and boasting a literate, witty and intelligent script from acclaimed novelist Graham Greene, with memorable performances.  Cotton is memorable as the alcoholic novelist torn between loyalty and conscience, and Valli as the mysterious, tormented Anna.  There is also of course Orson Welles, who despite not appearing much in the film is gifted with one of the most memorable introductions to a character in the history of cinema, and two memorable speeches.  The film's ear-worm theme music by Anton Karas performed entirely on the zither became an international hit, and spent eleven weeks at the top of the US charts.  From the cynical, opening narration (spoken by an uncredited Carol Reed) which introduces the situation in Vienna at the time of the film, to the final chase through the sewers, this depicts a bleak, fallen world of betrayal, and quick violent death with little to provide light or hope.   

"You know what the fellow said, in Italy under the Borgias, they had warfare, murder, terror and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace.  And what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock."
 -Harry Lime (Orson Welles)

Orson Welles in The Third Man

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Shape of Water

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay:  Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, from a story by Guillermo del Toro
Starring:  Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Running Time:  123 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, romance

Baltimore, 1962:  Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute janitor at a secret government laboratory.  One night a new "asset" is delivered, under the supervision of sinister Colonel Richard Strickland (Shannon).  The asset turns out to be an amphibious humanoid creature.  As Strickland performs a series of cruel tests on the creature, Elsa secretly bonds with him, a bond which develops into a friendship and then something much more intimate.  However, Strickland wants to kill the creature for experimentation, and there is also a group of Soviet spies, who want to kill the creature before the Americans can discover it's secrets.

This is a beautiful, elegant romantic fantasy.  Although rooted in Baltimore in 1962, the film appears to take place in a strange, otherworld.  Sally Hawkins gives a tender delicate performance as Elisa, and Doug Jones manages to make the creature into a genuine emotional character despite the layers of make-up and special effects.  The true monster in the film is Michael Shannon as the sadistic Strickland, who somehow becomes more bestial as the film goes on, while the creature becomes more human.  The film has a tenderness and real emotion, despite being surprisingly graphic and quite violent in places.  It has a warmth to it however, and richness in the supporting characters, such as Elisa's friends, the lonely artist neighbor, Giles (Jenkins), and garrulous, unhappily married Zelda (Spencer).   This is a beautiful and powerful adult fairy tale.

Underwater love:  Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the Creature (Doug Jones) in The Shape of Water        

The Cable Guy

Year of Release:  1996
Director:  Ben Stiller
Screenplay:  Lou Holtz, Jr.
Starring:  Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann,
Running Time:  95 minutes
Genre:  comedy, thriller

Steve Kovacs (Broderick) has been kicked out by his girlfriend, Robyn (Mann), and moves into an apartment.  When he gets his cable installed, the cable guy, Chip Douglas (Carrey), turns out to be deeply strange, eccentric and overly friendly.  When Steve, out of a sense of obligation and guilt, agrees to hang out with Chip, he finds him creepy and aggressive.  Steve decides to break off the "friendship", but Chip will not take no for an answer.

When this film was released, back in 1996, Jim Carrey was probably the biggest comedy star around, coming off the back of massive hits like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1993), The Mask (1994) and Dumb and Dumber (1995) which were all based on his brand of cartoonish, rubber-faced physical comedy.  While in previous films, Carrey's persona was often abrasive, aggressive, and irritating, he was always essentially the hero, here he is definitely a villain.  His manic persona feels at odd with the essentially naturalistic world around him here, particularly the quiet performance of Matthew Broderick, there is a sense of real danger from Chip, he feels like an alien with only a vague idea of how to act as human.  The film was released to largely negative reviews and was widely regarded as a failure, although it has becomes something of a cult film now.  While the film is funny and does have an edge to it, it's not edgy enough to be truly dark.  There are a couple of future stars appearing in small roles, such as Jack Black and Owen Wilson, and director Ben Stiller appears as a suspected murderer on a high profile trial which is seen on news bulletins throughout the film.

Jim Carrey is The Cable Guy       

Black Panther

Year of Release:  2018
Director:  Ryan Cooglar
Screenplay:  Ryan Cooglar and Joe Robert Cole, based on the comic book character Black Panther created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
Starring:  Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Guira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright
Running Time:  134 minutes
Genre:  Action, fantasy, superhero

The African nation of Wakanda is seen as one of the most poverty-stricken nations on Earth, and ignored by most of the world.  However, that is just a front.  In fact is a hugely technologically advanced nation, powered by the alien metal "vibranium".  In order to keep it's secrets, Wakanda deliberately hides itself from the world, protected by the superbeing "Black Panther", a mantle handed down from king to king.  Following the death of the previous king, Prince T'Challa (Boseman) becomes the new king and assumes the mantle and powers of Black Panther.  His first mission is to track down the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who has stolen some vibranium.  However there is someone else pulling Klaue's strings.

