Juliet, Naked (2018)

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‘Juliet, Naked’ premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival and it couldn’t be more of a Sundance flick; the charming aspects and the unlikely romance are right in the wheelhouse of indie darlings and on the most part, this Jesse Peretz feature works thanks to the effortless matching of its lead actors.

Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) is stuck in a seaside town thanks to boyfriend Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), some of her resentment is due to her job but some boils down to Duncan’s love of a rock star named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), whose music Annie finds intolerable. One day she receives an email from the mysterious musician himself and they begin a 100/1 relationship.

Throughout this darling song of a movie there are a rare couple of comedic moments and though it’s not as outright funny as certain scenes had room to be, what works much better are the dramatic notes that are lyrically added to the appealing narrative. This is a film, almost like a melodic tale of love and regrets, parenting and loneliness and these themes are handled in a great heart-felt manner.

When you have source material from Nick Hornby; novelist of High Fidelity and About a Boy and screenwriter of ‘Brooklyn’ then you know to expect a romantic tale with plenty to say and thematic weight to keep the characters going to their end goals. This adaptation from the 2009 book of the same name works in the sense that you feel a faint smile on your face appear as you watch the relationship of Tucker and Annie grow. The warming sensation of a feel-good film can’t be beaten.

Here is perhaps where I am being critically unfair but the similarly driven ‘Hearts Beat Loud’, also premiering at the same Sundance, managed to capture a great mix of light comedy, fantastic songs, romance and family emotion whereas this more recent release doesn’t quite. There’s something not entirely perfect about this film which I felt the Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons music based movie reached closer to.

Rose Byrne is utterly sensational as Annie; the emotive range is great and she really makes us like her character. She lovingly handles every beat of the journey Annie goes on and the way she performs the disappointments of her life and love for 15 years are really believable. Ethan Hawke as this apparently seminal music star, gives grit and reflective thought to a man clearly unused to the extended family he has and the role as a father he’s meant to live up to. The moments between him and Byrne, whether through email voice-over or in person are touching and yes that word again, charming.

So whilst ‘Juliet, Naked’ might not be as endearing as other rom-coms, there’s a strong character duo to watch and the bittersweet indie aspect of their connection more than make up for the likelihood of its forgettable nature.

6.5/10

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First Reformed (2018)

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The writer behind great and iconic films ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ has, it’s fair to say, had quite a run of middling to poor releases but this recent drama has gained lots of attention and acclaim. It’s a slow-burning watch that sheds light on Paul Schrader’s quality scripting of central figures facing conflict.

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a reverend at the First Reformed church in New York, a building soon facing its 250th anniversary. In the build up to this, Toller begins keeping track of his thoughts in a journal for a year. He also gets asked by church-goer Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to help counsel her husband Michael, who is becoming isolated through his strong views about global warming.

In contrast to what a lot of people seem to be saying, I found the first 90 minutes or so of the film to be the strongest. The final 20 are indeed out there moments and give the movie a bold spiritual identity, but I liked the gentile almost unnerving pace of watching the reverend’s character being set up and then dismantled as his paths and beliefs cross with Michael.

This conflict of belief makes for an engrossing watch and Schrader keeps the majority of scenes in a static, square aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This screening gives the film a vaguely claustrophobic feel, his decision to have little-to-no non-diegetic sound also adds a theatricality to the movie, as if they’re playing out these unexpected turn of events on n intimate stage. It’s only as the final minutes arrive that the camera becomes more animated, circling around characters and moving more than it had been, this works with the dramatic interpretative ending and makes the choices of Toller that much more elevated.

‘First Reformed’ does have transcendent moments which have us literally floating through the beauty of Mother Earth and the consequent destruction it bears, thanks to the actions of the human race but it’s this moment that the weighty climate change theme becomes too on the nose. However a scene between Toller and Michael discussing the horrors of pollution, deforestation etc is brilliant; it’s fuelled with bitterness from Michael and struggle from Toller as he worries for the future and questions his faith.

Amanda Seyfried excels in a turn as a grief-stricken wife bearing a child. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she’s called Mary, as Seyfried plays a comforting welcome presence to the toils of Toller’s journey. Their pairing certainly takes unpredictable turns but she and Hawke act the binding of their souls well enough to almost forgive how annoyingly the film took me out of the story by the end. Ethan Hawke is quite hypnotising as this pastor facing near Travis Bickle levels of anguish. He never over eggs the performance, ensuring the subtlety of Toller gives him that shaky edge of instability and his problems become a believable oil slick on his life.

If you don’t like slow films…or like Trump, you don’t believe that climate change is a thing then this emphatically underlined story of faith, loss and a parable for the modern era with politics and global warming, is not for you. Aside from a hugely disappointing ending, this is a film that’s thought provoking and will stick with me.

7/10

A Monster Calls (2017)

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Thematically powerful with a strong emotional message, this is not a typical fantasy film. It’s better than that, cleverly balancing a talking tree with stunning animation sequences whilst retaining the necessary coming of age narrative.

