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White Lines

Ludicrous fun
It's hard to pull off a comedy-thriller successfully; but 'White Lines', set amongst an Ibiza smart set, does a pretty good job of it. Daniel Mays, here playing a hapless loser, is predictably good, and while the story is innately preposterous and the camera certainly enjoys showing us a glamourised version of the hedonistic life, it's nicely done, with twists and turns alternatively funny and grotesque. This isn't the most serious drama you'll ever see, but it zips along nicely and in places will make you smile.

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty

A force for evil
Rupert Murdoch has been so powerful for so long that this series can tell the story of his later career, starting in the mid-1990s, and barely touch upon his remarkable life before then. This is a good documentary, with access to the right people and critically, a willingness to call a spade a spade. The one thing we don't really get is proof of his supposed business genius, which is taken mostly for granted; we get plenty of proof of his mostly baleful influence on the world. If nothing else his life is a demonstration of what society gets when it leaves everything open for the biggest bastard in the market. Almost the oldest material in this series is Dennis Potter's famous deathbed denunciation, which sadly still seems accurate 25 years later.

Les Ombres Rouges

Agatha Christie in the contemporary riviera
Murder, suicide, accidental death, multiple cases of blackmail and bribery, terminal disease; it all kicks off in French thriller 'A Deadly Union' after the eC ote d'Azur wedding that its title aludes to. Unfortunately, it's fundamentally quite silly, a contemporary version of Agatha Christie where everyone has motive and no-one can be trusted to be telling the truth. Lannick Gautry plays the lead detective, as he did in the recent 'Killer by the Lake'; in both I found him an underwhleming protagonist. At least in that series the underlying plot had less of the feel of bad soap opera.

Réparer les vivants

Nicely observed, but a little self-indulgent in the edit
Katell Quillévéré's film 'Heal the Living' takes a look at the modern miracle of organ transplants; and the grim truth that the best source of donor material is often the otherwise undamaged body of someone unfortunate enough to die of sudden, localised shock. We see the personal stories of the families of the dead, and the potentially revitalised; we also get glimpses of the medical staff. Their situations are nicely realised, with humanity but without melodrama; however, there's a little too much emotional music to tell us that this is a life or death story in case for any reason we have failed to notice. I like it, but Kieslowski would have done it better in an hour.

Nico, 1988

Portrait of the muse as a middle-aged woman
Andy Warhol said that everyone has their fifteen minutes of fame. And he gave Nico, a beautiful young model, her fifteen minutes by pairing her with the Velvet Underground, a rock band in his orbit who were starting their careers. If I recall correctly, the Velvets were unconvinced by their guest singer, but the one album they made together became a cult success. But what do you do when your moment of fame passes? Nico died in relative obscurity before the age of 50, grappling with heroin addiction. As a concept, 'Nico, 1988' might be imagined to be simply unbearably sad. But in fact, there's a lot to enjoy in Susanna Nicchiarelli's film. Her Nico is an addict, sure, with all that that entails, but also a not unaccomplished jazz-rock singer, and a real person trying to extract meaning from her life. It's not easy for her, but neither is this a story of a life not worth living; and her death a sudden and mostly unexpected tragedy the same as anyone else's. Trine Dyrholm is very good in the lead role bringing the character to three-dimensional life. It's an unsentimental movie, but in no senses a cold one.

The Love Witch

Reconfiguring reality
'Love Witch' is an audacious movie. A coven of witches dedicate themselves to giving sexual pleasure to men, in order to ensure true love between the sexes; but it doesn't tend to work out too well for the recipients. The film is visually rich, yet seems to take place alternately in the present day, the 1960s, Victorian England and the Mediaeval period; I'm reminded in some senses of Malcolm Pryce's wonderful noir-detective stories set in Aberystwyth, which take place in a similarly altered reality, imaginatively reconfigured from the real world. Kudos should go to writer-director Anna Bellin for bringing such a world to life on screen; and just as Price stylistically nods to Raymond Chandler, Bellin's movie plays clear homage to Hammer horror movies. Of course, underlying the absurdity is the fact that actual accusations of witchcraft were often associated with charges of (and fear of) "loose" morals in the female sex; and the real world is still very much one in which women are put under enormous social pressure to both express and repress their sexuality. Possibly, 'Love Witch' is a little long; for all its inventiveness, after a while we have the joke. But one has to admire its originality, provocativeness, and visual splendour.

