REVIEW: You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2018)

Arriving on a wave of praise and comparisons to classics, You Were Never Really Here is a dark and yet sometimes beautiful examination of a damaged man’s attempt to overcome childhood trauma. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) tries to find his solace through brutal violence on child traffickers, but this endless cycle of vengeance and death only provides partial relief. When one such job spirals out of control, Joe is forced to find a new way to control his demons or risk losing his life and that of the kidnapped Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov).

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Joe is a professional extractor of kidnapped children, employed by parents to rescue their child but also to wreck bloody carnage on the traffickers. The film opens with Joe, having just completed a job, returning to normal life. He lives with his mother who appears to be suffering from anxiety and dementia, and he acts as both son and carer. His initial calm is slowly replaced with restlessness, then he is tormented by visions of violence against himself as a child and his time in the military. His resurfacing trauma drives him to seek catharsis with another job, which is given to him by local politician Albert Votto (Alex Vannette). Votto claims his daughter, Nina, has been taken to a notorious house where young girls are sold for sex. Joe carries out the job with brutal efficiency, but Nina is taken away again. Joe now finds himself targeted by hired guns and goes into hiding, but soon finds there is no easy escape from his demons or those chasing him.

You Were Never Really Here is written and directed by Lynne Ramsay who has crafted a film which examines grief, memory and abuse. Joe uses extreme violence which he uses to work through the memories of his own abusive childhood. Flashbacks show his father terrorising the family with a hammer, which Joe now uses as his weapon of choice. The hammer is a potent symbol of how violence is passed down through trauma, with the abused constantly looking to replicate their experience in order to find a different path. Joe is shown to regularly asphyxiate himself with plastic bags or towels, a coping mechanism he used as a child to drown out the sound of his mother’s screams. This connects him to those traumatic memories and he appears to live in both the present and the past simultaneously – especially in his acts of violence.

Joaquin Phoenix is magnetic as Joe, bringing a hulking physicality to the role. An intimidating and powerful figure, he manages to recede further and further into his frame the more Joe’s psychological demons grow. It is a hugely impressive performance and Phoenix deserves his award of Best Actor prize at Cannes last year. The other characters are firmly supporting, all cast into Joe’s mammoth shadow. Ekaterina Samsonov is disciplined and still as the damaged Nina – she is rarely shown not sat or being carried, encapsulating her sickening situation as the plaything of men.

While Lynne Ramsey’s film often deal with ideas of grief and memory, notably in her adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), this latest film is also infused with hopefulness at the possibility of redemption. A clip of The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is overheard during an early scene, where Andy Dufresne describes how the Pacific Ocean has no memory – it is easy to imagine Joe would be captivated by this idea in the same way and would travel down to Mexico to wash the past off him. Similarly, there is a beautiful burial scene which takes place out in nature. It is a sequence which transcends the comparisons made between You Were Never Really Here and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which is a true classic but one which has room for little else than depressing nihilism.

You Were Never Really Here is an intense look at the insidious effects of childhood trauma on Joe, who is compelled to take his therapy with the business end of a hammer. But Lynne Ramsay has left plenty of room in the script for hope and Joaquin Phoenix gives a masterful performance as he presents Joe falling fatally low but then reaching out again for redemption. Brutal, yes, but surprisingly touching and cathartic.

REVIEW: Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2018)

Lady Bird is a coming of age story which brilliantly portrays a complex mother-daughter relationship which, while unquestionably built on love and respect, becomes fraught by the typical tensions of teenage years. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, a seventeen year old who has nicknamed herself Lady Bird in a move which infuriates her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf. The film follows Lady Bird as she navigates her final year of high-school, during which she’ll discover acting, cannabis, boys and the cool group – while in the background her mother and newly unemployed father (Tracy Letts) struggle to stay afloat.

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Lady Bird is written and directed by Greta Gerwig who based the central character on her teenage self. Gerwig previously starred in a number of indie comedies this decade which have centred on the lives of middle-class millennials who are struggling for purpose. Rather than being anywhere near as insufferable as they sound, these films have all hung around the awkward-yet-warm presence of Gerwig who in turn managed to inject her humour and humanity into the roles. Frances Ha (2012) was my introduction to her work and, although I was initially sceptical, I was won over by Gerwig’s captivating performance as the titular character.

