Talking Pictures: meet War Dog Jonah Hill

JonahHillWarDogspic

 

With just one more week of the holidays to go, this week’s new releases on Talking Pictures are definitely for the grown-ups.  Action comedy War Dogs is in the spotlight, with one of its stars, Jonah Hill, in The Big Interview hot seat.  And there’s Julieta, the latest from Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, with the man himself talking about the film.

There’s a solitary family film among the DVDs, but it’s the Film Of The Week!  Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book.  Plus there’s Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead and the re-release of Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday.  The British box office has a new number one and there’s a look at the movie news headlines.

All that is packed into just twenty minutes.  Your essential guide to the movies is on iTunes, TuneIn and right here:

 

Review: Julieta

Julietapic2

All change ……

 

Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Certificate 15

Starring Adriana Ugarte, Emma Suarez, Daniel Grao, Rossy de Palma

Released on 26th August 2016

 

Folds of red fabric fill the screen.  As the camera lingers, we can see there’s a heart beating underneath and, as it pans out, the fabric becomes a loose dress.  It belongs to the Julieta (Emma Suarez) of the title, gently wrapping a small piece of sculpture in bubble wrap.  She’s preparing to go away.

The words across the scene state this is a film from Almodovar – we all know his Christian name – and for his many fans out there the news is that he’s back on less frivolous territory than in his previous film, I’m So Excited (2013).  Now he’s where he’s most comfortable, in an emotional, multi-layered female-centric movie.

That opening sequence shows the older Julieta on the brink of emigrating, until a chance meeting on the street throws all her plans in the air.  She runs into her daughter’s one-time best friend, an encounter that resurrects an avalanche of memories, from the girl’s birth to her disappearance 12 years ago, prompting Julieta to confront her painful memories and make a last-ditch attempt to find her child.

While that’s the essential storyline, it comes with layer upon layer of emotions and an abundance of themes – so many, in fact, that not all of them have the chance to breathe and be fully explored.  Those that are, however, are enough to make the film sufficiently complex and thoughtful.  Not that Almodovar can resist a coating of melodrama, bringing on the swelling violins in the background in almost Hitchcockian fashion.  That’s not the only time there’s a hint of the master of suspense lurking in the background.  The younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) meets two different men on a train – yes, strangers – one of whom fathers her daughter, Antia (Priscilla Delgado), that same night.  And, as the film is about solving a mystery, the Hitchcock references are less of a stretch than they might initially seem.

A perennial Almodovar theme, motherhood and mother/daughter relationships, is at the centre of the film, in this case one that’s broken down.  The older Julieta narrates the story of her memories and what she describes as Antia’s life, in an effort to discover why the girl left so suddenly.  But what becomes apparent is that it’s Julieta’s own story and she never really knew her daughter.  She only thought she did.  It’s increasingly obvious as the story moves on and it’ll make at least some of the parents in the audience fidget in their seats.

The film’s strength, however, lies in the acting, especially from the two women playing Julieta.  No CGI aging here.  The younger one convincingly matures into her older self, elegant and sophisticated on the outside, torn apart on the inside.  And, while this attempts to deal with heavyweight themes, some humour occasionally creeps in courtesy of Almodovar regular, Rossy de Palma, who plays the over-protective housekeeper working for Xoan (Daniel Grao), the younger Julieta’s lover.  She disapproves of their relationship yet, ironically, adores its result, Antia.

For all its melodrama, there is something missing.  Almodovar’s default setting is flamboyant, colourful and showy – and there was more than enough of that in I’m So Excited.  But that film was essentially froth and this isn’t.  It’s heavier, more solemn, but all the energy that went with his previous films seems to have faded, almost as if he’s empathised too much with his central character.

He’s also gone on record as saying that Julieta should be seen twice and is more enjoyable second time round when the audience knows the story.  While it’s an absorbing and well-acted piece of cinema, for now a repeat viewing is stretching it.

 

Verdict:                     3.5

 

Julieta is released in cinemas on Friday, 26 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 25 August.

 

DVD Review: Only Yesterday

Where she belongs ......

Where she belongs ……

 

Director Isao Takahata

Certificate PG

Starring Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel (voices)

Released on 15th August 2016

 

As Japan’s Studio Ghibli takes a break from making films, and its many fans suffer withdrawl symptoms, they can indulge in an unexpected treat in the form of the re-release of a film from 1991.  Only Yesterday had a 25th anniversary outing in cinemas a couple of months ago, complete with a new, English voice over, and now its arrived on DVD.

It’s graced by the vocal talents of Dev Patel and Daisy Ridley, in her first project since Star Wars:The Force Awakens.  Light years away, you might say.  And in the director’s chair is Isao Takahata, who was behind the exquisite The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, his last film to date and released in 2013 when he was 78.

We’re presented with the story of Taeko (voiced by Ridley), in her mid-20s, unmarried and working for a reputable company in Tokyo. She’s lived her whole life in the city, always yearning to visit the countryside, and takes off to visit some relatives for a holiday.  To use her own words, her fifth grade self comes with her: childhood memories come flooding back, both good and painful.  During her stay, she continues to think about her earlier years and discovers she may, at last, have found the place where she really belongs.

While this film came more than 20 years before Princess Kaguya, the animation gives us more than a few indications of what was to come.  Kaguya’s exceptional beauty was down to the subtlety of an animation that evoked impressionist, watercolour paintings.  Here, it’s mixed with the bolder, more familiar style of Japanese animation, with its stronger colours and black outlines.  That style is saved for the people and the locations away from the countryside, while the rural scenes have that delicate wash of colour, gentle rain drops and beautifully detailed flowers and insects, emphasizing Taeko’s two different lives and the powerful pull of rural life.

