You Were Never Really Here – A grisly, rage-fuelled journey that haunts well beyond its final frames

•July 15, 2018 • Leave a Comment

There is a visceral nature to You Were Never Really Here that makes it incredibly difficult to watch at times. Director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t hold back with the gruesome detail, pushing every tense moment to the limit and leaving us wincing in our seats as we watch these horrific acts unfold. It is a decision that makes Jonathan Ames’ pulpy, noirish tale come to life onscreen and burrow its way under your skin in the most impressive, effective way possible, resulting in a film that is chilling, ferocious, and one of Ramsay’s finest.

Joaquin Phoenix as the world-weary Joe

With a script written by Ramsay and adapted from Ames’ book, the writer-director sets her sights on the grit and grime that lurks beneath the surface of the neon-streaked New York City backdrop, her lens focussing on the morally defunct few who make up its seedier side. One person who occupies this dingy world is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a muscle-for-hire who does the dirty deeds no one else will, namely finding missing people. A stocky man with a body covered in scars and injuries, Joe also seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his bulky shoulders, as well as some past trauma that’s haunting him. It is a burden that becomes even heavier when he is tasked with finding the missing daughter of a politician, a case that soon uncovers a whole horrid system of dark dealings and which leaves Joe questioning how much he can actually help. After all, if one man goes up against something so corrupt and powerful, can he ever win?

Ramsay immerses us in this urban underbelly, her expertly paced direction frantic and electrifying, yet also giving quieter scenes of the narrative room to breathe. She peppers the film with violent outbursts, sequences that explode suddenly onto the screen in messy, bloody realism. Those moments without action are brimming with tension too, the threat to Joe and those around him a constant, stifling presence. Stunning cinematography by Thomas Townend further adds to the suggestion of unknown dangers lurking around every corner, the noirish look beautiful but distinctly dark and gritty, while intimate close-ups show us Joe’s crumbling state of mind. Several times Ramsay seems to throw us directly into his head, images flashing up onscreen as he remembers horrors from his past, the piercing soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood completing the assault on our senses. It’s an almost disorientating technique, particularly effective as it directly makes us a part of what we see onscreen, an association which has those sickeningly violent moments staying with you for a long time.

Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance draws us into this complex character even more, his icy glare and quiet, almost muted portrayal making the efficiency and determination with which he performs those brutal acts all the more terrifying to witness. Yet Phoenix portrays Joe with a startling gentleness as well, his world-weary expression hinting at a wealth of hidden pain, both physical and mental, as well as some unknown drive that makes him want to rescue those who cannot help themselves. His softer, caring side is also represented by the touching relationship he has with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), something that is beautifully compounded in an early scene in which they sing together. That this happens just after we watch him beating a man within an inch of his life gives this sweet moment an uncomfortable edge, the ease with which Joe switches from killer to loving son horrifying to see. He is a morally dubious anti-hero if ever there was one, but also a man who we can’t help but identify with as the narrative unfolds.

Ramsay holds back on giving us the full story in her script, letting us draw our own conclusion right up until an unexpected ending that questions human morality. Jonny Greenwood’s score adds a disturbing yet immersive energy to the whole film which, when paired with Ramsay’s beautiful direction and imagery, is pure poetry in motion. This is cinematic storytelling at its finest, and even more impressive to see when you realise how easy it would have been to make this into another run-of-the-mill Hollywood action-thriller. Intimate, complex stuff all about the horrors of the world, as well as the inner horrors of our own minds.

Joaquin Phoenix gives an incredible performance as a hitman haunted by his past

(Originally posted on The Digital Fixhttps://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/86205/lff-2017-you-were-never-really-here/)

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Journeyman – A life on the ropes in Paddy Considine’s hard-hitting drama

•April 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

After the bleak world of Tyrannosaur (2011), Paddy Considine’s latest directorial feature seems a million miles away in comparison. Indeed, when Journeyman begins it is surprisingly light in tone, the smiling faces of Matty Burton (Considine) and his family almost at odds with what we’re expecting from the writer-director. Yet what starts as a simple story about a boxer trying to keep his number one title soon becomes something else entirely, Journeyman’s true narrative packing a mighty punch when it is finally revealed.

