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.

The Birdcatcher **** 2019

One of the interesting things about the streaming revolution, or rather the tier of film-making and distribution that’s opened up alongside traditional theatrical and DVD/TV, is that some familiar genres have been resurrected back into the mainstream. There’s clearly a substantial audience for high-quality historical drama; Ross Clarke’s The Birdcatcher sits nicely alongside such recent entries at The 12th Man in offering old-fashioned bravery as a welcome central virtue.

It’s clear from the opening frames of The Bird Catcher that Esther (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina) is no ordinary girl; a camera-move around a statue of her suggests that her experience will be one that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. The Nazi occupation of Trondheim, Norway causes Esther to lose first her family, and her escape from the German forces appears temporary until she decides to find a different form of refuge; she disguises herself as a young boy.

Esther’s dreams of Hollywood are set against the grim realities and sufferings of Nordic Jews circa 1942, and The Birdcatcher manages to create a unique identity for itself by displaying considerable sensitivity to the main character’s unique situation, with a largely female crew bringing it to life. This isn’t a gender-swap film, but a heartfelt tribute to those who fought and suffered against an impossible situation; The Birdcatcher gets genuine tension from Esther’s predicament, living with a young disabled boy and his father, who sympathises with the Nazis, leading to inevitable complications and a fiery, satisfying dénouement.

Esther’s story is so remarkable that it might stretch credulity at times, as gender-swapping stories often do, but Clarke’s film gets some leeway for reflecting the intensity of Esther’s experience of her escape to Sweden. There’s melodrama here, for sure, but the film reflects an extreme moment in history, and The Birdcatcher deserves respect for spinning an entertaining story around events too dark to take centre stage. Brutal films have been made on this subject, Shoah for one; a little artifice is no great sin when attempting to lure an audience back to such painful but rewarding material.

The Birdcatcher makes for good home viewing on streaming, but is best seen in the cinema if possible, by dint of the crisp, atmospheric photography. It has also been selected to be the attractions at the Jewish Film Festival, which tours UK cinemas in November 2019; more films from the programme will be featured on this blog closer to the time.

Signature Entertainment presents The Birdcatcher in Cinemas, Digital HD & DVD from 4th October

Two-Lane Blacktop 1971 *****

two-lane-blacktop-vintage-movie-poster-original-40x60-2989Having a car seems like a full time job in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, a road movie that sits neatly in the slipstream of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. The subject is a cross-country road race, and the film was one of the inspirations for the Cannonball Run race. But we’re not talking celebrity cameos and car crashes here, and although we see several illegal car races, this isn’t franchise material either, although Fast and Furious Presents; Two Lane Blacktop is a title that potentially intrigues. Singer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson are two men who race their souped-up jalopy in one small-town after another; they soon pick up a girl, and get into a rivalry with GTO (Warren Oates). How GTO got his dazzling yellow sports car is never fully explained; the truth is not in him, and yet an odd friendship develops from their rivalry. All the characters are ciphers; as in Walter Hill’s The Driver, they are named for their function; Girl, Driver, Mechanic. GTO functions much like Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider, an emblem of a lifestyle that the protagonists still can’t help but reject, even if he’s still pretty counter-culture. A downbeat line about the life-cycle of cicadas nails the film’s sociological ideas pretty succinctly, and the studied naturalism is something of a joy. Two Lane Blacktop has been tough to find and locate over the last fifty years, but it’s really worth the effort. Wikipedia’s plot summary says, “The film ends abruptly’ but that’s something of a dry understatement; it ends as it begins, in an unconventional style that’s rarely been bettered.

 

Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood 2019 *****

Few films have had as little similarity to expectations as Inglorious Bastards; what was touted as a ‘men on a mission’ movie along the lines of The Dirty Dozen turned out to have a remarkably meandering narrative including one lengthy scene in which characters, never seen before or again, play charades in the cellar of a bar for quite a chunk of time. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film takes a similarly picaresque approach; with two big stars, we assume a buddy comedy/bromance with the Manson family killings lurking somewhere in the background or foreground. That’s not at all what gets delivered, and that’s a good thing; alarm bells rang when Tarantino announced the setting (year, place) or this film, but Charles Manson is only fleetingly depicted and the actual killings are thankfully not within the film’s scope. That’s not to say that Once Upon doesn’t examine in granular detail exactly what Tarantino imagines was going-down between hippies, cults and conservatives in 1969, the film just doesn’t examine them in the way we expect. Instead, we have a rollercoaster ride, one that takes so long to get started that most thrill-seekers will be ready to demand their money back, then accelerates to a surprising climax so vigorous and satisfying the customers are left begging for another go round. As Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio look older and rather less cool than in previous ventures, but the coolness they embody is earned rather than cosmetic. They knock around a sun-kissed Hollywood, but their lives are less than glamorous; Dalton struggles to remember his lines on set while Booth dutifully repairs his tv antennae. The action slows to a crawl to cover non-events such as Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) going to the cinema, Dalton reading a book while chatting to a child actor, or Booth feeding his dog. But each of these scenes, long, protracted and seemingly meaningless, turn out to imbue the tale with significant value by the final scene, which like Pulp Fiction, carves out a happy ending in the face of an known tragedy. Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood has got the impacted layers of a great film; there’s a thousand minor details to be patiently unpacked, and a unique picture once the jigsaw is finally assembled. Sociologically-aware moments like Booth’s gradual realisation of the manner in which a familiar ranch as been co-opted by hippies have a haunting, original angle on history that’s completely out of tune with the shallow, derivative approach that most film-makers take to their material. If True Romance was a Greatest Hits package, Once Upon a Time…sees a lauded, popular artist finally finding their own unique voice.