Artistic Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) tries coping with his terminally ill mum Lizzie (Felicity Jones), being beaten up at school and now a huge yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) is arriving at specific times to deliver three stories to him. These tales may eventually help Conor in revealing his own truth and understanding more.

Patrick Ness’ novel written from an idea by Siobhan Dowd who died of cancer before completing the book, is a fabulously rich story with a central tug of grief that is handled very well. Ness who also wrote this screenplay ensures the interpretation of the Monster’s stories are clear enough to transfer to Conor’s real life. It’s just a really smartly told plot that keeps you interested and attached.

The water colour animations that arrive with each story are creative, bold and quite dark too. This weaving of human complexity within these sequences are engaging and lifts the film even higher. The CGI and mo-cap of the tree monster is great also, thin branches or wisps of wood curling round items add to the fantastical element, he’s an interesting coach for Conor, looking brutish and menacing but having a kind heart within his trunk.

I’ll openly admit that I found the movie emotional, it never reached that overly sentimental try-hard point. Yes it does go towards that area but the way director and writer handle the subject matter keeps it from being soppy drivel. I will also go further to say that I cried from watching this movie, the film is very affecting because you get wrapped up in the vivid world and it’s certainly a more adult feature than you’d think.

Felicity Jones is gripping during the movie, her condition gets bleak and she becomes a paler gaunter figure but still keeps hold of a hopeful glint in her eye, making her a likeable and strong mother figure. Sigourney Weaver like the witch in the first tale is a see-saw of characteristics but one, ultimately that you know will be good. Liam Neeson’s work playing the booming monster is perfectly cast and he adds gravely gravitas to the part. The show is truly Lewis MacDougall’s though as he carries fear, courage, sadness, confusion and anger through the entire picture with spellbinding conviction.

Only the very ending featuring a book felt like a twee moment, aside from that this is a movie to kick off 2017 in fantastic fashion. The emotional vein running through the story is constant, touching and intelligent.

7.5/10

Youth (2016)

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With great beauty comes this comedy/drama about life and most deep aspects surrounding that topic. It’s a very gentle affair with a sort of wavy slow amble at a story but how it looks and how it’s acted does make this Italian English language film a worthwhile and stylish study on the issue of age.

Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is staying at a spa/clinic/hotel resort in the Swiss Alps, it also happens that one of his close friends is too. Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is an ageing writer and director. The pair of them discuss their past, their future and what they’re known for.

Paolo Sorrentino directs this promenade of cinema with such precision like he himself is a maestro to rival Ballinger. The scenes move with a flighty fluidity and practically every moment is full of class detail, be it with the location or the character which means every shot is something special. After his astounding and Oscar winning 2013 movie ‘The Great Beauty’ it’s clear this man is someone to watch as he knows how to make a film look stunning.

It’s like this feature is a lullaby of film-making, the soft touches to each moment being dealt with effortlessly which does help us linger and mull over the thematic questions possibly being raised at those times. The story may not be big or constantly felt but there is a larger presence of life that lingers with true grace and bitter emotion. As one of the youngest audience members of the screening I can still say I enjoyed and grasped the poignancy of the narrative, it’s a touching and affirming plot even if it does meander from time to time.

Sorrentino also writes for the movie, providing undeniable looks at love and loss, life and death and these themes made me feel like I was experiencing something, perhaps not profound as he desired but at the very least it’s entrancing. There’s a neat absurdity to the writing which is seen amongst the ritualistic movings of the Switzerland patients or in the comic dialogue spoken, the discussion about a dining couple stands out as one of these quirkier points.

I can’t complete this review without including my favourite moment, the scene leapt out to me with such sublime spine-tingling creativity and it’s when Keitel’s character looks back at his career and movies with a crowd of female stars presented in the sunshine on a Swiss hill. It looked amazing and provoked a true sense of wonder and regret at this section in his life. The Paloma Faith cameo and monstrous imagined music video is another note to the absurdest quality and how oddly fun this film is.

David Lang rightfully gets a nod for the upcoming Oscars with Simple Song #3, which is amusing considering how Ballinger wishes to be known for something else. Though it’s a moving and beautiful piece of music so it deserves the recognition and it fits in the crescendo of the movie rather well. The music is one of the strongest elements which grows in volume and enhances the scenes with extra grandeur. Sound is also important here, it’s very interesting as we hear cowbells or wrappers become tools for character behaviour and development.

Michael Caine is hypnotic and showcases one of his better dramatic roles. He plays the reserved patient composer at times but bounces against that when necessary with engaging comedic timing. Harvey Keitel is also funny and counters the comedy pairing moments with the growing concern he has about the directions of his films but also his own life. Jane Fonda is wickedly talented as the dolled up ageing screen gem, her strength is when opposite Keitel and knowing what she wants and getting it. Paul Dano is stellar and always impresses me, here is no different as he mostly watches on as studying/preparing screen actor, yet he’s watchable even when silent. Wait for it though as he’s utterly transformative when he inhabits one of the most recognisable looks in the world for his latest role. Rachel Weisz is strong as Caine’s daughter and gives the most physical emotion to the film with her relationship drama.