Ex Machina

Humanity is where we find it
Alex Garland's 'Ex Machina' has many tonal and thematic similarities with his later television series 'Devs'. But the plot is less pretentious and more accessible, and there's a well-conceived wicked twist at the end. The subject, sentient AI, has been done many times, but it's treated here with an intelligence and style far exceeding, for example, that was seen in the clunky Channel 4 drama 'Humans'. I liked it; and it's pleasing to see the director, whose breakthrough work was the novel 'The Beach' with it's tale of trouble in backpacker paradise, grwo to take his talents in a new direction.

The Lady in the Van

A tale of begrudged kindness
In spite of his self-proclaimed shyness, Alan Bennett has always been a rather public sort of intellectual; meaning that, unless it's all been a rather sophisticated act, one can say with some certainty that there's an autobigraphical inspiration behind many of his works. Nonetheless, usually he writes fictional stories, whatever their insipiration; but when he wrote 'The Lady in the Van', he addressed his own life more explicitly, including his life explicilty as a writer. In writing the screenplay for this filmed version, he cleverly duplicates himself, appearing simultaneously as writer and character. Although he doesn't look like Bennett, Alex Jennings gets his tone spot on; while Maggie Smith, a longtime Bennett collaborator, is excellent as the old woman who parked her van on his drive and stayed for fifteen years because he couldn't quite bring himself to send her away. It feels if her's should be a hammy role, but Smith's Mrs. Shepherd is both irritating and human because, while certainly vigorous, she doesn't overplay. It's not Bennett's greatest work perhaps; as a true story, there's not exactly much plot, but director Nicholas Hynter (someone else with a long history of productive collaboration with the writer) brings it nicely to the screen.

Welcome to Chechnya

A terrible story, but not much content
Asked about the state sponsored brutality towards gay people, the monstrous president of Chechnya replies "There are no gays here. The gays have made up the stories. Please, take our gays away from us!" It's truly shocking. But nonetheless, this documentary, about the attempts of activists to protect those threatened, could have done with some editing. Their struggle might be heroic; but the film mostly depicts people sitting around in safe houses, not doing much as they wait for a chance of exit. Perhaps to protect their own safety, we hear relatively little of their life stories; we can logically sympathise with their plight, but the film overall is short of both narrative, and of broader political context.

On Chesil Beach

Sad but pointless
Not everyone finds the transition to sexual adulthood easy, particularly as one is supposed to find it natural. It must have been even harder in the 1950s, when sex was something that you weren't supposed to talk about in polite company. And yet, I never quite understood the point of Ian McEwan's novel 'On Chesil Beach'. The fact is, the human race has never had a problem, overall, in reproducing itself, whatever Larkin may have said about sex starting in 1963. And the book, it seemed to me, sets up the past as another country, completely different from the world we know today, instead of showing how (for most people) life went on more or less as it does now, albeit masked by different norms. Dominic Cooke's film, with a screenplay by McEwan himself, is a pretty faithful rendition of the novel, but doesn't manage to escape its nature as a carefully constructed, unfortunate but fundamentally minor story, whose anchoring in a generally frigid past obscures rather than illuminates its more universal aspects. Now, if someone was to film 'The Comfort of Strangers' that is a movie I'd sure like to watch.

Call Me by Your Name

Love and privelege
With a screenplay by James Ivory, Luca Guadagnino's film 'Call me by your Name' is an account of a love affair between two Americans, an academic and another academic's son, while the two are staying together in Italy. Although the two lovers are male, and one is barely above the age of consent, neither of these points is the explicit subject of the movie, which instead concentrates on the physicality of love and the strange behaviours we have to learn and manifest in order to express it. On one had, our characters are enormously fortunate (materially, intellectually and in their own good looks); on the other, the way that love (and lust) wrongfoots yet delights them is expertly portrayed, as is the fact that the knowlege that this is a casual relationship cannot completely pre-empt the pain of breakup. This is not a film about the loveless; but there's an honesty in its portrayal that offsets any jealously you might otherwise feel at its protagonists' privelege.

The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate Del Castillo Story

Fascinating but naive
Journalists sometimes take big risks to get big stories, and even sup with the devil to boot. When Kate del Castillo met murderous drug baron El Chapo, she found herself caught between two country's governments, Chapo's gang, a hostile press and the dubious intentions of her own partner in the expedition (who was also briefly her lover). It sounds like a story made for T.V. even before you factor in that Kate was no journalist, but a soap opera star, and her partner was Hollywood legend Sean Penn. In this series, Kate explains what happened, and justifies her actions. She comes across as more than a little naive and lacking in self-awareness; it's still a bizarre story in which she was arguably more sinned against than sinning. What the documentary lacks is real context; you wouldn't get a sense of quite how many people have died on El Chapo's orders from watching it. It's interesting nonetheless to see the contrast between his gang's outrageous feats (like breaking him out of prison) and the boss's completely mundane physical presence. But a more detached telling of events would have been more informative.


