Waves 2019 ****

WAVES

“I will not be taken down, I am a new machine!’ says aspiring athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in this brutal yet lyrical drama from Trey Edward Shults for the A24 imprint. The writer/director’s follow-up to It Comes At Night is not typical of the A24 label, a sprawling but tightly conceived film that has lineage to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or even the witness/victim dynamic of Amores Perros, but successfully finds its own intense voice. A curious broken-backed structure to the narrative makes it a tricky one to review, but spoilers should not be required to gain appreciation.

Waves deals with family life; Tyler is a young man with a big future, and he’s a big name on his school wrestling team. But Tyler gets bad news when he finds out he has a potentially life-changing sports injury, and simultaneously finds out that his girlfriend has missed her period. Tyler’s father (Sterling K Brown) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) try to reach out to him, but drink, drugs, peer-pressure and depression all take a toll until a moment of violence turns their lives apart and sends Tyler’s life in a different direction. a key visual motif frames Tyler looking in mirrors; the reflection never seems to match up, indicating the disconnect between how the teen sees himself and how he is.

Waves takes place amongst the well-monied set of South Florida, and although Tyler and his family appear well-off, it’s clear that they’ve had to fight for what they have. That resilience makes a difference in the film’s final act, but until then, there’s a powerful willingness to dance with the darkness of Tyler’s rage which gives it the feel of a suburban Full Metal Jacket. Brown and Harrison are both compelling as father and son out of sync, while Russell deserves her Independent Spirit nomination in a difficult role. Waves features fluent, nimble camerawork, wild, striking, hallucinogenic visuals, and also a score with Trent Reznor’s broken-fridge fingerprints all over it; the whole film pulses with light and noise.

A white man’s view of black family life is a hard sell in 2019/20, and Waves seems to have fallen between two stools as a potential awards darling. But despite the presence of the permanently shaggy Harmony Korine, Shults pulls off a film that is anything but a quirky indie, but a pumped-up evocation of modern life as a living hell. That Waves travels further than that, and attempts to look at what happens after the chickens come home to roost, is admirable, and even if awards voters didn’t fancy it, last year’s Beale Street crowd really should give Waves a look.

Bombshell 2019 ****

bombAmerican politics looks different at home from abroad; European media has a liberal outlook, and tends to play up an unconscious bias that’s permanently pro Democrat and con Republican. Thus when Donald Trump talks about the world’s media being against him, he’s got a point. Every Republican president in recent memory has been hailed as the worst thing ever, whether Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr or Jr, they all get the same treatment, characterised as power-mad imbeciles.

Jay Roach’s Bombshell’s subject is Fox News, and the goal is to dramatise well-documented sexual harassment issues. These are comparatively recent history, so recent that two of the characters featured are Donald Trump and Rudi Guiliani, the former evoked using actual footage, the latter by an actor. Both are, at the time of writing, still active and involved in the American political scene, but are casually described here as a passing demagogue and his above-the-law fixer. With US politics in a somewhat explosive mode in 2020 election year, it feels like a shame that Roach didn’t feel the time was right to address the Trump-Giuliani axis in more detail, since their contribution to American life is still a hot issue.

Instead, we’re introduced to a selection of big tv names who are completely unknown outside of America; Host Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), departing matriarch Gretchen Karlson (Nicole Kidman) and composite ingénue Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Karlson is heading out the door, but willing to bring down the Fox News channel behind her; Kayla is the audience surrogate, a young woman being rapidly brought up to date on Fox News’s style, which is described in Charles Randolph’s script as pure sensation; news deliberately described in a way that would involve an aging parent. Kayla is also brought up to date on the way her boss Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) operates, and accepts that being a victim of sexual harassment may get her what she wants. But as Kayla and Gretchen begin to understand that their experiences are similar, it’s left to Megyn Kelly to confront her own past, connect the dots and uncover a systematic cover-up of loose morals and male domination.

Bombshell works as an expose of what happens when men call the shots; these women all look and sound like ball-breakers, but they’re denied anything but the illusion of agency by slavering men. Roach has a rep for this kind of work, with Recount and Game Change both managing a similar ripped-from-the-headlines approach. As an awards contender, Bombshell is pretty much hobbled by being a film written and directed by men about the importance of listening to women’s voices; one of the best lines mentions a Fox News harassment hotline, which is described as being as useful as a complaints-box in Nazi occupied France. But even if the punches are muted, there’s tonnes going on here and most of it is interesting, from Kate McKinnon’s suppressed lesbian to Malcolm MacDowell’s Rupert Murdoch, channelling late period Mick Travis as a journeyman who has travelled too far from his comfort zone.

