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‘Poor Things’

‘A bit of madness is key,’ sang Emma Stone in La La Land, ‘to give us new colours to see.’

In Poor Things, she proves it: the film is absurd, unhinged, and glorious. It’s my favourite film of the year so far, and one I wouldn’t have seen in a million years were it not for this project.

Our setting is a steampunkish, retrofuturistic version of the Victorian era. The plot centres on Stone’s character, Bella Baxter. The film’s Victor Frankenstein-esque character, Godwin Baxter, played by William Defoe, pulls a pregnant suicide victim from the Thames. The victim’s brain is removed and replaced with that of the foetus, and Bella Baxter is created. We follow her growth and development, her betrothal, and her decision to run away with another man.

The set-up makes this sound like a horror film: it’s not. Horrific things happen, but they are treated lightly and comedically. This was a film that had me grinning almost from beginning to end, even as Bella repeatedly stabbed a face with a scalpel.

Poor Things is a completely realised comedic fever dream. Everything about it is pitch-perfect: acting, set design, score, costumes, cinematography, it all adds up to a mesmerising whole. This is a film that embraces its form: sections are in black and white, sections are shot in a circular format, sections use a disorienting fish-eye lens. I am lucky to have seen in on the big screen, and would recommend that others do the same. It looks and sounds gorgeous.

Using its absurd world, the film has interesting observations to make on so many things, from feminism, to parent-child relationships, to the ethics of sex work, to the harmful straightjacket of polite society, to paedophilia. It is wonderfully, delightfully, inspirationally and insightfully odd. It’s richly and outrageously crazy.

Stone’s performance is nothing short of astonishing perfection. I cannot begin to imagine how someone can even attempt to inhabit such a gloriously weird character, with such a wide developmental arc. Stone brings Bella to life, making sense of a totally mad sketch of a character. It is unbelievable.

The other performances are also universally excellent. Of particular note, Vicki Pepperdine made a giant impression from a tiny part, not least with the surely immortal line, ‘She grabbed my hairy business!’

I enjoyed this from the first frame to the last. I’d happily watch it again.

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‘Wicked Little Letters’

Wicked Little Letters is a frothy comedy film that has been heavily trailed for months. As in the trailer, the comedy relies on the assumption that prim and proper 1920s characters using unexpectedly foul language is inherently funny. I think that it is, to a point, though perhaps not funny enough to support a whole film.

To my mind, the stand-out feature was Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score, which lifted the whole production, imbuing it with a sense of drama and emotion even when the script was a bit lacking. Waller-Bridge’s compositions also underpinned some fantastic musical/visual puns that were among the funniest bits of the film.

Unfortunately, the plot is a bit of a letdown. It concerns some expletive-laden poison-pen letters received by Olivia Colman’s character, and whether the police have correctly identified the sender, Jessie Buckley’s character—if not, who might it be? The answer is practically telegraphed from that start, so tension doesn’t really build, and the case is solved on-screen peculiarly early in the film in any case.

Now, I’m hardly the morality police, but allow me a paragraph on the wonky social ethics of the piece. I was irked. The film is written in such a way that we’re clearly supposed to judge the central characters with modern eyes, and sympathise with Buckley’s less buttoned-up, more ‘modern’ character who is harshly judged by the standards of the time. But despite the film being vaguely about the ridiculousness of the patriarchal society of the 1920s, we don’t see the main patriarch (Timothy Spall’s character) suffer any comeuppance for behaviour that—by modern standards—is domestic abuse. The script comes perilously close to making a joke of bullying and controlling familial relationships. It’s as though we’re invited to judge the women by 2020s standards but the men by 1920s standards. It’s uncomfortable.

But look, this is light comedy tosh: I don’t think we’re expected to think that hard. Let’s just laugh at Olivia Colman swearing a bit more. Most of the characters are two-dimensional clichés, as I suppose we ought to expect, and there are a few laughs along the way. Come for the chuckles, stay for the music. It’s fine.

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‘The Iron Claw’

When I’ve been cooking recently, I’ve been mildly frustrated by struggling to find the right spices. Spice pots all look the same, and it’s difficult to find the correct one when they’re all stuck on a cupboard shelf. I’ve been wondering in idle moments whether I should buy a spice rack.

There’s a scene in The Iron Claw which features a wall-mounted spice rack quite prominently in the back of the shot. It looked awfully dated. It put me off.