Jodie Whittaker and Paddy Considine in Journeyman

The power of Journeyman actually comes from this slow build up, Considine careful to show how perfect Matty’s life is before it all crashes down around him. A loving wife (Jodie Whittaker), a beautiful baby daughter, a large, opulent house: there isn’t much more he could ask for, except maybe the chance to win his upcoming fight against a new challenger. But after a serious injury, Matty suddenly has no memory of any of this, the once confident man becoming so far removed that he almost seems like a different person. It is then that a new struggle emerges for Matty and his wife Emma, their previously steadfast relationship pushed to the limit as he strives to remember, and as she patiently waits for her real husband to come back to her.

While that sudden change in the film’s tone hits us hard, it is the stark juxtaposition of Matty before and after the injury that particularly resonates with us. He essentially becomes a child, having to learn names and faces again, unable to make a cup of tea, or even recall that he has a daughter. It is deeply unsettling to watch unfold, all the more so because of Considine’s incredibly realistic portrayal. Switching from confused, gentle innocence to unchecked rage in a second, Considine easily portrays Matty’s frustration at himself, but also shows how he becomes a ticking time bomb – one that could do anything at any moment, not fully understanding the magnitude of his actions. Yet even as the old Matty seems to have disappeared Considine is still able to hint at the man remaining underneath, a flash of recognition in his eyes suddenly giving Emma, and us, hope before it quickly disappears again.

Jodie Whittaker gives an exceptional, emotional performance in Journeyman

It is a stunning, disconcerting central performance that is perfectly complimented by Jodie Whittaker’s – a powerhouse of a role that shows how much Matty’s condition affects those around him as well as himself. Emma goes from wife to carer in a day, a woman increasingly worn down by the situation, yet still determined to help her husband remember. In just one of many tragic moments, Whittaker brings a wealth of emotional depth to a quiet scene in which Emma whispers in Matty’s ear as he sleeps, begging her real husband to come back to her. It is instances like these that also bring the gravity of the situation into perspective, the continuous uphill struggle for all of them suddenly apparent – a struggle that may never have an ending to it.

While Journeyman is captivating, its deeply affecting narrative keeping you hooked even when making you grimace, it sadly doesn’t have the same heartwrenching impact as Tyrannosaur. Indeed, in comparison it almost feels as if Considine is often keeping us at arm’s length – as if there is still a wealth of unexplored opportunities within Matty’s story, but which he is avoiding to keep things from becoming so hopelessly dark and depressing. As a result the emotional rawness is there, yet it isn’t as complex or effective as we know Considine is able to portray. The ending is also testament to this – a wonderful moment but one which hints at there being more to this tale than we are allowed to see.

Paddy Considine gives an incredibly realistic portrayal of a man trying to remember who he really is

Comparisons aside though, this is beautifully made film in every aspect of production. Stunning sound design puts us in Matty’s shoes throughout, the crunching impact of punches reverberating onscreen when he remembers them, a technique that perfectly portrays the damage of his mind. And Laurie Rose’s cinematography revels in those outstanding performances, the camera in close as it takes in the subtle emotions of the characters. This is used to particularly great effect in a scene shot entirely in one long take – a sequence that is simple yet superbly powerful, and that relies completely on Considine’s brilliant performance. It is moments such as these that make Matty’s journey worth travelling, and one of many other instances that make Journeyman more than just your average domestic drama.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/84734/lff-2017-journeyman/)

The Florida Project – A child’s view of the world makes for a vibrant, magical tale

•March 17, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Opening on a pastel pink backdrop and to the thumping strains of ‘Celebrate’ by Kool & The Gang, The Florida Project immediately sets a joyful tone for what’s to follow. It is an introduction that perfectly reflects the long fun-filled days Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends have ahead of them, the kids happily running around the cheap Florida motel they call home, making their own adventures and causing havoc for the other residents. Yet while this approach gives Sean Baker’s film its unique, endless charm, it is also something that makes the horrible reality of their situation all the more impactful when it does begin to rear its ugly head.

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in The Florida Project

Shot mostly from the kids’ point-of-view, we follow them around as they pass the time any way they can: playing hide and seek, eating ice-cream, even trying to get tips from passing tourists. Like Baker’s previous film Tangerine (2015), the writer-director keeps things loose and fun, obvious improvisation adding to the verisimilitude of these scenes and also accounting for most of the laughs. In particular any scene with Moonee is an absolute joy to watch, Brooklynn Prince an easy and mighty presence onscreen despite being only 6-years-old. She even holds her own against Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the kind yet fierce motel manager who the kids enjoy making life hell for on a regular basis.