Bombshell isn’t boring, but neither is it as explosive as yesterday’s news; the asides are more stimulating than the main plot, which is too schematic to fully land. A gross of nearly $30 million domestic proves that the public are interested, although whether minds are changes is a different matter. There will be better films about sexual-harassment, Fox News, Trump and Giuliani, but Bombshell is salacious enough to be going on with for now.

Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s a the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire 2019 ****

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The spirit of Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse finds a specific echo in Céline Sciamma’s rapturous period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which arrives box-fresh for awards season as a thoroughbred contender; this is art-house fare, but no worse for that, a sumptuous, haunting love story with moments of dynamism and an attitude that’s catnip to the chattering classes.

Rivette, of course, deconstructed the process of creating art in his celebrated four-hour study of sculptor and model; Sciamma takes a similar subject, although in this instance questions of the male gaze are subverted because men are barely seen. Instead, we have the love between two women; Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter on a secret mission, to capture the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in a remote location (Brittany). But the subject is reluctant; the portrait is to celebrate a prospective marriage, and that marriage is unwanted. Marianne artfully betrays and then gains the trust of her subject by stealing glances and looks to complete her portrait, and then destroying it when Héloïse complains. The relationship between the women blossoms into a lesbian affair, but society intrudes, and the big question is how their love might survive or endure these obstacles?

A subtitled film about portraiture might sound like hard tack, although the surprising presence of Valerie (Hot Shots!) Golinio offers some respite, and there is in fact a literal lady on fire to justify the film’s quirky title. This is a film driven by the luminous performances of the leads, who capture the intensity of a forbidden but natural relationship, and who evoke passion with the smallest movements. The landscapes also spark memories of Jane Campion’s The Piano, but without the sense of melodrama; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not for sensation seekers, but a meditative, visually calculated piece that finds visual metaphors for the inner workings of the two women depicted.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been, alongside Parasite, a clear front runner in the Foreign Picture stakes  since Cannes 2019; despite the adulation of the highbrow critics, it’s a love story that could attract the romantic at heart, and those who have the patience for the genteel pace will be rewarded with a beautifully told story of verboten love.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be on wide release in the UK and US in 2020.

Motherless Brooklyn 2019 ****

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It’s a good twenty years since Jonathan Lethem’s novel was published; based on the public and critical reaction, writer/director Edward Norton needn’t have bothered adapting the text from prose to screen. And yet there’s plenty to enjoy in Motherless Brooklyn, which, like The Goldfinch, is far from the dud that the box office might suggest; certainly, films about urban planning are rarely big news, but although it’s 144 minutes long, Norton’s film is idiosyncratic and often engaging.

Bruce Willis gets near-top billing, but is pretty much out of the film before the credits go up. Willis plays Frank Minna, a local gangster with a penchant for rescuing children; it’s through this method that he’s a mentor to Lionel Essrog, a bright young man with Tourette’s syndrome. Essrog also has a perfect memory, and listens in on one of Minna’s meetings shortly before his father-figure is shot. Piecing together various abstract clues, Hamlet-style, Essrog starts to investigate Trump-ian property baron Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also the businessman’s brother Paul (Willem Dafoe). Randolph has designs of the New York property market, but his methods are underhand, and Essrog is quickly out of his depth…

A film like this stands and falls on its villain, and Baldwin relishes the opportunity to play Randolph with saturnine charm. Whether he’s directly responsible for the violent killings that beset Essrog isn’t exactly clear, but it is obvious that Randolph has an evolved philosophy that penalises the poor. Motherless Brooklyn has a Chinatown-lite view of city corruption, and anyone interested in New York will enjoy the various allusions gathered here, as well as some eye-opening chat about Central Park

Norton is also an actor’s director, getting good work from his cast, and he also provides a happy centre as Essrog. Playing a character with a disability isn’t a great look in 2019, and yet there’s obvious reasons why it wouldn’t be easy to cast the role. Norton does well not to play Essrog’s verbal infelicities for laughs, and pulls off something rare and unexpected by having a disabled protagonist whose disability is not central to the narrative.

Motherless Brooklyn takes a few wrong turns; the background to Essrog’s detective agency is inadequately sketched in, and Minna leaves far too early to get a sense of who he was. But there’s a clear gap between the quality of Norton’s film and the public’s appreciation of what he’s done, and Motherless Brooklyn is worth recommending to the discerning viewer.

