Green Book 2018 ***

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Why don’t the Academy Awards reflect my own personal politics and prejudices? That seemed to be the main argument against Peter Farrelly’s Green Book in the 2018 awards season, and winning Best Picture seemed to alienate many. But with voters split between Black Klansmen and Black Panther, it’s not surprising that there might be enough white and elderly voters to propel Green Book to the top of the pile. It’s an upgrade on Driving Miss Daisy, with Viggo Mortensen as chauffeur for Maharshala Ali, driving around the Southern states in the 1960’s and encountering racial prejudice that tests their friendship. While there are familiar elements of despised white saviour and magical Negro tropes in here. Green Book slyly dodges most of the expected lecturing and hones down on a more gentle conflict of characters between the two men. It might not be the most challenging, outspoken or creative in the awards-season crop, but it’s also an effective civics lesson that’s not really deserving of the levels of abuse it got.

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End of Sentence 2019 ****

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Sometimes it’s the tiniest detail that sparks a good film into life; as Frank Fogle (John Hawkes) enters an American prison alongside his terminally ill wife, she’s asked to remove her head-scarf, revealing her bald head and suggesting how short her remaining time on earth will be. A small moment, but one that elicits sympathy and interest; her death and funeral are not seen, but it’s obvious that Frank is left bereft by her passing. When their son, Sean (Logan Lerman) is finally allowed back from behind bars, Frank manages to persuade Sean to accompany him on a trip to rural Ireland, with the intention of spreading her ashes. But Sean would rather be in California, and the parental clash is sharpened when Sean picks up a girl in the form of Jewel (Sarah Bolger).
Audiences might feel that if they’ve seen one bitter-sweet drama about a father and son’s unlikely road trip to spread their mother’s ashes, they’ve seen them all. But End of Sentence comes up fresh as a daisy under the direction of Elfar Adalsteins, with Michael Armbruster’s script given space to sing. Hawkes has been a powerful force in films as diverse as Winter’s Bone and The Sessions, and manages to convincingly depict Frank as a man strong in conviction, but weak in action. Just as good is Logan Lerman; in his Percy Jackson series, Lerman seems to have been encouraged to play up the Jack Nicholson in his looks, but here he dispenses with the mannerisms to make something dour and forceful about Sean’s inner demons. Bolger’s striking turn as a hitch-hiker with unexpected musical abilities completes an intriguing trio; End of Sentence ends up as a road movie in the vein of Five Easy Pieces, and that’s high praise indeed for a drama that skilfully turns some venerable indie clichés inside out. An Irish/Icelandic co-production, this comes from Samson Films, who hit big with Oscar-winner Once, and End of Sentence is every bit as good as that popular success.

The Seventh Veil 1945 ***

Something of a sensation back in 1945, The Seventh Veil is a fairly straightforward drama, with new fangled psychiatry centre-stage. Ann Todd plays Francesca, a concert pianist seen attempting suicide in the opening scenes. Compton Bennett’s film then slips back in time to see her education at the hands of guardian Nicolas (James Mason), a hard taskmaster who blocks her relationships with various suitors. Francesca’s story is uncovered by psychiatrist Herbert Lom, intent on lifting the seven metaphorical veils which conceal her secret. What The Seventh Veil says about male-female relationships is probably a moot point; Nicholas pretty much dominates Francesca, and as her second cousin, he’s a strange romantic choice for her. As one of the ten most popular films ever released in the UK, The Seventh Seal owes its reputation largely to the music, and to Todd and Mason, both of whom still shine even when the mechanics creak.