All of which is to say: my mind was wandering as I watched this film. It didn’t hold my attention.

In fairness, it’s another film I picked by time slot, and which I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It’s based on the true—and desperately tragic—story of the Von Erich family of wrestlers. This is ‘wrestlers’ in the sense of American wrestling, not some kind of Greco-Roman oily business.

In a nutshell, Fritz Von Erich—an overbearing father-figure—is a former wrestler who moves into the business side of the industry. He pushes his sons to become wrestlers and to seriously strive for the world title. Various tragedies befall the family. The film ends.

The film has received numerous positive reviews from audiences and critics alike, so don’t let anything you’re about to read put you off seeing the film. I don’t claim to know what I’m talking about, I’m just a bloke who sat in front of a screen for a couple of hours.

This is a story evidently based on tragic real events. Yet, the tragedy didn’t translate to the screen, mostly because it felt like a cast of crudely drawn cartoon characters. I had no emotional connection with any of them.

The film is sold as a reflection on toxic masculinity, but that also didn’t come across for me, for much the same reason. Characters who say things like ‘men don’t cry’ and ‘if we’re the strongest, the toughest, nothing can hurt us’ seem like satirical caricatures, not incisive social commentary. A man crying at the end of the film does not have the redemptive power that the script-writers imagine it has.

The film makes no attempt to reconcile its suggestion of 1980s hypermasculinity with the high camp of the wrestling industry itself. There are balletic scenes in the ring and discussions of choreography before bouts, but the characters discuss them entirely in terms of fighting. The film acknowledges that wrestling is a sort of theatrical performance, but never fully explains itself. This undercuts the main narrative of the film, which is about winning the world title, because we never really get to understand how that is achieved. There’s no explanation of who writes the ‘scripts’, or on what basis, or how our heroes might influence that outside the ring.

There were two stand-out performances.

Maura Tierney, who (despite a dazzling career) I know primarily as Maddie Hayward from The Good Wife, is wonderful. The film hints at an observation about faith—in God or in wrestling—which is achieved entirely through shots of a crucifix and Tierney’s face. The persistence of faith is a rich seam, and I wish they’d leaned into it further.

Michael Harney almost stole the show with a role which I can only assume was a creation for the film, a combination of television sports presenter and business advisor. Harney equipped his character with an unruffled warmth combined with a professional detachment from the emotion of the events happening around him. He became of beacon of sanity and depth.

I’ve noted that others have called this the performance of Zac Efron’s career. I thought his character was too crudely drawn for anyone to be able to perform it greatly. But I did spend a lot of the film marvelling about how much he looked like Rob Lowe, and low-key fantasising about a reboot of The West Wing.

The Iron Claw wasn’t for me, but other people think it’s the bees knees, so maybe you’d enjoy it.

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What is there to write about a film that has already had so much written about it? Emerald Fennell’s comedy / psychological thriller has seemed to divide viewers, some thinking it’s just a bit silly, and others thinking it’s a masterpiece. I thought it was both, and therefore neither.

If you’re unfamiliar, the plot concerns a young lad from Prescott, Oliver, taking up a place at Oxford University. He is marginalised by the wealthy, entitled majority of toffs. After he confides that his social background is especially challenged, and that his father has suddenly died, a popular wealthy student, Felix, invites him to spend the summer with his family at their ancestral country mansion, Saltburn. Weirdly obsessive and comically macabre events ensue.

After the film was repeatedly recommended to me by friends, I streamed it at home. I suspect this isn’t the best way of experiencing it: the cinematography was the biggest star of this film. Aside from the odd misfire (there were a few too many ‘reflecting’ shots for me), it was aesthetically remarkable.

There were also some brilliant acting performances. Rosamund Pike entirely inhabited the character of Lady Elspeth, effortlessly treading the line between comedy and psychodrama. I also loved Archie Madekwe as Farleigh, a part that offered much more depth than his character in Gran Turismo. And Alison Oliver brought a beautifully unhinged quality to Venetia, which rescued some desperately uneven writing for that character.

I wasn’t sold on either of the two lead actors, though. Jacob Elordi’s performance was a bit flat, which was a problem when playing a ‘magnetic’ character. Barry Keoghan is a 31-year-old actor who didn’t read as an 18-year-old character. The less said about his ‘Scouse’ accent, which intermittently became his native Irish, the better.