Gerwig draws on her young life for the plot of Lady Bird, locating the story in her home city of Sacramento which Lady Bird holds in apparent contempt. Add to this category her family home, her rigid Catholic school and often her own skin, and you get a picture of the scale of her teenage angst. Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join the school’s drama group, where both become enamoured with Danny, played by 2017’s break-out star Lucas Hedges. He and Lady Bird grow close but their romance is doomed, after which she meets the hilarious Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, 2018’s break-out star) who is the perfect representation of the moody, teenage boy who fancies himself as the new Jack Kerouac – “I don’t like money. I try to subsist on bartering.” Lady Bird ditches Julie and the acting club to try and infiltrate Kyle’s cool group, but finds she has to lie about herself in order to fit in. Luckily, she soon realises her mistake and salvages her friendship with the kind-hearted Julie.

The overarching plot is Lady Bird’s ambition to apply to an artistic East Coast college, which appears to be far beyond her academic limits and the financial resources of her family. This is a frequent flashpoint between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. Their relationship is the core of the film, providing the key emotional moments which elevate Lady Bird to a great film. Marion is the one who has to deal with the realities of life which Lady Bird doesn’t see or deliberately ignores – like her father’s long battle with depression, her drama teacher’s suicide attempt, or the family’s dire financial situation. In this respect, we can understand Marion’s frustration with Lady Bird compared to her father’s calm sufferance. There is no doubt that Marion loves her daughter, evidenced by her sadness that Lady Bird chooses to spend her last Thanksgiving in Sacramento with Danny. But her worries for Lady Bird cause Marion to react unreasonably and coldly at the film’s climax, leaving both characters deeply upset. The film’s ending is beautiful and offers hope that these two strong-willed characters will reconcile.

Lady Bird is a classic of the coming-of-age genre and will be the benchmark against which future films about female adolescence will be judged. Despite earning five Academy Award nominations in major categories, Lady Bird left this week’s ceremony empty-handed. Although this was probably to be expected, given that comedies rarely do well at the awards and also that the film is female led in every respect, it is a great shame that such a fantastic film didn’t receive any recognition. I suppose it’s up to us to vote with our feet then – go and see Lady Bird!

REVIEW: The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

We’re officially in Oscars territory now. The Shape of Water is a deeply affecting and emotional film which draws its inspiration from Horror film, 1930’s musicals, Cold War spy flicks and the monsters of early Japanese cinema. The monsters of this film, however, are not scaly but are the suited, tie wearing men of the US Government whose cruelty is excused by their authority. But this is also a love story, with several isolated characters searching for a connection in the dark, gloomy city.

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Guillermo del Toro’s first film as Director in four years sees his brand of Gothic Horror brought to a 1950’s America which is full of secrets and loneliness. One such lost soul finds and falls in love with another – a familiar story so far, except that one of these characters is an ancient Lizard-man (Doug Jones) who has been captured and imprisoned in a government lab by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). The other is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute who works as a cleaner in the lab and is drawn to the tortured prisoner. Eliza communicates through sign language with her friendly colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and fantasises about signing in the musicals she watches with her neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins).

The Shape of Water is crammed with arresting visuals and themes which work brilliantly in the chosen setting. The cinematography gives the film a dreamy, underwater quality which heightens a sense of unreality. Although clearly set in the real world, uncomfortable historical moments are muted on the TV or turned over in favour of old, lushly romantic song-and-dance films. The hateful Strickland has a picture-perfect family which could be a cut-out from a 1950’s cereal advertisement, where the only uncleanliness are his slowly rotting fingers which are severed early in the film and reattached. This physical degradation is a classic del Toro trope and reminded me of Captain Vidal’s grotesquely slashed cheek in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

We discover that Elisa is an orphan who was pulled from the river as a baby, which recalls Pan’s Labyrinth’s central character Ophelia and the premise of The Orphanage (2007). Elisa’s connection with water is a potent theme throughout the film and illustrates the connection she feels between herself and the captive Amphibi-manTM. She is shown on several occasions pleasuring herself in the bathtub and the audience is led to wonder whether her attraction to the creature is indicative of something hidden. Indeed, when the Amphibi-man unlocks her underwater ‘potential’ it is a beautiful moment which harks back to a question del Toro often poses his audience at the end of his films – are you a realist or a fantasist? I think he would hope we are the latter.