Abuses of power
Sometimes, the values of the past seem incomprehensible to us. 'Philomena' tells the story of the sale for profit of children born out of wedlock by the nuns of the Catholic church. One can note the different values of a different era; one can also note the strangeness of the institution of a convent, and the effect that might have on a human being; one might still not completely understand how such things can come to pass. The film explores the issue through a mostly true story, with Steve Coogan playing mostly straight as ex-BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith who investigated the story (can be really have been so socially inept, however?) and Judie Dench playing somewhat (but not only) for laughs as an Irish woman stripped of her child. Another insight into human cruelty is provided in the background: the Reagan administration's attitude to the A.I.D.S. crisis of the 1980s. Overall, the film is a typically workmanlike effort from Stephen Frears, not especially subtle but with real moments of humour and insight. But it's hard to regret the passing of the age that it depicts.

The Nice Guys

Nice enough
'The Nice Guys' is a comic detective/crime romp, set in the 1970s, reminiscent of Elmore Leonard. It's actually quite funny and inventively plotted, though the comedy is fairly broad-brush and it quickly transitions from low-key to wild, concluding in a lengthy fight scence which although played for laughs could have been taken from a superhero movie in terms of its violence and preposterous complexity. Personally, I prefer my films with a touch more realism, but it's diverting enough.

Murder in the Outback

Lacking in conviction
Sometimes it's not easy to solve a murder. In this series, a much discussed crime from 20 years ago is re-investigated. Viewed from a distance, it's certainly true that a lot of the story told by the prosecution feels vulnerable. But I disliked the series. Endlessly repetitive, it makes hits in every direction, but without commitment to any alternative hypothesis. For example, someone is certain they saw the victim alive after his supposed death; the program presents his assertions, then just moves on, asking us to suggest the convicted man should not have been found guilty, while doing nothing to reassure us he is actually innocent. Meanwhile, it attacks the dead man's girlfriend by repeating the charge of the press at the time that her refusal to cry in public was a sign of her own guilt. It's an indictment of the series that the vileness of a certain sort of journalism is inadvertantly demonstrated far more clearly than Bradley Murdoch's innocence or guilt.


The nightmare of history
Germany, in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, must have felt to many as a nightmare come true; but in Cate Shortland's film, it's literally shot like a horror movie: there may be no vampires or zombies on display, but almost everyone has the quality that they could turn out to be anyone or anything. It's a very effective way to unsettle the viewer, as is the fact that our "hero" is the child of a prominent Nazi. While I liked the uncompromising (hyper-) realism, possibly the movie would have benefitted from a slightly clearer plot. But then nightmares rarely are coherent, however much they discomfit us.

The Square

Art and empathy
Ruben Ostland's 'The Square' is a vicious satire on the Stockholm art world, and on upper middle class society more generally. We see art, designed to spark a debate, but no-one seems to believe in anything; with a uniform absence of empathy, characters speak but do not communicate. The protagonist is not exactly a bad person, but he's not really fit for any worthwhile purpose, although the sometimes surreal events that happen around him might disorient even someone with a better moral compass. The film is consistently clever, even if it's setting up it's own targets; the a capella soundtrack adds nicely to the discomfitting mood.

The Killing

A taste of things to come
Stanley Kubrick's 'The Killing' is the granddaddy of all heist movies, with its tricksy plot (which I still don't understand - why did they need to shoot the horse?) and cynical tone. But it was also formally inventive: the device of showing the same events from different perspectives, rather than in chronological order, means that it anticipates 'Pulp Fiction' as much as it does 'The Sting'. Today, it feels a little cheesey in places, but it's easy to appreciate quite how radical it must have seemed in 1956. The jazzy score is also dated, but fits the movie, giving it an unsettled feel throughout. Kubrick isn't my absolutely favourite director, but his films were consistently interesting; and 'The Killing' demonstrates that he started as he went on.


Very well executed, but needed a final twist
In Anne Fontaine's film 'Adore', a couple of yummy-mummies, who happen to be best friends, each start an affair with the other's teenage son. This may sound salacious, but Fontaine presents the dynamics of the situation in a plausible and sympathetic way, aided by strong performances from Robin Wright (who I'm not normally a fan of) and Naomi Watts. What's less plausible is the economics: there's an idllic quality to what is depicted, in part because everyone seems to live in prime Australian real estate without having to work for a living. More of a problem is the ending, which is somewhat underwhelming; it feels as if the film stops one twist short of where it needed to.