This is the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the first solo outing for the superhero Black Panther, although Chadwick Boseman first appeared in the role in Captain America: Civil War (2016).  This is an important film because it features an almost entirely black cast, the only two principal white characters (played by Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis) really have little more than supporting roles.  The storyline may not be anything very new, with it having to do the necessary worldbuilding and origin story,  it is still a hugely entertaining film, full of spectacular action and special effects with plenty of humour and engaging characters, including a villain who, while vicious and brutal, kind of has a goal that does have a valid point.  Wakanda is a visually ravishing world, with it's afrofuturistic city genuinely impressive.  Despite being the eighteenth film in the seemingly endless MCU franchise, this is a stand-alone film, although previous films in the series are referenced, it is not necessary to have seen them to enjoy this one.  Hopefully there will be more solo Black Panther movies, because this is a world and these are characters that I want to revisit.  As always with MCU films, remember to stay in your seat for some extra scenes during the credits.

The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in action in Black Panther 


Saturday, 3 February 2018

Phantom Thread

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay:  Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring:  Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Period drama

1950s London.  Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) designs highly desired dresses and garments for the members high society, including royalty.  An obsessive, controlling perfectionist, Woodcock lives a life of strict routine, haunted by the death of his mother, who has a penchant for sewing secret messages and items in his garments.  He forms relationships with women, who serve as his inspiration and muse for a time, until he discards them when he tires of them or they threaten his routine too much.  The only person Woodcock is close to is his sister, Cyril (Manville).  On vacation in the country, Woodcock becomes enamored of a young waitress, Alma (Krieps), and invites her into his world.  However, the strong-willed Alma soon threatens Woodcock's ordered lifestyle.

This is a sumptuous film almost everything on screen is beautiful.  It feels like a ghost story without a ghost, and it is a haunting film.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson commented that one of his inspirations was the work of ghost story writer MR James.  The performances are fantastic, with Daniel Day-Lewis, in what is reputed to be his final performance, giving an air of fragility and humanity to an essentially unlikable character.  Vicky Krieps also gives a great performance as Alma, and her bond with Day-Lewis feels genuine.  The film is surprisingly funny, with some hilarious scenes and lines, particularly the sequence where Woodcock snaps at Alma for the heinous crime of buttering her toast too loudly.  The relationship between Woodcock and Cyril is also intriguing, they have a kind of love-hate relationship, at one point Cyril tells him:  "Don't try and pick a fight with me, you certainly won't come out alive.  I'll go right through you, and it'll be you who ends up on the floor".  Because, of course, siblings know your weak spots, and know how to hit you where it hurts.
This is a beautiful, deeply moving and frequently hilarious film. 

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread


Sunday, 28 January 2018


Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Dee Rees
Screenplay:  Dee Rees and Virgil Williams, based on the novel Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Starring:  Carey Mulligan, Garret Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Running Time:  134 minutes
Genre:  Period drama

The film follows two families (one white and one black) in rural Mississippi in the years during and immediately after World War II.  Henry McAllan (Clarke) struggles to make a living as a farmer with his unhappy wife, Laura (Mulligan), their two young daughters, and Henry's racist father Pappy (Morgan).  Hap Jackson (Harrison Jr.) is a tenant farmer living with his wife Florence (Blige) and their large family, enduring horrible racism, and dreaming of a better life. 
Henry's brother Jamie (Hedlund) and the Jackson's eldest son, Ronsel (Clarke), join the military to fight in the war.  After the war is over, Jamie and Ronsel return to Mississippi, both suffering from their traumatic experiences overseas, and Ronsel increasingly angry at the racism he is forced to suffer. 

This is a powerful film dealing with themes of racism, poverty and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The film takes place over a number of years but it always maintains it's focus on the two families and their struggles, depicting rural Mississippi in powerful detail, while the wartime experiences of Jamie and Ronsel are depicted in brief, vivid sequences.  The cast is fantastic all around, and the film is well directed and beautifully shot (the film's cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, is the first woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography).  It's kind of a pity that it is just on Netflix, because it would be incredible on a big screen.  The film deals with powerful themes which are still relevant today, particularly the corrosive effects of racism.  It's an important film and needs to be seen, although it is obviously not a fun time at the movies.  it's deeply troubling, as it should be.

Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan in Mudbound