The film is acted brilliantly with Sally Hawkins showing that she would have been at home in the Silent Cinema-era as the mute Elisa. Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer both excel as Elisa’s accomplices who are both dissatisfied with their circumstances – Giles is an artist without a job and a gay man in an intolerant time, while Zelda is an unappreciated wife, but both find heart and happiness in Elisa. Michael Shannon is Michael Shannon, and his take on Michael Shannon for The Shape of Water is the perfect del Toro villain; the director has a clear abhorrence for fascistic, sadistic men who only care about orders – Strickland’s simple “I deliver” is one of the great lines of cold villainy. As usual though, special credit goes to Michael Stuhlbarg, who must surely be seen as one of this century’s best character actors.

The Shape of Water looks set to scoop a couple of major Oscars and I would say it deserves them. The film has so many wonderful moments – my favourite was Elisa finding the Amphibi-man standing awestruck in a cinema, staring at the screen. Guillermo del Toro is a unique visionary who had me doing the same.

REVIEW: Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

Black Panther, the latest film from the Marvel canon, is a fantastic stand-alone superhero film which belongs in the upper echelons of the genre. Already seen as the epicentre of a new era for the film industry, one where predominantly non-white casts can still be box-office gold in the West, Black Panther delivers on the hype with a well told tale of fathers, sons, war, love, diaspora and humanity.

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Ryan Coogler brings us a unique vision of Wakanda, the fictional, technologically advanced African kingdom of which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the new warrior-king – or Black Panther. Wakanda is a city full of vibrant colour, music and tradition – a way of life which has been hidden to the outside world for hundreds of years thanks to the technological capabilities of its citizens. This development has been accelerated by the city’s huge resources of vibranium, the most powerful substance in the world. It is the theft of some vibranium by Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) with the help of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), which begins the film’s events and leads to a succession crisis in Wakanda.

The African kingdom is like nothing we have seen in the cinema before. Often used as settings for crime ridden cities or other bleak contexts, it’s thrilling to see an African way of life represented in Western cinema which is joyous and harmonious. Chadwick Boseman cuts a considered figure as T’Challa, the young protector of this land and bearer of the burdens of kingship – his conversations with his late father in dream-like visions are beautifully imagined and acted. The city is full of great characters, with Lupita Nyong’o as deep-cover Wakandan spy Nakia who is first introduced saving a group of girls from the clutches of a Boko Haram-esque gang. Ferocious female warriors are a feature of Waknadan life including Danai Gurira as Okeye, who heads the Black Panther’s special bodyguard unit. Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker is magisterial as elder statesman Zuri and Letitia White is great fun as T’Challa’s sister Shuri. The two villains are both magnificient; Andy Serkis gives an odious performance which combines the stereotypical colonialist with Heath Ledger’s Joker while Michael B. Jordan is deeply complex in his role as furious challenger to the throne.

I am not the most qualified judge of Black Panther’s place in the current Marvel cinematic phenomenon, but from what I have seen I would place this film at the top of the pantheon. Admittedly, I haven’t watched the much praised Captain America: Civil War or Thor: Ragnarok, but I would be surprised if either could surpass Black Panther in both experience and significance. Although it is in danger of being overstated, it is true that Black Panther has captured worldwide attention for its African-centric narrative. The film is already celebrated for its predominantly black cast and soundtrack masterminded by one of the great musicians working, Kendrick Lamar. The legacy of the film is still potential but it is hard to think of another film which has inspired drives to fund underprivileged, inner-city children to be taken to the cinema.

The release of Black Panther has created a cultural moment and a hope that film executives will no longer shy away from the perceived risks of telling non-white stories in big-budget films. In tandem with Pixar’s Coco, Black Panther could be looked back on as the beginning of a new Hollywood era. If not, it will have to settle for being one of the best and most thrilling comic-book films ever made.