But the main issue with the film was the writing: the plot was indecisive, the dialogue was startlingly stodgy, and the film as a whole seemed uncertain about its message. I’m not sure what I was supposed to take away from it.

There were several scenes which were clearly intended to shock, as though to lift the writing. These fell flat: the resolution of the plot undermined them, and the casting of a far-too-mature Keoghan considerably undercut the weirdness factor.

The comedy also falls flat. Fennell misunderstands what the rest of us find funny about people with inherited wealth. Fennell thinks it’s funny that, despite their wealth, the family live in closeted chaos. They don’t appreciate their wealth: despite a library, they all read Harry Potter. They care only for their own: they don’t know the names of their footmen. Their knowledge is limited by their experience: they don’t know where Liverpool is.

But none of that is funny, it’s just irritating. Fennell even seems to expect us to find the idea of fancy dress among the wealth amusing, as though ‘normal people’ imagine the fabulously wealthy to be clad in nothing but the latest designer clobber at every given moment.

At the risk of being a boorish man explaining a joke, the comedy lies in the absurdity of the assumption of entitlement. It is amusing that the owners of stately homes fail to appreciate the weird myopia of their ancestral claims: ‘it’s ours because it’s been in the family for generations’, without recognising that it’s also been in the community for generations, and the wealth only exists because of historic abuse of that community and its less fortunate inhabitants. The assumption that only their family, or only their class, are of worthy of consideration is ripe for ridicule, and is such a jarring contrast to the way most people live their lives as to be intrinsically funny.

To labour the point, there is no humour in Pike’s character not knowing the location of Liverpool. The humour ought to flow from the underlying assumption that she will never need to know where that is: an arched eyebrow, a dismissive ‘very well’, a look of profound disinterest; all would have served the script better than a brief discussion of whether Liverpool is by the sea. And hence, the comedy doesn’t land.

In Saltburn, Richard E Grant plays the same ‘unhinged wealthy father’ role that seems to be his stock-in-trade now: you could slot in one of his scenes from The Lesson and no-one would notice. Indeed, the thriller-ish elements of the plot are strikingly similar: they’re both about outsiders spending time in wealthy people’s country houses, where dark things happen. Heck, both have a rich kid called Felix as a central character. It’s remarkable that they were released only a few weeks apart.

For my money, The Lesson was the better film overall, though it received only a fraction of the media coverage of Saltburn. The Lesson may not have had the shock factor of Saltburn’s more unhinged scenes, but it had far more to say, and it said it more assertively. And the soundtrack of The Lesson blows the overdone, clichéd score of Saltburn out of the water.

So: Saltburn. It’s difficult to forgive a film that lacks both a coherent plot and meaningful insights, no matter how beautiful it looks. It ends up feeling just a bit disappointingly run-of-the-mill, a bit scripting-by-focus-group, a bit mass-market, a bit average. I’d hoped for better.

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‘All Of Us Strangers’

I went to see this film starring Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy and Jamie Bell as the latest outing in my cinema project. It was directed by Andrew Haigh. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from it, but found myself blown away.

At heart, this is a carefully crafted film about the nature of our relationship with our parents. Foy and Bell play the parents of the protagonist, Scott, who were killed when he was twelve years old. In the course of the film, Scott is able to travel to see his parents and talk to them again, frozen at the age they were when they died. Because we don’t really know how this is happening, it is unclear whether Scott is interacting with his parents as they really were, or whether he is seeing his own perception of them—plus his hopes and fears of their judgements of his later life—reflected back at him.

This sounds like a terribly complicated plot, but it isn’t really: it is brushed over, and the focus is almost entirely on the emotions of the relationships. In that sense, the film reminded me a lot of opera. We’re left not worrying about how the characters reached any given point in the plot, but left just to contemplate the emotions of the moments.

And there is a real emotional heft in this film: I felt a bit like I’d been hit by a truck when it ended, and I’ve never heard so many people weeping in a cinema auditorium. Never before have I sat in a screen where no-one—absolutely no-one—moved a muscle when the credits appeared; there was just stunned silence until the house lights came back up.

All of the acting was brilliant in this film, coupled with some brilliant cinematography and a desperately evocative soundtrack. There is nothing I’d change. It was a perfect package and an absolutely remarkable film. I’d highly recommend it.

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‘The End We Start From’

I saw this film, starring Jodie Comer and Joel Fry, without knowing much about it. I essentially chose it by timeslot.

