The Pass (dir. Ben A. Williams) 2016

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The Pass is a film adaptation of a play that was a big hit when it played at the Royal Court Theatre in 2014. I have to imagine that it comes across better in the intimate surroundings of a small theatre. The premise is good, the timing is right for a movie about a closeted gay footballer, but this is not that movie. Had it been made in the 1970’s or 1980’s it would probably have been ground-breaking and interesting but at this moment we do not need a film about a selfish gay soccer star made bitter by the possibility that he might have missed out on true love.

The film is directed by Ben A. Williams and he sticks rigidly to the three act, three hotel room setting of the play. This increases the impression of it being a filmed version of a theatre play and puts another step between us and the action.

Although there are four characters in this film, two of them are two dimensional ciphers. The lap dancer, Lyndsey,  and the male groupie, Harry, are just there to use and be used. Ade, the player turned plumber, is well acted by Arinze Kene, but this film is ultimately about Jason, who is excellently portrayed by Russell Tovey. He develops into the true antihero, without a single redeeming feature. We watch him go from, a not particularly nice, 17 year old to, a harsh and vitriolic, 28 year old over the course of three acts. That is the real problem with this film, we never really liked him in the first place so we don’t really empathise with him.  He doesn’t care about anybody, he uses his wife, his child, his lap dancer, his fan and ultimately even his mate Ade. He chooses lifestyle over fulfilment, so when he is unfulfilled we aren’t particularly surprised or worried.

I had such high hopes for this film, it had so much going for it, and don’t let me take away from an outstanding performance by Russell Tovey, but so many movies made from the 1930s to the 1990s are full of flawed gay characters whose life is ruined by the fact that they can’t cope with the trauma of being queer, and I had hoped that we had moved on from that.

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Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) 2016

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I enjoyed Arrival, it has a lot of interesting ideas. It took me a little while to adjust, because, having seen the posters of huge alien space ships hovering over major cities,  I went in expecting a Hollywood sci-fi special effects blockbuster. This is more of an indie film given a larger than usual budget. Once I had realised that and changed my expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The story is good, both thought provoking and positive. Normally, I like linear narrative, but on this occasion the oblique storytelling suited the tale and the mood of the movie. The lead character is a little two dimensional, but beautifully acted by Amy Adams. The direction is fantastic, Denis Villeneuve has the confidence to make it very slow and deliberate, unusual in the sci-fi genre. He also had the bravery to open himself to the possibility of ridicule, by showing us the alien ships, showing us the aliens, defining their method of communication. This could have seemed preposterous, but in the end, they seemed believable and, particularly in the case of the writing, even beautiful.

The cinematography is lovely, very clever juxtaposition between the wide open spaces of Montana and the cramped confines of their camp. The soundtrack is exceptional, worthy of listening to even without the accompanying film. Everything about this film is high quality, however, the bang that you get for your buck is much more cerebral than is usual in a Hollywood Sci-fi blockbuster, and you should be aware of that before you decide to go.

Arrival was nominated for 8 Oscars at the 2017 Academy Awards, including best movie, but the only one it won was for achievement in sound editing.  It appears in many best of year lists for 2016, topping some of them.

Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade) 2016

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Toni Erdmann is a serious comedy. It makes you laugh, but it wants you to think.

I believe that there is going to be a Hollywood remake starring Jack Nicholson, in his first role for many years. Had it been any actor, other than Jack Nicholson, I would have thought it doomed to failure, but with him in the title role, it will be interesting to see how it turns out. Who they choose to direct will be important, too.

Maren Ade is a clever director, she throws in many jokes that are not funny, in order to make you laugh out loud at the serious parts, which are absurd and ridiculous.

It’s about a father daughter relationship. They have grown apart and the dad is determined to rectify that, whether or not his daughter has time for it. Sandra Huller as Ines is very good indeed, initially irritated by her father’s attention and his worry about her life/work balance, but gradually coming to see that he might indeed have a point.

Peter Simonischek is also good as Winfried/Toni, who is at his wits end, trying to work out how to win back the lost regard of his only daughter.

This movie is slow to start, but this is purposeful, in order to make you enjoy the gentle build up to the satisfying conclusion.

I have to admit, that I haven’t seen the other films up for the best foreign language Oscar, but I can say, that one of them would need to be exceptional indeed, if it is to beat Toni Erdmann to that Academy Award.

Fences (dir. Denzel Washington) 2016

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Fences is a moving tale of a flawed character, beautifully told. The language and the acting are wonderful. It is no surprise to read that the play won a Pulitzer prize when it was first performed in 1987.

It is set in a poor part of 1950s Pittsburgh and it captures the generational tension of the time perfectly. The world that Troy Maxson grew up in is not the world his kids see and both sets of characters have difficulty realising this. Rose, his wife, spends her time making sure the two cultures don’t clash too badly; I almost felt that this play was mostly about her.

Denzel Washington both directs and plays the lead. His direction is good, he wrings the meaning and nuance out of every word. His acting is great, although, I think if there had been a different director to lead actor, we would not have liked Troy Maxson quite as much. I’m not sure we saw the nastiness, that the kids in the street ran away from, when he went out his front door.

All the actors in this film are great and really own the characters they play. Viola Davis is amazing as Rose Maxson, I can’t believe that this is not counted as a lead role, but I really hope she wins the best supporting actress Oscar.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards) 2016

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I quite like the Star Wars franchise. I see all of them, but there are so many now and they are released in such a weird order that I don’t know whether this was a prequel to the first or the sequel to the third. Whatever it is, it is a very enjoyable stand alone movie.

I watched it in 3D in the I-Max in Waterloo. This is the largest screen in the UK, as they kept telling us, and although that may have enhanced the experience, the special effects are excellent.

Disney have taken over the series, so the aliens have become one level cuter, but this is a war film, so expect battle scenes. It’s not quite The Muppets remake Apocalypse Now, but a few more episodes down the line…. who knows.

I loved the strong female lead, Felicity Jones is great as Jyn. The storyline is simple yet strong, and the whole cast are very engaging. There are some funny moments in the film and the battle scenes had an interesting 1980s retro feel.

It has even been nominated for two Academy Awards, I hope it wins the one for best visual effects, they are very well done.

A very good addition to Star Wars canon.

Fantastic Beasts and where to find them

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Fantastic Beasts and where to find them is a good addition to the line of Harry Potter films.

It has a very strong cast and great special effects. The characters are well written and likeable. It has the added bonus of being a magical historical costume drama – set in 1920s New York City.

I particularly liked the supporting cast of characters. Kowalski and Queenie have a lovely interaction, Colin Farrell is smoothly unpleasant as Graves.

It had lots of wonderfully inventive ideas and many of the fantastic beast are really fantastic. If I were to pick a fault, it would be that some of the set pieces were too big and too monumental because they reminded you of what they were, tableaus to show off their, admittedly very good, special effects. The storyline is quite slight but, because everything else about the film is so satisfying, it hardly matters.

The 3D was the best I have seen, it was clever without being intrusive. It is worth going to see this film in a big movie theatre because of this and in order to get the full impact of those  special effects.

I have to say that I will be looking forward to the next one in this franchise.