Rob Roy 1922 ****

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There’s more chance of getting funding for a bridge over the Atlantic than Scots getting funding for a film about Scottish history; ‘that’s a job for outside talents’ has been the message from successive governments. Back in 1922, things were more up for grabs than might be expected, and this home-grown version of Rob Roy is surprisingly direct in depicting a ordinary Scot in class conflict with his aristocratic betters.

The opening titles are keen to emphasise that this isn’t yo mamma’s Rob Roy, or at least, not Sir Walter Scott’s; the intertitles also disarmingly point out that parts of the Rob Roy legend have been embellished to create a good story. But William P Kellino’s film is rather modern in structure, comparable to 2018’s Irish hit Black 47 in the way it shows how the downtrodden might coalesce around a rebel with a cause. That’s Rob Roy (David Hawthorne), who foolishly signs a deal with the Duke of Montrose (Simeon Stuart) and finds his community decimated in his absence. Rob Roy vows to get justice, even if he has to come back from the grave to do so; part of the fun is exactly how Rob Roy’s plan plays out. And there’s also sophistication in the way that Rob Roy’s own motives are depicted; he’s saved from certain death, not by brute strength, but because of previous kindnesses; this Rob Roy doesn’t gain his strength from patriotism, but from humanity.

Other critics have noted Hawthorne’s similarity to John Cleese; there’s certainly a hint of Ewan McTeagle about his appearance, wandering the glens with an enormous hat and huge furry eyebrows. Time has also added lustre to the supporting cast; Scots singer and film-maker Richard Jobson also appears to have a doppelganger here, as does Steve Coogan. And there’s a gallery of funny supporting turns, including Tom Morris as Sandy the Biter and Alec Hunter as The Dougal Creature.

If you’ve tried and failed to enjoy silent film on You Tube, it’s often because the worst possible prints end up there; this recut version of Rob Roy is currently touring in Scotland, with a soundtrack by David Allison that mines the emotion from the images. This is no twee piano accompaniment, but a rigorous application of traditional motifs delivered in a way that’s strikingly modern, with squalling guitars for the battle-scenes and lilting melodies for the romance and the dancing. If nothing else, the use of real locations is extraordinary, from the hills and glens, complete with dogs, sheep and highland cows, to Stirling Castle itself.

For anyone interested in Scotland, film-making or just a good old slice of traditional storytelling, Rob Roy is something of a treat; they literally do not make them like this anymore, at least in Scotland they don’t.

The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival (HippFest) pressent Roy Roy at

Friday 8 November 2019 – Dunoon Film Festival

Tuesday 12 November 2019 – Inverness Film Festival, Eden Court Theatre

Friday 24 January 2020 – Dundee Contemporary Arts

Friday 14 February 2020 – Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

After The Wedding 2019 ***

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After The Wedding is a well-meaning, well-upholstered drama which makes a decent enough fist of revising and updating Susanne Bier’s subtitled original, but which lacks the crucial nous that makes for a great picture. The presence of Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams and Billy Crudup will certainly draw audiences in, but Bart Freundlich’s film delivers more in terms of soap opera than cutting edge drama

Williams plays Isabelle, who is seeking financial support for an orphanage she works with in Calcutta. She’s contacted by mysterious benefactor Theresa, (Moore), who invites her to an NYC wedding while financial arrangements are being negotiated. But while at the wedding, Isabelle runs into an old friend who has hidden a secret from her, a secret that Theresa may, or may not, be aware of.

After The Wedding has a few decent twists in the storyline that make for a compelling watch in places, and Williams and Moore both give their characters both barrels. But there are a few crucial flaws; by reversing the sex of the main characters, a plot hole opens up, and some half-explained contrivances work against the emotional impact of the film. And the side-lining of Isabelle’s Calcutta background doesn’t fit well with the general appreciation of lush NYC lifestyles; sure, this reflects the distance between India and affluent areas in the US, but the film ultimately doesn’t do enough to draw contrasts. Isabelle’s motivations are good, but rather two dimensional as presented here, and her eventual dilemmas are not explored with sufficient bite.

There’s a rather lost art in Hollywood of having big stars and films which once would have been termed ‘women’s pictures’ ie real characters, dramatic plotting, big emotions. That kind of film-making is quite a lost art, and so After The Wedding will probably be fairly widely seen because of the dearth of competition. It’s a slick, well-made film that’s a good showcase for the stars, but which doesn’t quite pack the punch that the subject matter required. A little bit more global awareness might have helped; Freundlich’s film name-checks white saviour issues, but doesn’t say enough about them to justify the references.