Little Women 2019 *****

greta-gerwig-little-womenGreta Gerwig is a talented woman in a field where women are rarely listened to or valued, but she’s earned her place at the front rank of Hollywood creatives. Louisa May Alcott’s venerable property is one which Sony have been keen to develop for a while, and with Gerwig as writer/director, the resulting rich slice of period drama is something of a triumph for all concerned. For Gerwig, it proves beyond any doubt that her directorial debut, Lady Bird, was no fluke; for Amy Pascal and Sony, it’s a strong return on their faith in a fresh and radical female director, handling a big-name cast and a lush studio production. And for audiences, it’s a chance to return to a classic, often filmed text, and find something new and exciting through the eyes of a genuine auteur.

The bildungsroman is an ideal target for a 2019 do-over; today’s youth chronicle their coming of age in lugubrious detail, so it’s something of a breath of fresh air to find Alcott’s character brought to life with such brief but incisive strokes. Gerwig puts Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and her development centre-stage, opening with the author nervously awaiting the opinion of a publisher of her early work. His understanding, that a story about a woman must end with her either married, or dead, is one that Jo wants to question, but she’s also savvy and prepared to negotiate, on art, on commerce, on all terms. The question is, how did she get so smart?

From here, the narrative fractures, as we travel back seven years to see the formative experiences which have inspired Jo’s work, namely her sisters Margaret (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Elizabeth (Eliza Scanlen), and also remain in the present to get acquainted with how things work out for the sisters. There is an eccentric aunt (Meryl Streep, giving it some Maggie Smith in the dowager stakes), and a handsome suitor Laurie (the more-than-personable Timothy Chalamet), while the stern but loving hand of mother Marmee (Laura Dern) is there to steady the ship when the girls’ youthful enthusiasm threatens to put things out of kilter. The way the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time may dissuade those have come just for the classic text and chocolate-box visuals, but it revitalises the narrative in a satisfying way, and makes familiar events more surprising as they play out. As a director, Gerwig plays down the potential for sentiment, while retaining the caustic wit of her script work on Lady Bird and Frances Ha; these Little Women feel like real people, with Ronan’s sparring with Pugh a particular highlight.

Little Women is an unexpected delight, a period film that feels relevant, a woman’s picture that should have a universal appeal. It’s easy to cheer Jo as she rises above her difficulties, and Gerwig is always firmly plugged into her heroine’s psyche. The ending, while clever, is unashamedly romantic; Gerwig’s sumptuous film shows a modern audience that feminism and romance can fit together nicely.

Connect 2019 ****

Still from the film 'Connect' showing at the Glasgow Film Festival 2019

With Joker on track for a billion dollar box-office take, it’s probably fair to say that, love it or hate it, the gamble of creating an origin story for a beloved comic-book character that specifically roots him in mental health issues has royally paid off. What’s frustrating is that the connection between mental health and loner violence is anything but the stigmatising slam-dunk that Joker makes it out to be. That makes the arrival of Connect, a Scottish film from writer/director Marilyn Edmond rather timely in that it tackles issues connected with suicide and depression without being exploitative, and that specific virtue is not the only thing that’s good about it.

Fresh from Dunkirk and Fantastic Beasts, Kevin Guthrie plays Brian, a young man in the coastal town of North Berwick, who is living in the shadow of a recent bereavement. Like many people who suffer depression, Brian has a lot going for him; he has a job, a loving family, a chance at romance with local single-mum Sam (Siobhan Reilly). But Brian is privately fighting a battle to keep the black dog at bay, and finds himself drawn to the cliffs where relief in the form of a quick death might await him. It’s on this borderline that Brian meets Jeff (Stephen McCole), who invites him to work in a local centre for the elderly. It’s a fresh new outlet for Brian, but he’s still carrying unresolved issues from the past, and fresh problems derail his efforts to move forward.

Suicide is a killer for young men, but Edmond’s well-shot feature manages to walk a fragile line between downbeat observation and uplift. Depression may be an unpalatable subject, yet it’s one that needs to be explored, and if a tiny percentage of people that saw Joker were interested in seeing the topic explored sensibly, Connect would be a box-office smash. Guthrie manages to suggest how a calm exterior can mask inner turmoil, while he gets great support from Stephen McCole. Since appearing as the school bully in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, McCole has turned up in everything from Beats to Outlaw King, and he brings a measured gravity to his role as a mentor to Brian.

It’s possible to demur that Brian’s journey is too schematic, that redemptions are too easily won, or that minor characters are too broadly sketched, and yet the film’s final coda artfully re-affirms that recovery is something fragile that can only be tackled one day at a time. Connect is a simple and effective drama that shines a light on a subject that most films avoid or exploit; hopefully it’ll gain a following by offering a fresh take on a universally mis-understood subject that needs tackled today.

Connect starts a UK day and date tour from Oct 25th 2019, details can be found at

http://www.angelfaceproductions.co.uk/

True Romance 1992 *****

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The late Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse, whose work was consistently underrated; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic reviews his film inspired. Most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not. His best film was a flop; 1992’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script, and he did it proud; Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman under dreadlocks and prosthetics). All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd via James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates two vibrant, dynamic worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors with some great dialogue; Scott gets the best out of them as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament. From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows.