Wonderstruck 2017 ****

Todd Haynes is something of a mercurial talent; Wonderstruck may be one of his least seen films, but is something of a wonder. Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own YA novel, Wonderstruck has twin narratives; in the first, set in the silent film era. Millicent Simmonds plays Rose, a young girl who runs away from home to spend time in the city, specifically searching for her mother (Julianne Moore) who is a successful stage and screen actress. In the second, parallel story, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 1970’s teenager who is hit by lightning and runs away from home to search for his father. He’s swiftly mugged for his cash, and ends up visiting the same museum that Rose visited decades earlier. There’s no time travel or fanciful narrative devices in Wonderstruck, but the whole picture is suffused by magic, and it’s an ideal transitory text for young people looking for something beyond fantasy. The 1920’s and 70’s eras are beautifully evoked, and the pay-off is lyrical and worthwhile. For such a good movie, it’s a shame that Wonderstuck wasn’t more widely seen, but hopefully streaming will connect it to the audience it deserves.

Yesterday 2019 *****

The back-catalogue of popular music giants is a new box-office formula; Abba, Queen and Elton John have all been big winners of late. Yesterday has a slight, simple premise to which to hang Beatles tunes, wrapped around a Richard Curtis comic-romance. Unsuccessful singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) and his ever-positive manager Ellie Appleton  (Lily James) have an unrequited love, but when Jack hits his head during a bicycle accident, he wakes up in a world where the music of the Beatles is unknown. Fame and fortune await Jack as he copycats the hits from memory, but somehow Ellie is not amongst the crowd attracted by Jack’s show-business success.  Until Jack summons up the truth to reveal the source of his success, and to embrace his own inner life instead of someone else’s, the walls of his deceit close in on him even as the spotlights beckon.

This is very much the Richard Curtis of Love Actually, making a virtue of picking the simple and ordinary out of a glossy picture-book world, artfully imagined by Danny Boyle. Himesh has an immense charm, matched by James, and there’s a breakout comic sidekick performance from Joel Fry as Rocky. The trailer rather mis-sells the drama, using a clip of James Corden surprising Jack with a appearance from the two surviving Beatles. This turns out to be a dream sequence, and when Jack’s search for the source of the music leads him to a moving end, the stage is set for an emotional performance at Wembley Stadium.

Yesterday is what a summer counter-programmer should be, light, fast, entertaining, and the kind of film that’s easy to recommend. It benefits from funny support turns from Kate McKinnon as a money-grubbing manager and Ed Sheeran, the latter sending himself up as a wrong-headed egoist; a sweet throwaway gag has him unabashedly having his own song as a ringtone.

A Ghost Story 2017 ****

David Lowery has covered a number of bases with his output so far, from nihilistic romance (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) to children’s adventure (Peter’s Dragon). A Ghost Story is an experimental piece of work that announces its art-house pretentions with a squared-off Academy ratio. Trapping the image in the centre of the screen works for this transcendental meditation of life and death; Casey Affleck plays C, whose relationship with M (Rooney Mara) is cut short abruptly by a car accident. C gets up from the mortician’s slab, and returns home under the white-sheet and eyeholes garb of a ghost, only to find that she cannot see him. Even after M moves on and moves out, C remains doomed to haunt the same space he lived in, until he spots another ghost in a neighbouring house. A Ghost Story is a mood piece and not for everyone, but it’s also a brave and original piece of cinema that muses thoughtful on the big issues; a party scene with Will Oldham talking about the universe is the closest we get to any kind of expository explanation. Scary, but in a philosophical way, A Ghost Story is a film to be savoured for its offbeat charm.

Bohemian Rhapsody 2018 ****

A film about Freddie Mercury and Queen doesn’t have to be great to find an audience; there’s a built-in interest the world over that made the behind-the-scenes issues of Bohemian Rhapsody irrelevant. After the respectable adult drama of A Star is Born, Rhapsody is a full-blown pop-art fantasy, revising , re-arranging and completely fabricating elements of a true story to provide a fun, satisfying ride for audiences. With each member of Queen captured with amusing detail, Rami Malek does a remarkable job at making Mercury the driving force here, from an immigrant baggage handler at Heathrow to a full-on rock god in the final Live-Aid re-enactment. With wall-to-wall Queen songs, plenty of sentiment towards Mercury, a few in jokes via Mike Meyers and lots of  contemporary costuming misfires, there’s always something to enjoy here; critics may have scoffed, but audiences rightly made the most of this vivid, ludicrous biopic.