While the laughs draw us into the story and the kids’ wonderful, playful world, Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch begin to cleverly drip-feed moments in that reveal the full magnitude of the situation facing most of the residents there. From bedbug-ridden rooms, to the threat of evictions, we begin to understand how the motel is a literal last resort for them, each living hand to mouth and just barely getting by. Showing this through the children’s eyes makes this all the more startling to see, the normalcy of it for them revealing how long they have lived like this. A scene in which Moonee nonchalantly walks up to a charity van giving out free food shows how this is just a regular routine for her, as is helping her Mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) sell cheap, wholesale perfume outside a nearby bigger, wealthier hotel. Anything they can do to keep a roof over their heads.

Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project

That this is all happening within metres of these other, richer residencies and in the shadow of Disney World – one of the most commercial, profit-driven places in the country – is a sickening irony that Baker makes apparent. In a brilliant touch, on more than one occasion we see helicopters taking off practically in the motel’s car park, Halley and the kids often sticking their middle fingers up at them, making the unfairness of it seem almost like a cruel joke. The motel they live in itself is a cheap, vivid purple version of the Disney World castle – the kids’ own magical kingdom, as they could never afford to visit the real one. In these moments Baker’s energetic direction and Alexis Zabe’s vibrant cinematography show us the beauty the children see around them, even in poverty. Abandoned houses become open worlds ready for exploring and a field of cows their own private safari. And in one scene, Moonee takes her friends on a tour of her motel home, inventing fantastical stories about each of the residents that sadly sting with a hint of the truth. It is this childlike glee that not only keeps us hooked, but that gives The Florida Project an astonishing, affecting depth – a realism rarely felt in films portraying similar subjects.

Baker is careful to keep this lightness of touch throughout, even as the harshness of their lives becomes more noticeable to us. But moments where the dark reality does encroach on Moonee’s little bubble of imagination are the hardest to watch, the innocence on her face apparent as she tries to process exactly what is happening. This is also true for Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a girl living in another motel that is in a slightly better condition, but which still houses those with little money. The two find comfort in each other away from the adults, sharing secrets and their favourite places to hang out, their friendship a joy to see naturally growing onscreen. However, it is Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite’s brilliant onscreen chemistry that makes The Florida Project’s story that much more impactful, their mother-daughter relationship unconventional, yet no less poignant. Vinaite is exceptional as Halley, her no-bullshit attitude and rage against the hypocrisy of it all distressing to watch as she finds it increasingly difficult to make rent money. It is an endless cycle that is dragging them down, but which Halley will always strive to escape from for the sake of her daughter – no matter what.

The Florida Project - somewhere over the rainbow...

It is this striking realism that makes The Florida Project one of the rawest, affecting films you will see in a long time. Balancing laughs with graveness takes talent, however it is one Baker has bravely done to excellent effect. Building to a heartbreaking finale that revels in the power of the imagination, the feeling of terrifying desperation that follows the characters stays with you for a long time, something that is made all the more painful and real by showing it from the point-of-view of the most innocent of lives. Powerful, magical cinema at its very best, and absolutely essential viewing.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/84509/lff-2017-the-florida-project/)

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Best Films of 2017

•December 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Every year it gets harder and harder to pick just ten films to name as part of the square-eyed-geek best releases of the year. And 2017 certainly was an excellent time for cinema, from big blockbusters, to smaller independent films, to straight-to-streaming releases. As previous square-eyed-geek top tens, the ones that make it into this list must have a UK release date in 2017 (hence no Lady Bird or The Shape of Water), but no other rules apply. So without further ado, here are the releases that made 2017 sparkle:

10. La La Land

La La Land (2016)

This was released so early in the year that it’s easy to forget it even existed. Yet cast your minds back and you’ll be reminded of a dazzling, toe-tapping, heart-warming piece of cinema that has one of the most astounding openings of any 2017 film. With great performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, this becomes more than just a touching boy-meets-girl-and-falls-in-love story, the memorable songs and superb choreography transporting us to Mia and Sebastian’s world and showing us the ups and downs of their growing relationship. Yet as Damien Chazelle’s film takes an unexpected turn later on, this transforms into a tale we can all relate to in one way or another, making its final frames all the more impactful to watch.