Regrettably, I wouldn’t recommend it.

The film is an allegory for new parenthood. It begins with an unnamed female character giving birth to a son, Zeb, while Britain is experiencing catastrophic flooding. Events increasingly isolate the mother and baby from friends and family members, as they are forced to battle for food and survival while the world around them falls apart. The nameless woman and her baby find refuge in various places, like state support (shelters), a new friend with a similarly aged child, and a structured commune (NCT group).

The film is based on a novel by Megan Hunter, and I can imagine the metaphor working well in a book, where we might understand more about the interior life of the central character. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it translated well to the screen—but it’s hard to imagine how it ever could.

The cinematic problem is that the allegorical events align too closely with the literal events they relate to. It’s hard to say something profound about new motherhood through metaphor when the metaphor you are using also centres on new motherhood.

For example: of course new motherhood can be a profoundly isolating experience. But when you represent that by putting a mother a child in a literally isolated position, walking through a sodden barren landscape, the mother’s reactions read very strangely, with none of the expected character development. This doesn’t work: it leaves the characters feeling remote, at a conceptual remove from the audience. Jodie Comer’s talent was wasted.

There was some spectacular cinematography in here, but also some baffling decisions: taking a speedboat through a version of central London submerged in eight feet of water was visually arresting, sat well within the metaphor (seeing the world differently) but made no sense in the context of the allegorical plot (there’s no use asking volunteers to clean up a submerged London).

Honestly, this film left me feeling bored: it was way too heavy-handed and way too preachy. On the other hand, professional critics, who—unlike me—know something about film, have generally given it positive reviews. Perhaps you shouldn’t let my criticism put you off.

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I’ve seen ‘Wonka’

Wonka is the much-hyped prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Timothée Chalamet. It’s a warm, Christmassy children’s musical which many professional critics have highly praised… but I, who know nothing about cinema, have some reservations.

Wonka seems to misunderstand Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and so doesn’t serve as the character origin story it purports to be. In Charlie, Willy Wonka is a Roald Dahl mix of light and dark; the character we meet in Wonka features no darkness whatsoever. This is surprising, as Chalamet is an actor who could perfectly tread that line.

Wonka reprises the song ‘Pure Imagination’ from the Gene Wilder adaptation, which underlines the degree to which the source material was misunderstood. In the Wilder film, ‘Pure Imagination’ is a welcoming song containing a warning concealed in a riddle: ‘You’ll be free / If you truly wish to be’. Wonka is not looking to treat the children but to assess their pureness of heart to select one of them to replace him. To reveal the children’s true wishes, Wonka encourages them, ‘Anything you want to, do it’—actions resulting in humiliating factory ejections for the unworthy majority. Like the character, the piece combines lightness with a slightly unhinged darkness.

In contrast, Wonka uses the same—still mildly threatening—tune, with slightly altered lyrics, to score a scene in which a child’s dream literally comes true, a scene whose intent is unbridled happiness. This is a weird choice if ever there was one.

The new music in Wonka seems to misunderstand how musicals work, which is a peculiar problem. The music in musicals benefits the production by enhancing the ability to explore complex emotions. Instead of spoken exposition or trying to communicate complicated feelings through body language, characters can describe multilayered emotions through song. But not in Wonka: they are primarily pieces that hammer home plot points. It strikes me that it must be pretty tricky to write a song about opening a shop without exploring the emotional drive to do so, which perhaps explains lines like ‘Put your hand into your pockelet / Get yourself some Wonka chocolate’.

The absence of character arcs makes this an unusual film: no one learns anything. Every character is the same at the end as at the film’s start, with only their situations changed. There is no growth, no coming-of-age: everyone is as everyone was.

Yet, despite all of the above, it wasn’t a bad film. It was pacy, fun, and unchallenging. I’d rather see Wonka again than Gran Turismo, and Wonka had a better grip on its source material than The Exorcist: Believer. It was… okay. And sometimes, okay is good enough.

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I’ve seen ‘The Great Escaper’

This film, starring Michael Caine and the late Glenda Jackson, is one that I’d never have gone to see if it weren’t for my current project.

Due to a combination of my age and my complete lack of cinema knowledge, Glenda Jackson was mostly an MP to me, and it was a bit of a shock to see her acting in a film. She was, of course, a much-acclaimed and quite brilliant actor, so it didn’t take me too long to get over that.