REVIEW: Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2018)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth film is a hypnotic examination of a man who is brilliant but also petty, petulant and stifling. The man in question is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), a master fashion designer and head of the ancestral House of Woodcock. Phantom Thread is set in a 1950’s London which bears none of the hallmarks of post-war depression – indeed, rationing must have been a thing of the past judging from the Woodcock household’s extravagant breakfasts. Reynolds runs the family tailoring business from the old family home, an operation which is obsessively managed in the house’s narrow, claustrophobic corridors by Reynolds and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville).

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This second collaboration between Anderson and Day Lewis is entirely different to There Will Be Blood (2007). Instead of Daniel Plainview, the monstrous and violent harbinger of capitalist greed, Day Lewis portrays a man for whom life has been easy and indulgent thanks to his delicate genius with a needle. The dresses made by Reynolds and his team of silent, matronly women have the power to captivate the wealthy duchesses and princesses for whom he designs. His creations are about the only spark of life and colour in the aggressively grand London town house in which they are made.

The only things subject to regular change amongst the austere décor are Reynolds’ female companions, whom he passionately loves, then tires of and eventually sends away with only a handmade House of Woodcock dress for comfort. After the latest blow of this kind is dealt on his behalf by Cyril, Reynolds retires to the country for some rest – only to meet Alma (Vicky Krieps) whom Reynolds brings back with him to London. She is in every sense a foreign entity, whose amused puzzlement at Reynolds’ diva-ish ways sets her on a collision course with him, Cyril and just about everyone. The film follows the tumultuous relationship between Alma and Reynolds, which swings violently between dependence and hostility, eventually finding an equilibrium in very unusual style.

Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant in (supposedly) his final role, expertly portraying a creative genius who is devoted to the memory of his mother, keeping a lock of her hair sewn into the lining of his jacket. Reynolds demands total control of his house and of Alma but clearly desires something much simpler and comfortable – to be mothered. Alma’s initial confusion at the House of Woodcock and anarchic streak is the film’s heart, with Vicky Krieps matching her legendary screen partner all the way – especially in a hilariously disastrous surprise-dinner scene. However, the best lines and biggest laughs are given to Cyril who keeps order in the house and attends to her brother’s every selfish insistence.

Phantom Thread is a beautifully constructed film which reminded me tonally of Carol (2015) but failed to illicit a similar emotional response in me. Although, as I have already said, it is a very different film to There Will Be Blood, I found myself longing for just a little of that film’s visceral impact. Paul Thomas Anderson has certainly crafted an arresting viewing experience, but I feel this is a film made to be admired rather than cherished.

REVIEW: Coco (Lee Unkrich, 2018)

If my generation were to be labelled by our most significant cinematic influence then I am confident we would be named the Pixar generation. We would have been the youngest members of Toy Story (1995) audiences and we’d have shed the most tears in Toy Story 3 (2010). A new Pixar film is always a big occasion for someone of my generation and at the outset Coco had the makings of a classic.

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Pixar’s latest film is instantly remarkable as it is set in Mexico and features an all-Latino cast, the biggest-budget film ever to do so. Coco is set across one day, El Dia de los Muertos, where families gather to celebrate the spirits of dead relatives crossing from the afterlife to visit their living descendants. Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) belongs to one such family, a clan of cobblers who forbid music in the house after Miguel’s Great-great Grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband. But Miguel has a talent with a guitar which brings him into conflict with his Abuelita (Renee Victor). After discovering that his Great-great Grandfather might have been a world famous musician, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel crosses to the Land of the Dead to seek answers from his ancestors and reconcile his family with music.

Coco really comes into its own when the action shifts to the Land of the Dead, where the skeletons of the dear departed live in a city similar to the ones they did while alive. We learn that the spirits may cross to the world of the living on El Dia de los Muertos only if their family remembers them – otherwise they will be forgotten and disappear. The design of the City of the Dead is beautiful and full of vibrant colour, especially the mythical alebrije which are spirit animals who serve as guides for the dead. The music we hear in the film is joyous with particular highlights being Miguel’s two hander with the soon-to-be-forgotten Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) at a talent show (‘Un Poco Loco’) and the Oscar nominated ‘Remember Me’, which is sung many times in the film with a guarantee of tears at least once.