‘Youth’ may hover wearily on the verges of brilliance but it’s still a heartfelt operatic piece of cinema with spirited performances and thoughtful beauty.

7.5/10

The Danish Girl (2016)

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As if it were a classic painting itself, this dramatic biographical feature looks beautiful. Each and every frame could be viewed like a canvas and with sublime performances within the moving artwork this film does more than enough to showcase talent and emotion.

Copenhagen 1926 sees married painters Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) each dealing with the blossoming of Einar’s interest in female fashion, mannerisms and the truth that he sees himself as a woman but trapped in a male body. She wants to become the full embodiment of Lili meaning becoming the first patient for gender reassignment surgery.

Tom Hooper is a director that can certainly be seen as knowing how to capture beauty and artistic grace in his pictures. ‘Les Mis’ may have been about a filthy and drastic revolution but it still swept with epic classical proportions. This film suits him more I feel as we explore the very current themes of gender awareness and self in a historical and very European setting. Hooper directs this Oscar baited film with an eye for keeping in a charm and warmth about a life-changing decision that could have been overly soppy or cold. There’s a fluid pace and calmness to the story being told and with Hooper at the helm we can take in every detail of he Wegener’s lives.

Of course, it isn’t all fluid pace and plain sailing as this film struck up plenty of controversy in casting heterosexual and male actor Eddie Redmayne to play a transgender part. People naturally complain about anything and this is ridiculous because having a talented actor like Redmayne is a mainstream choice but it does open doors for the community and also will get people that may never wish to see a film like this to plonk their behinds down at the cinema and appreciate the messages and theme of this movie. Obviously it’d be great to have more female parts, African American roles and transgender actors but in Redmayne’s capable hands this never feels cheap, shocking or forced. It’s a choice that could eventually help open eyes to the larger picture of better options for people of all genders, ages and races.

Lucinda Coxon pieces together a great screenplay from the book by David Ebershoff, both works are fictionalised and you can feel some more cinematic ideas that don’t necessarily feel like they happened but movies do take liberties for big screen purposes and Coxon knows that the key ingredient within this big theme of gender is the relationship between the artists. That for me comes across as the more interesting angle throughout than the much more talked about focus on a man changing to a woman.

The film looks gorgeous, settings and scenes really help the plot come alive, that European atmosphere adds a passionate quality and with Danny Cohen’s cinematography it’d be fair to see the movie up for that particular nomination. I loved the look of the fashion, the paintings and that delicious shot of yellow stoned houses lining a decreasing street stood out at just how much the makers of the film clearly cared about how this movie comes across. On top of that, the music by Alexandre Desplat truly helps the film sound artistic and stunning.

With Tom Hooper’s knack for making scenes last and having a patient touch over the grandeur of his directing, it makes the film feel long, his glossy adoration making it lull at times. The main weakness in a film that could have cut more in a story which we know where it’s heading. The relationship of the painting pair was shown but I wanted more of it because that’s the strongest element. Also by the end it does become mildly sour in being consistently prim and proper in the way it presents everything.

Eddie Redmayne is a blistering performer to watch, he laps up character and more impressive than dialogue delivery is his physicality which he showed off as Stephen Hawking and again here as he brings a delicate power to playing Lili. Alicia Vikander for me is the stronger in the film though, I felt her portrayal of the story was more engaging and interesting as she both struggles and accepts her husband’s changes. Vikander flourishes and astounds with heart and oomph as she plays opposite Eddie. Matthias Schoenaerts is a confident and good enough secondary character in a role that is introduced late but still makes a different in the world we see.

It may be long and less impacting than I expected; the subject matter not being overly transforming, but with two astonishingly captivating performances and a beauty running throughout, this film is a solid watch that deserves praise.

7.5/10

Colour in Films

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Carrying on with my moviebrickroad idea it’s only fitting that as Dorothy arrives in the colourful land of Oz that I look over a few films that use colour in general or as a theme for something else.

Click moviebrickroad to start the movie journey from its roots if you so wish 🙂

The first use of colour for animation was only a couple of years before ‘The Wizard of Oz’ came along and it of course is a Walt Disney picture.

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The first feature film for animated storytelling told with cel-animation; hand drawn storyboards and filled with colour to emphasise the now iconic rosy red lips and cheeks of Snow herself and of course the same deep red for the poisoned apple.

The first of its kind and where would the movie world be now without the kickstarting methods of animation and colouring found in this 1937 all time Disney classic.

A more recent film that uses colour a lot is ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’.

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This is a great film and highly disturbing at times concerning the weird tendencies of Kevin but it works so well in picking a colour and using this as repetitive image to discuss inner thoughts and feelings relating to the characters. This colour is red and obviously it symbolises the twisted blood like nature of Kevin’s evil but there can be warmth and romance to it also and you kind of get that now and then in this film. From jam to tomato soup cans and from paint to blood the red theme connects as a tormenting blot of colour that Tilda Swinton’s character can’t get rid of.

To see and read what else made the list of colour in films click here and scroll on down to the introduction of colour which features after my quick take on natural disasters in movieland.