9. Moonlight

Moonlight (2016)

Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film is simple yet stunning cinema at its absolute best. This coming-of-age story which follows one boy from childhood to difficult teenage years to complicated adult life is mesmerising, Jenkins’ lyrical direction and beautiful cinematography washing over us and making us part of Chiron’s challenging world. As a tale of life and love, Jenkins nails every beat and moment too, deftly showing Chiron’s journey as he tries to understand his feelings and come to terms with his own true identity. The supporting turns from Naomie Harris as his drug-addicted mother and Mahershala Ali as a man who takes Chiron under his wing are just as entrancing, but it is Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes performances as Chiron at the different stages in his life that make the biggest impressions.

8. Okja

Okja (2017)

Bong Joon-ho’s film about a girl called Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) and her super pig friend is an irreverent delight from start to finish. Set in the not-too-distant-future, this tale about a newly invented breed of ‘super pig’ (basically giant pigs) leads Mija and Okja on an adventure to the big city after Okja wins a competition for being the biggest super pig in the world, a prize that attracts the attention of a villainous corporation (lead by Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal deliciously hamming it up – no pun intended) and a group of animal rights activists. From excellent action sequences, bizarre humour, and a scathing commentary on the food industry itself, Bong Joon-ho holds up a mirror to our own world and dares us to question our own eating habits, with a brutally honest ending that will punch you in the gut. But what really impresses are the little moments between Mija and the entirely CGI character of Okja, the poignancy just as touching as any real onscreen relationship this year.

7. Get Out

Get Out (2017)

Mainstream horror always receives tough criticism, particularly those films that have an aspect of social commentary about them. Yet Jordan Peele’s film is one that manages to do just that in an engaging, effective way while also becoming a huge box office success. Simple in its execution but daring in what it has to say, Peele’s story follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he takes a trip to meet his girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) at their lavish family home. Chris guesses that his being black will raise a few eyebrows with this white upper-class family, yet soon things take a turn for the even weirder, Chris wondering whether his increasing paranoia is all in his mind or something even greater. Peele’s expert writing keeps a steady pace while leading us down one route, before pulling the rug out from under us and delivering one of the creepiest and unexpected twists ever, resulting in a horror that unpleasantly sticks in your mind.

6. Raw

Raw (2016)

This terrifying, disconcerting film gets under your skin in the best possible way, from the very first frames up until its horrid conclusion. Justine (Garance Marillier) heads off to veterinarian school, soon finding that it’s more than just studying, the brutal hazing rituals putting her strength to the test on a daily basis, especially when she is forced to eat meat despite her being a vegetarian. Writer-director Julia Ducournau builds an uneasy atmosphere, dropping sly hints as to where this might be heading as Justine starts to feel unwell and develop terrible rashes on her skin. Yet even that can’t prepare you for Raw’s full twisted story. Filled with beautiful, yet disturbing imagery that will haunt you for days after, as well as a spine-chilling soundtrack, this is unsettling stuff that is made all the more horrifying by Marillier’s multi-layered leading performance. And as Ducournau’s first feature film, it is one of the most assured cinematic works this year.

5. Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Luca Guadagnino’s enchanting film takes us on a beautifully immersive coming-of-age journey alongside the young Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who finds his world inexplicably shaken by a visitor (Armie Hammer) who comes to work with Elio’s Father (Michael Stuhlbarg) over the summer. As Elio and Oliver’s relationship begins to steadily grow against the stunning sun-drenched Italian backdrop, Guadagnino wisely focuses on the quiet moments between the pair as much as the times when they do eventually bear their souls to each other, making for an almost mesmerising realism that is felt throughout. A magnificent film that revels in the true poignancy of its tale and which will have you fighting back tears towards the end, particularly during a hugely powerful scene between Chalamet and the incredible Stuhlbarg.

4. The Big Sick

The Big Sick (2017)

Written by Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Emily V. Gordon, this true story about a guy and a girl who fall in and out of love, only for her to suddenly become seriously ill, is as funny as it is touching. Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan’s great onscreen chemistry and director Michael Showalter’s lightness of touch make this unconventional rom-com surprisingly realistic, yet it is Nanjiani and Gordon’s perfect writing that creates a lasting impact, so much so that when it does end you feel almost lost. With Nanjiani proving himself to be a brilliant leading man able to handle both the comedy and poignancy of such a story, as well as superb supporting turns from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents, this is an effective, moving film and one you’ll want to revisit time and time again.

3. Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

While Marvel have always reveled in the fun moments of their films, Taika Waititi brings the humour to the front and centre of this entry into the Thor trilogy, allowing Chris Hemsworth to really let his hair down as the God of Thunder (or have it shaved off entirely). The plot might be the same old quest to defeat a big baddie after ultimate power (this time Hela who wants to take control of Asgard), but a new setting (the planet of Sakaar) and the return of some familiar faces (Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk) make this a blast from start to finish. Plus the new characters thrown into the mix are hard not to fall in love with, especially Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Cate Blanchett as the villainous Hela and (of course) Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster.

2. Free Fire

Free Fire (2016)

Ben Wheatley’s 70s set film about a gun deal gone wrong is a hilarious, frenetic action thriller that is perfectly and admirably constructed. The one location (a dingy warehouse) adds to the tension and the threat of those deafening shootouts, the humour becoming deliciously slapstick in some moments as each of the characters tries to save their own skin. A stellar cast adds to the fun, with standouts being Jack Reynor’s reckless lackey, Armie Hammer’s suave businessman and Sharlto Copley’s South African arms dealer. Expertly paced throughout and with superb direction from Wheatley, this is a film that is never less than gripping, and which demands repeat viewings.

1. The Florida Project

The Florida Project (2017)

The power of childhood imagination is at the forefront of Sean Baker’s film, and something that makes this tale of life on the margins of society all the more devastating to watch. Following the adorable but mischievous Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) as they run riot around the motels they call home, Baker’s story revels in the daily exploits of these kids as they play and laugh, the threat of poverty hanging just on the peripheries and something they have obviously learnt to live with. Yet as Moonee’s mother (Bria Vinaite – astounding) finds it increasingly difficult to make the weekly rent money the motel manager needs (the incredible Willem Dafoe in a brilliant supporting role), Moonee’s sunny world starts to come apart at the seams, even if she doesn’t always see it. Filled with genuinely funny moments, mesmerising cinematography that shows the beauty of places we wouldn’t normally stop to look at, and a feeling of spontaneity which keeps the realism of the story of utmost importance, this is a stunning piece of cinema that builds to a magical, albeit harrowing conclusion – one that you will find it difficult to recover from. An incredible, captivating piece of cinema: which is why it’s my number one film of 2017.

(Those that just missed out on the square-eyed-geek top ten: The Disaster Artist, Dunkirk, Toni Erdmann, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, My Life as a Courgette, The Red Turtle, Lady Macbeth, Baby Driver, It).

So that’s it for another year. There’s already some films on the horizon in 2018 that are sure to light up our screens in the best way possible, such as Annihilation, Black Panther, You Were Never Really Here, Isle of Dogs, A Quiet Place, Ocean’s 8 and Avengers: Infinity War. Happy New Year everyone! And I hope that 2018 has lots of great things in store for you.

(Think something is missing from the top ten? Leave a comment below!).

The Big Sick – An unconventional love story with a big heart

•November 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

‘Rom-com’ is a genre term many still think of with contempt. Yet for a while now, modern productions have been reinventing this particular film world, turning the usual tropes upside down and delivering great films such as Knocked Up (2007), Bridesmaids (2011) and Trainwreck (2015) – films that manage to find that difficult balance between humour and poignancy. The Big Sick (2017) is the latest film that walks the fine line between laughter and tears, and is more memorable and impactful than any recently seen.

The Big Sick (2017)

A big slice of this is to do with the story itself – a tale that is not only effectively told, but very much true. Based on the real-life relationship between Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who both wrote the screenplay, this is the usual boy meets girl and falls in love deal, the couple soon finding inevitable obstacles getting in the way of their happiness. However the things preventing them from being together are more complex than usual here, with Kumail’s Muslim upbringing and strict family dictating that he must keep with tradition and marry a Pakistani girl, which to Emily’s horror has prevented him from telling them about her. Then things take a turn for the even worse when Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) falls suddenly ill and is placed in a medically induced coma. Soon, Kumail’s days are filled with long stretches in a hospital waiting room staring at the walls, all the while trying to decide just what the future may hold – a future that Emily might not even be a part of.

Those familiar with director Michael Showalter’s previous film, Hello, My Name is Doris (2015), will already know how adept he is at mixing comedy with drama. An unexpected delight that was hilarious and touching in equal measure, Doris was also striking for how it presented a version of romance not always seen onscreen, Showalter turning the idea of an older female protagonist wanting love into an attainable possibility, and one we very much rooted for. Showalter uses the same formula here for another unconventional narrative, beginning The Big Sick with general rom-com lightness as Kumail and Emily’s relationship is established and steadily grows, pulling us into their lives in an impressively natural way before the real issues come to bear. By then we are truly hooked into their world, invested in their story and tearing up at every heart-breaking bit of news about Emily’s condition that Kumail and her ever-attentive parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) are given.