The last Pixar film to make a lasting impression on me was 2015’s Inside Out, despite the fact I saw it with Spanish dubbing. The pure originality of this film means that I prefer it to Coco as there were points where I could guess the trajectory of the plot. However, this did not hamper my enjoyment of Coco which rattles along at riveting pace. The plot has a devastating ending which turns a small moment into a heart-breaking, tear-jerking climax, with music playing the most important role.

Coco deals deftly with themes of death, dementia and remembrance which is astonishing considering this is a children’s film. It is typical of Pixar to tackle such issues and still be able to deliver a film which would certainly challenge young children but would by no means be beyond them. And, despite some initial missteps from Disney, it is great to see Mexican culture treated with such respect and reverence by a Western film without at all feeling patronising. An inspiring film with a large and generous heart.

REVIEW: The Post (Steven Spielberg, 2018)

The Post is a film which intrigued me for a few reasons before I went to see it. For one, I was completely ignorant of the story and this period of history in general, something I really should rectify. Another reason was how astonishingly relevant the themes of this film are to the current White House administration and the release of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury earlier this month. And lastly, this is the first film that Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep have acted in together – and in a Steven Spielberg film no less! Given this variety of vested interests, there didn’t seem to be any way that the film could leave me disappointed…

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On the first count, The Post was right on the money. The plot centres on the leak of the fabled Pentagon Papers which revealed decades of policy by the White House regarding US relations with Vietnam. Among other revelations, the papers detail the USA’s corrupt dealings in Vietnam long before the war and then the reluctance of subsequent presidents to end the war in case the decision stained their term in office – allowing many more American soldiers to die. The Post works extremely well in setting the scene for these revelations and viewers with a layman’s knowledge of modern American history (like me) are helped to understand the significance of the papers. This was a truly seismic leak which was far more devastating than the sordid details of celebrity tax havens.

The Pentagon Papers are leaked by a military analyst in order to expose this disgusting hypocrisy – the opening sequence shows Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) join a company of soldiers into the Vietnamese jungle, where they are ambushed and suffer fatalities. Ellsberg is horrified by his superiors’ lies to the media that the war is going well, and leaks his report, the Pentagon Papers, to The New York Times. Here is where the plot begins to dovetail with real life – after the first report on the papers by the Times, Richard Nixon demands that no further stories be reported. This attack on the First Amendment has been mirrored this January by Donald Trump’s attempt to block the publication of Fire and Fury, an insider account of the first year of his presidency. The Post is very aware of this and takes every opportunity to provide a stirring speech about the values of the constitution and the duty of the press to hold the powerful to account. This was all very enjoyable to a liberal snowflake like myself, and I hope to read Trump tweet that The Post is overrated very soon.

Once The New York Times bows to the pressure from the White House, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the scrappy managing editor of The Washington Post, decides that now is the time for the paper to make its name. Meryl Streep plays the paper’s owner, Katharine Graham, who took up the position after her husband’s suicide. While Tom Hanks is good as the belligerent Bradlee who insists that they publish the leaks, The Post belongs to Streep whose character at first struggles to navigate the all-male boardrooms in which her role demands that she be an assertive figure. Katharine overcomes this uneven playing field and takes control of the film’s decisive moment, and it is in this narrative of female empowerment that The Post feels most convincing.

Despite the performances of Streep and Hanks, The Post does not rank among Spielberg’s better films. It runs in the same vein as the recent Bridge of Spies (2015) yet does not feel nearly as polished nor as engaging. The dialogue doesn’t have the natural zip necessary for such a densely detailed film and the rushed nature of production is evident in the complete lack of humour. And, in terms of newspaper films, The Post has nothing on Spotlight (2015).

The Post is definitely worth a watch if you have no memory or knowledge of the subject matter but I believe that it will look a distinctly average film once the current climate in American politics changes. A shame considering the heavy weight Hollywood talent on display. Sad!