La La Land

More visual than aural
The City of Angels gets a luscious, dream-like rendering in Damian Chazelle's muscial 'La La Land', as does the very idea of the Hollywood dream itself. The aesthetics are lovely, and while no account of the life of a wannabe actress will ever compare to that of 'Mullholldand Dr.', rarely has a movie made better use of southern Californian skies. The film's essential cosiness is epitomised by the fact that an in-film character ridicules the idea that an affection for 1950s jazz makes a contemporary figure a radical artist, but the narrative embraces the thought nonetheless: true radical art discomfits, which 'La La Land' does not. As a cinematic musical, it lacks the immediacy of spectacle that a live performance provides, and it doesn't help that the stars don't exactly have strong voices. In fact, after an opening section dominated by song, there are fewer numbers as the story continues, at relatively little cost: the strength of this film is more visual than aural.

Alone in Berlin

What would you do?
How would you have lived had you had the misfortune to have lived in Nazi Germany? Assuming you hadn't been infected by its toxic culture, what would you have done? To do anything of substance was to risk a death sentence, even if you weren't Jewish (when to do nothing was to face death). Based loosely on a true story, 'Alone in Berlin' tells of a couple who, following what seeems to them to be the senseless death of their son, set out to distribute anti-Nazi messages, written on postcards and left around the city. In spite of being filmed in English, the film is quite effective at conveying the mindset of living when you have made yourself an enemy of the state, commited to your cause while under no illusions as to its futility - one is reminded of Winston Smith's attitude in 1984. The plot is quite limited, but the power of the film comes from its plausible recreation of the pschology of its protagonists, and Brendon Gleeson's understated performance in the lead role.

The Warrior

An underwhelming "eastern"
In Asif Kapadia's The Warrior', the anonymous hero wishes to be a warrior no longer, so he heads out into the Rajastani desert; you might almost call the film an "eastern". The film is beautifully shot but there's little dialogue and if you don't pay close attention it's quite hard to work out what's going on with the plot; a certain mood is conveyed, as is the idea of enlightenment sought and found, but this really isn't a plot driven story. I don't know if it was just too subtle for me or if I'm simply refractile to eastern mysticism (and the mythology of the Hollywood "western"), but I was lost watching this.


Satirizing the myth
1950s America is often mythologised as a period both boring and socially cohesive, before things became interesting and decisive in the following decade. And today, there seems to be a entire sub-genre of films interested less in telling the truth than in playing with the myth. 'Suburbicon' is one such movie, a satire of a view of the world that surely no-one takes at face value anymore. The script is by the Coen brothers, and as such, it's a typical black comedy, quite cleverly worked but without much of a heart. For example, racism is a theme, but the film doesn't really feel very angry about racism, more amused with the direct juxtaposition of the very real racism of the period with the idyllic fantasy of suburban life. There's nothing particularly wrong with George Clooney's direction; but no great sense that the film has anything in particular to say.


The birth of a national myth
The discovery of oil in the North Sea brought sudden and unexpected wealth to a previously rural part of Norway; 'State of Happiness' follows both the history of the birth of the Norwegian oil industry, and the period of societal change. While some of the story feels generic, there were two details I liked. Firstly, the portrait of the canny Norwegian politicians who figured out how to make sure that their country, and not just the multinationals, made money out of oil. As a Briton, I got the idea that the founding of the State Oil company may play an analagous role in contemporary Norwegian mytholgy to the founding of the N.H.S. does in my country's. The other thing I liked is the way that the social transformation allows a number of the younger characters (two of them women) to find and value themselves; this plotline is well telegraphed throughout but still nicely executed. As an aside, although everyone is constantly bewailing the Stavanger weather, the story is filmed in generally much more clement conditions than we see in Scandinavian crime thrillers. And it's much more interesting than many of those.

The Program

Th Outline
The story of Lance Armstrong is both amazing and horrific, but it's unclear what purpose was in Stephen Frears's mind when turning it into a film. The story was, after all, one we all watched live as it was happening; and then saw again, with the missing bits filled in, in numerous documentaties and interviews when he finally came clean. 'The Program' reconstructs all this, but Ben Foster in the lead role struggles with his accent and also fails to fully capture Armstrong's intensity; the plot is pretty much accurate but necessarily schematic. Armstrong is a hard man to like, and the film fails to add much depth to his media self-presentation. Perhaps because of this, it spends quite a lot of time with his former protege Floyd Landis; and one wonders if a film centred on the latter might not in fact have given more freedom to explore the subject and develop characters freer of the bonds of Armstrong's too-well established personal narrative. As it is, Frears has produced a film the Guardian called "efficient"; but less efficient, and less emotionally engaging, than the documentary treatments the subject has been given elsewhere.

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