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick

That plot obviously adds a powerful weight to the film, but it is actually the writing itself that creates the most impact onscreen. The relationship between Kumail and Emily is completely immersive, the dialogue easily zipping back and forth between them, as one would imagine the couple to be in real life. Everyday scenes at the start feel completely organic (and probably are), as if we really are opening a window into their lives and looking in as they carry out everyday activities like watching films or going shopping together. This is something wholly backed-up by Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Kazan, both brilliant presences and with an easy chemistry that makes scenes between them a joy to watch. Kazan makes Emily a grounded, believable character, preventing her from becoming too sweet or kooky, as often happens with female roles in rom-coms such as this. And Nanjiani is charming without being smarmy, even when he’s picking up women in bars with cheesy chat-up lines. He easily switches between the comedic and darker parts of the film, particularly standing out in the later, serious moments, his smiling face crumbling every time another setback is thrown his way, whether that be in his flailing career as a stand-up comedian or his family’s constant barrage of Pakistani women they want him to marry. Yet it is in the portrayal of his relationship with Emily that he truly shines, his heart visibly breaking every time her condition worsens or when he’s forced to the back of a room to listen in while Emily’s parents are given news he both is, and isn’t, entitled to hear.

Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in The Big Sick

It is when Emily’s mother and father enter the picture that things become even more complicated for Kumail, not least for the fact that these are two people he never expected or wanted to meet (which they are well aware of). It is also here that one of the film’s more unexpected relationships starts to flourish with a perfect, absorbing realism, Kumail slowly turning their contempt for him around and finding them to be a stark contrast to his own strict but loving parents (played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff). Even Terry (Romano) and Beth (Hunter) have their own issues though, a point that could have felt tacked on to the story, yet with the emotional gravitas Romano and Hunter bring makes it necessary and realistic. Romano does caring, sympathetic Dad brilliantly, his monotone, dry responses making for some of the greatest laughs of the film, while Hunter delivers one of the best turns out of the secondary cast with a fiery performance that lights up the sad and the funnier moments equally (with one highlight taking part during one of Kumail’s stand-up shows).

While Kumail is trying to win over someone else’s parents, his own sadly seem about to push him away in the name of tradition. This is another strand to The Big Sick that makes it stand out from recent rom-coms, and an idea that could have unwisely been portrayed in an over-excessive, or even preachy way. Instead Nanjiani uses his own background and presence in the story to deftly explore these issues of culture clashes concisely and without prejudice, him and Gordon looking at it from many different angles. Although Kumail’s situation is devastating, no-one is demonised or admonished, Gordon and Nanjiani keen to show how arranged marriages can actually work for some – another option for people looking for love, however unconventional that may seem to others. In the same way, Showalter is careful to present these ideas without ever being patronising or resorting to easy stereotypes to get a quick laugh, something many comedies are often guilty of doing.

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick

With this, as well as the many other narrative threads, there could have been a danger of detracting from the bittersweet love story at the heart of The Big Sick. However, Showalter ensures these other plot points are kept in balance throughout, never losing sight of their relationship and using these other strands to better build a fully fleshed-out, realistic world onscreen. The obvious verisimilitude of Gordon and Nanjiani’s situation adds a great deal to this, as does their pitch-perfect writing which is at often times hilarious, and sometimes desperately upsetting. With superb performances added to the mix, and a strong lead in Nanjiani, this is an enchanting film from start to finish, so much so that when it does end, it is almost jarring. As the credits roll, you’ll find yourself eager to know what happened next, and then what happened even further down the line after that. And it isn’t often that a rom-com, even a great one, makes you wonder that.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/81375/the-big-sick/)

Mindhorn – “It’s truth time!” for Julian Barratt’s hilarious fictional detective

•September 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Mindhorn (2016) is a character immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with cop shows from the 80s. From his leather jacket and turtleneck sweater, to his flash, fast car and beautiful girl on his arm, he is the very epitome of these TV detectives, albeit with the added ability of a bionic eye that lets him literally detect lies (coining his wonderful catchphrase: “It’s truth time!”). It’s the perfect recipe for success, both for the show and leading man Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt), who is at the height of fame when we first meet him. However, a disastrous TV interview during which Richard insults the whole of the Isle of Man (the setting for the show) and an ill-advised decision to head to Hollywood, quickly sees his star begin its slow, inevitable descent.