Destination Wedding 2018 ****

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In some alternative universe, instead of costumed figures punching each other in pursuit of the financial reward some wordless lowest common denomenator, we’d be looking at a cinema bursting with thrillers, dramas and rom-coms; perhaps in that world, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder would be the Hepburn and Tracy of our day. Alas, Destination Wedding, a smart two hander from writer/director Victor Levin, barely saw the inside of cinemas when it finally trickled out, but streaming may offer some salvation; with big stars giving fun performances, it’s exactly the kind of quality indie that used to pack them in. Reeves play Frank and Ryder plays Lindsay, two malcontents who sit at the back of a Paso Robles wedding exchanging snide comments and gradually striking up an attraction in their misanthropy. Sex follows, and buyers remorse hangs heavy, and it’s clear this isn’t going to run Before Sunrise smooth. But Reeves and Ryder are terrific performers, and they do a great job in bringing two difficult people to life. Rom-coms are rare like like hen’s teeth; this one is sharp and acerbic, and should be treasured.

Emma Peeters 2018 ****

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Difficulty level 10 would be a fair assessment of the suicide comedy; most film-makers struggle to raise laughs, never mind find humour in the most mordant of subjects. Even Billy Wilder’s Buddy Buddy was a misfire. To pull this particular sword from the stone, step forward Nicole Palo, a writer/director who hasn’t made a film in ten years and yet conjures up something of a miracle with Emma Peeters, a Belgian/Canadian co-production filmed in Belleville with French dialogue. That’s not something that should put casual viewers off; Palo’s film has a unique and accessible storyline and engaging characters; as it makes its way onto the festival circuit, it would be a great pick up for distributors or streaming services alike. Emma Peeters (Monia Chokri) is an actress, fed up and a few days short of her 35th birthday. Fearing her career is over, and embarrassed by being constantly recognised for a detergent commercial, Emma decides to kill herself, but strikes up an unusual relationship with Alex (Fabrice Adde) the local funeral-director. He’s happy to help her, as he sees ending your life to be an act of free will, but as their friendship blossoms, it’s clear that Emma’s goal is increasingly in doubt. Despite the dark subject, Emma Peeters is a bright, clever and sharply-observed comedy; a scene in which Emma’s parents misunderstand that Alex is helping her plan a holiday is perfectly handled. And the intervention of a cat named Jim also proves crucial to the feel-good ending; Palo’s film has some of the button-cuteness that audiences loved in Amilie, but it’s harnessed to a very different subject. Chokri and Abbe are great together, he’s got a hangdog Jermaine Clement style that matches her off-kilter energy, and the film has a genuinely romantic streak. Emma Peeters not only deals with suicide, but getting old and feeling lonely; to turn such subjects into an assured comedy is alchemy of the highest order.

Cold War 2018 *****

Paweł Pawlikowski is a man whose name critics love to invoke, even if they have to to cut and paste it. He seems to have given up wrestling with the text of his Vernon God Little adaptation, but that’s no great loss; the Polish director has a style of his own that doesn’t need to be piggy-backed on another property.  The standard-issue information, that Cold War is shot in black and white, and got an 11 minute ovation at Cannes, would make any prospective viewer’s heart sink; it sounds like the kind of three hour ‘Latvian people arguing at a kitchen table’ snorefest that provides good reason to hate art cinema. Cold War tells, in simple, stunningly composed images, the story of a love story between a musician and the singer who auditions for him. They meet and separate in various countries, across borders, through concerts and dances, until fate finds a way to bring them together ‘until the end of the world’. This is cinematic poetry of the highest order, plain yet lush, riddled with subtle yet jaw-dropping compositions. The black and white photography, so often the banal choice of an art director on a perfume commercial, is truly lustrous, and the leads are luminous; the director discovered Emily Blunt amongst others, and Joanna Kulig and Thomasz Kot should return to our screens again again before long.  The late John McCain’s line about not ‘hiding behind walls’ is relevant here; it’s a timely story about how borders, and politics, can bend and shape our most vital relationships. Given that the same director’s previous film, Oscar-winner Ida, felt more worthy than entertaining, Cold War is a huge personal statement by the director and a scintillating film to watch in HD.

Isn’t It Romantic 2019 ***

Netflix’s most popular genre seems to be the kind of rom-com that rarely see the indie of a cinema in 2019. Isn’t It Romantic had the best or worst of both worlds in that it was a cinema release in the US, and was released straight to streaming elsewhere. Either way, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s spry and colourful comedy should find an audience. Dialing back from shrill performances in Pitch Perfect 3, Wilson plays Natalie, a New York girl who gets hit on the head and wakes up to find she’s in an all-singing , all dancing rom-com with Liam Hemsworth and Adam Devine as potential suitors, and all other details, including her gay best friend, as expected. Wilson has lots to do here, showing how Natalie switches from being down-trodden to the incredulous benefactor of a new reality that’s everything she dreamed of. Isn’t it Romantic? Isn’t saying anything new, but it’s a big step up from How To Be Single; Wilson doesn’t have to be the brunt of fat-joke stereotypes anymore, if she ever did, and takes a giant step forward here.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80200642?source=35