This is a film which dramatises Bernard Jordan’s ‘escape’ from a care home in 2014, to attend the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in France. Having seen the trailer before I saw the film, I had thought that this might be a gentle comedic film, and was slightly reticent about seeking it as a result. I didn’t really want to see something that made light of the terrible horror of war.

I was wrong to be sceptical. This isn’t a comedy caper, it’s a thoughtful and profoundly sad film about the long-lasting impact of the trauma of fighting in a war. It’s lightened by the reflection on a seventy-year love story. It explores the dynamic of a couple which has been together for so long: something that’s rarely analysed on screen. Jackson and Caine were both excellent, though I felt Jackson was the more commanding screen presence. I think I’d have given Danielle Vitalis equal billing too: she provided an important emotional core for the film, and matched Jackson’s power in their scenes together.

It was an understated, moving and beautifully acted film. I think there was room for a little more reflection of the moral complexity of the whole piece, but maybe there was a conscious decision to keep it simple so as not to crowd out the central themes.

This is worth 90 minutes of your time.

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I’ve seen ‘The Exorcist: Believer’

The Exorcist is a film with obvious cultural relevance: I haven’t seen it (obviously), but I’m aware of the key points. The gods of cinema scheduling mean that I’ve now seen its recent sequel, The Exorcist: Believer.

I don’t think I’ve seen a horror film at the cinema before, and I’m tempted to say that I still haven’t. This was not a scary film: I did not hear a single scream, yelp, nor even a sharp intake of breath. It was really just a dull film: I did see quite a few people walk out.

In the film, two children become possessed by the devil, for reasons unclear, and become violent as a result. They require an absurd Catholic exorcism which serves as the penultimate act of the film. The script is clunky and predictable, with none of the actors really given much scope to make an impact.

The exception was Ann Dowd, playing a character called—I’m not kidding—Ann. Her character’s backstory was uniquely contrived, and it seemed to me that she had a twinkle in her eye which acknowledged the absurdity. There was even a knowing line in the script about how the coincidences were all part of god’s plan, or some similarly droll wording.

I also enjoyed Ellen Burstyn’s performance for the way she seemed to float above it all, mostly in scenes that were clearly filmed separately from the rest of the movie. The plot used the most absurd device to remove her from the main action that caused one person to loudly sigh ‘for fuck’s sake,’ and I enjoyed the ridiculousness of that.

There was a cameo at the end that was foreshadowed in a way that not only ruined any sense of surprise, but also made no sense in the context of the film. Part of the misbehaviour of the possessed children is to violently confront people with uncomfortable truths. In the case of the foreshadowing, they shout an obvious falsehood which is immediately credibly denied, undermining the power of that behaviour in the first place. It’s an astoundingly misconceived device.

Basically: this isn’t worth two hours of your time.

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I’ve seen ‘The Old Oak’

This is Ken Loach’s last film, and the first one I’ve seen. As a Newcastle resident, this admission is tantamount to a criminal offence, but you ought not be surprised. I have thought about going to see Ken Loach films in the past, particularly the almost unavoidable I, Daniel Blake, but I was a little put off by the earnestness of other people’s recommendations. It made me think that his work must be a bit worthy, a bit focused on social justice over critical thought, and who needs worthiness in life?

If it hadn’t been for my cinema-going experiment, I also wouldn’t have gone to see The Old Oak. I had seen trailers and thought they were advertising a pat film about some asylum seekers moving to a small town in County Durham, meeting initial resistance fuelled by a cultural clash, and everyone getting along swimmingly in the end.

My understanding of the set-up was correct, but Loach’s treatment was a good deal more thoughtful than I’d anticipated. There is no straightforward resolution, and there are plenty of subtle touches, though it’s fair to say that the film has a clear moral viewpoint which doesn’t leave much room for uncertainty and exploration. The plot was a little contrived. This is also the kind of film where people talk in full sentences stuffed with exposition, and where thoughts and feelings are voiced more than they are hinted at.

In acting terms, it felt like Ebla Mari (who played the female lead) carried the film: I’d like to see her in other roles, but some of the other performances were a bit less convincing, which I think is attributable to the writing style as much as to the acting.

But I was swept up into the world of the film, suspended my disbelief, and went with it. That’s an achievement. It didn’t change my world, but the film’s positivity did give me a little boost. I enjoyed it, and I think it’s probably worth seeing.

This post was filed under: Film, Post-a-day 2023, , .

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