Julian Barratt as Detective Mindhorn...

Cut to 25 years later and the actor is living alone in a tiny flat in Walthamstow, his age and weight has caught up to him, and his luxurious hair has been replaced by a cheap wig. It is this rock-bottom version of Richard that writers Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby recognise is ripe for comedy gold, as they show the one-time famous actor desperately and hilariously trying to reclaim some of the relevance he had all those years ago, whether that be by taking part in dubious casting calls, or advertising orthopaedic socks (a job now gone to rival John Nettles). So when Richard gets an offer from the Isle of Man police force to speak to a murderous criminal who thinks Mindhorn is real, Richard jumps at the chance, ready to squeeze everything he can out of this brilliant PR opportunity.

And squeeze he does as soon as he arrives back on the island, Barratt and Farnaby having fun with the notion of a man so bloated on his own ego and sense of fame that he can’t see how irrelevant he now is. Oblivious to the gaping mouths and incredulous stares that he induces, Richard swans around the police station (in glorious slo-mo and accompanied by the sax-ridden Mindhorn TV theme) making demands and treating it like his own personal dressing room, even though he’s only there to answer a phone call. Richard is so full of himself that he even believes he can slip back into the arms of his old flame and co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis), despite her now being with Clive (Simon Farnaby), Richard’s old stuntman. These scenes between Richard and Clive, or rather Barratt and Farnaby, are some of the funniest in the film, the two verbally sparring back and forth in brilliant moments that often seem unscripted (and probably were). The fact that Barnaby plays Clive with a ludicrous Dutch accent and often wears nothing but a pair of tight denim cut-offs only adds to the hilarity and the suitably bizarre tone felt throughout the rest of the film.

Clive (Simon Farnaby), Richard Thorncroft's new rival

With a sense of self-worth as big as his gut and the knowledge that he’d step on anyone to get back to the top, Richard Thorncroft could have easily been turned into a hateful character. But despite his dubious personality, Barratt excels at creating a man who is at once hilarious because of these flaws, yet also easy to sympathise with, a hint of pain and frustration often seen on his Richard’s weathered face as he comes across another setback in life. This tragi-comic tone is also noticeable throughout the rest of Mindhorn, particularly in the comparison of the Richard of the TV show era (recounted to us at the top of the film in perfectly grainy VHS footage) and Richard as he is now – a stark and immediate juxtaposition that while hysterical, adds a definite poignant edge as well. It is this undercurrent of melancholy that gives the film its heft, preventing it from becoming just another throwaway comedy.

Director Sean Foley is still keen to maintain a lightness of touch throughout the film however, keeping proceedings from becoming too dark and revelling in the many jokes that keep flying as Richard finds himself in more and more trouble. While the first two parts are entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny, there is a point towards the end of the second act when the film does lose momentum – a slight flaw in an otherwise tremendous film. This is soon forgotten about when we reach the last act though, the pace suddenly jumpstarted again as we begin to head to its superb side-splitting conclusion. It is here that Mindhorn really comes together, the film very much wearing its 80s TV influences on its sleeve as it descends into the usual fight scenes, car chases and shootouts, albeit in a brilliantly skewed way. It also features one of the funniest scenes of the whole film as Richard is given an unwelcome…update. Mindhorn 2.0 if you will.

Essie Davis as Patricia, Richard's old flame...

While this film is a magnificent comedy and one which is destined to become a cult classic, there will be many who compare it to that other famous British character whose life also had a rise and fall. Indeed, the comparisons to Alan Partridge are easy to make yet impossible to ignore. A man trying to reclaim his fame and alienating more people on the way? – very Alan. Even Steve Coogan himself appears here as a character who once played Mindhorn’s sidekick, and who now has his own inexplicably successful spinoff show. However Barratt is able to avoid the pitfall of repetition, here creating another iconic character who is all the more memorable for his funny yet anguished performance – something that adds a surprising layer of realism in amongst the more odd moments of the film. Barratt and Farnaby’s excellent script also makes this an instant hit in its own right, with the end result being a hilarious and endlessly quotable film that would more than hold up in repeat viewings, even if the pace does let it down in the middle. There hasn’t been any talks of sequels yet, but I sincerely hope that Mindhorn does return to the screen in the near future. I’d be more than excited for a little more “truth time”.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/79807/mindhorn/)

The Hunt – A brutal depiction of small town paranoia

•August 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The main goal of the Dogme 95 movement was to create affecting, memorable films by focusing on story, acting and a natural filmmaking style in order to get to the truth of the narrative. It was Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) that was first created following this manifesto, this powerful portrait of a family with harrowing secrets given a startling ferocity by the organic Dogme style. Vinterberg wasn’t to have a film of similar success until The Hunt (2012), an Oscar-nominated piece that with its higher production values seemed to be a million miles from the Dogme movement the Danish filmmaker had founded. On closer inspection though, it still contains the same ideas and themes that would give Dogme its reputation – an aspect that has given it a chilling impact still felt when watching it today.

The Hunt (2012)

While Festen (aka. The Celebration) focused on a family unit slowly breaking down in the midst of accusations, The Hunt focuses on the unravelling of the life of one man in particular. Except this time the accusations are caused by a wrongly uttered word and the imaginations of both children and adults run wild. Writer-director Vinterberg is keen to slowly build to this devastation though, first introducing us to the small Danish town that serves as the backdrop to the story, as well as the close group of male friends at the heart of it who enjoy nothing more than hunting and drinking. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is one of this group, a teacher at the local nursery and someone well-liked and respected by the whole community. He also has a close bond with Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of the girls at the nursery and the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). This bond is suddenly torn in Klara’s eyes though when Lucas rejects a gift from her, and with her feelings hurt she unfortunately says something awful in front of the wrong person.

It is then that The Hunt becomes a film all about the spread of rumours and paranoia, the suspicions about Lucas suddenly causing the whole village to see him in a new, starkly horrifying light. That gradual build at the beginning of the film makes what follows all the more shocking, Klara’s misspoken words coming out of nowhere and setting into motion an avalanche that simply can’t be stopped, especially when further evidence of Lucas’ wrong-doings begin to pile up. Every new revelation is a punch in the gut to him and to us, Lucas at first hitting back and trying to clear his name, yet his resolve slowly crumbling as time goes on. Mikkelsen’s portrayal makes Lucas’ situation all the more tragic, his face a steady mixture of confusion, pain and fragility from the moment he first learns of the accusation, all the way through the film to a later scene during a Church service, which is both beautifully shot and unbearably tragic.

Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) is comforted by her mother Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing)...

Vinterberg and fellow scriptwriter Tobias Lindholm dig deeper than the simple story of one man disgraced though, choosing to make this as much about his accusers and how others close to him are irreversibly affected, such as Lucas’ son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) who is made into a pariah for merely associating with his own father. Vinterberg and Lindholm also focus on Klara herself, a child who is both naïve of the situation she has caused and knows she has done something wrong, but who no-one listens to when she tries to put her mistake right. This idea of her being an innocent child yet knowing more than people think is brilliantly backed-up by the strikingly natural performance Vinterberg coaxes from Wedderkopp, who seems wise beyond her years in some scenes and incredibly young and small at others, such as when she is first confronted about what she said, Klara simply sniffing and nodding along to the questions so she can stay out of trouble and go outside and play again. It is one of the greatest child performances ever captured on film, and another aspect that makes this dark and unflinching narrative all the more crushing – another person’s life ruined by the situation created, partly because of other people’s interference.

It is this scope to The Hunt’s narrative that gives the overall film a power that makes it impossible to forget, similar to Vinterberg’s portrayal of Festen’s tale. While that film’s impact was immediate due to its distinct style, to a certain extent that same Dogme method is present here too, albeit in a subtler way. Vinterberg treats each moment with a stunning naturalness in order to let the performances breathe, giving it a realism that often makes it difficult to watch. Scenes between Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen (a Festen alumni) particularly reflect this, their portrayals of two best friends slowly driven apart devastating and poignant. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography also has an interesting naturalness to it in some moments, the camera deftly capturing Lucas’ story alongside a pervading darkness that settles across every scene – a murkiness that hints at the communities own poisonous thoughts and responses to the situation, and a feeling that is present even in the final moments.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) shares a moment with his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm)...

Few films get under your skin in the way The Hunt does, its honest reflection of how a rumour can spread like a devastating virus shocking yet gripping. It is also an intricate look at a delicate subject, while at the same time a piece that is careful to hold no single individual to blame – a viewpoint that gives this a depth and verisimilitude rarely seen onscreen. Absolutely essential viewing that still packs a punch today.