The film is essentially a meditation on memory, how it never leaves even if it’s buried in the deepest recesses of the mind, how it comes back when you least expect it and how it continues to affect your life right to the very end.  The multi-layered story shows the younger Taeko’s frustrations with the world around her – she finds essays easy but does badly at maths, is a constant disappointment to her mother and goes through all the usual feelings of disappointment.  Watch her excitement at the prospect of eating fresh pineapple for the first time and the crushing let-down when she tastes it and finds it’s too hard and tasteless.  There’s the crippling shyness that goes with a first crush, the embarrassment of all the boys in the school knowing when she and her friends have started having periods and the devastation when her beloved father smacks her.

All of which and more has helped made Taeko the person she is – independent, solitary, complicated and still trying to figure out who she is.  She even manages to find love in the countryside, young organic farmer Toshio (voice of Dev Patel), who teaches her humans and the land are connected to each other and also helps her understand herself.  The relationship between ourselves and our planet is another of the films messages and, while today’s audiences might find it simplistic, it’s heartfelt and still manages to resonate.

Animation is usually associated with films for the family, if not the children themselves, but this is a rare example of one that’s aimed at adults deals with adult issues.  Its insights into character and memory and its portrait of rural life – at times a touch too chocolate box, but mostly luscious to watch – are a simply wonderful watch.

Only Yesterday is another reminder, as if we need one, that Studio Ghibli’s animation was, and still is, in a class of its own.  While it takes a break, it’s missed.  Hopefully this will help fill that gap.

 

Verdict:         4.5

 

Only Yesterday is out on DVD now and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 25 August.

 

DVD Review: Jane Got A Gun

Getting a gun - or two

Getting a gun – or two

 

Director Gavin O’Connor

Certificate 15

Starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor

Released on 22nd August 2016

 

If I took you through Jane Got A Gun’s chequered history, it would last longer than my review.  Suffice to say, original director Lynne Ramsey quit and was replaced in a day by Gavin O’Connor, the main villain was originally due to be played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Fassbender was lined up to play the gunslinger – but the list of names goes on.  And on.  The only person that stuck with the project was Natalie Portman herself, but maybe that was because she was a producer.

The film was originally shot in 2013 but only arrived in UK cinemas this April, overshadowed by Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead – also out on DVD this week – and the widely distributed Bastille Day.  In other words, it slipped in and out comparatively quietly, leaving the impression of something of a jinx.  Was it worth keeping the faith?

It’s a western – and as a fan of the genre it doesn’t give me any pleasure to say it might not have helped its cause.  That’s just one of its limitations.  Another is the thin story, one that isn’t quite what you expect from the title.  It would be more accurate to call it Jane Got A Gunslinger or Jane Hired A Gun.  The lady of the title (Natalie Portman) looks out of her window one day to see her husband (Noah Emmerich) arrive home badly shot.  He’s been used as target practice by the Bishop brothers, the local outlaws, and now they’re on their way to finish the job.  Jane needs help to protect her home and approaches gunslinger Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton).  But he’s reluctant to take the job.

The film starts with a picture of cosy domesticity, Jane reading a bedtime story to her little girl.  She’s fiercely protective of her: we learn that she lost a previous child, so it makes sense that she puts the child in the care of a friend until all the drama is over.  And that seems to be the end of the whole mother and child storyline – except that it comes back towards the end.  It would be a spoiler to tell you how, but I will say that it’s a touch cheesy and really rather unnecessary.

It’s not the only part of the story that we don’t really need.  There’s frequent flashbacks, which include Jane’s earlier relationship with Frost – a romantic interlude in an early hot air balloon is totally superfluous.  It’s as if the team of scriptwriters – which included Edgerton – felt the story needed padding to fill the mandatory 90 minutes.  And yet the back story of the relationship between the two could easily have been filled in by the interaction between Jane and Frost and probably would have given their relationship, then and now, more depth.

There’s not that much to her relationship either with Frost or with her husband.  For somebody who’s supposed to be a strong woman – this is, undoubtedly, intended to be a feminist western, despite a man being in the director’s chair – she is remarkably dependent on having a man at her side.  First there’s Frost, then when he doesn’t return from the Civil War, she takes up with Hammond and marries him and so it goes on.  She does have strength, but it only comes to the fore when she’s protecting her child, like the proverbial lioness and her cub.

On the plus side, the film it slowly but skilfully narrows down the setting for the action, starting in the wide landscapes of New Mexico and gradually confining it into the small space of the homestead.  With its gloomy lighting – a lot of scenes are set in near darkness – those scenes work well especially on the smaller screen.  The shame is that they don’t provoke the skin-prickling tension the way they should.

The other plus side is the two main actors, even if Portman does look implausibly smooth skinned for a woman living in the ferocity of the Mexican sun and wind.  But she has determination and resilience and credibility. This is actually one of Edgerton’s earlier films – he went on to write, direct and star in The Gift the following year – but he’s solid, gritty and the kind of person you’d want in your corner in a tight spot.  He’s also a glutton for punishment, living a short ride away from his former fiancé and her current husband.  Ewan McGregor as the leader of the outlaws is less convincing, with enormous white teeth – the West wasn’t renowned for its cosmetic dentistry – and a moustache that makes him almost unrecognisable.  It’s a smaller role and one that doesn’t give him much to work with.

For all its troubled history, Jane Got A Gun has ended up being little more than adequate, with a couple of decent performances that are better than the story deserves.  Jane might have got a gun, but her aim wasn’t great.

 

Verdict:         2.5

 

Jane Got A Gun is released on DVD on Monday, 22 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 25 August.

 

Talking Pictures: Andrew Scott on Swallows And Amazons

AndrewScottSaA

 

Talking Pictures gets all nostalgic this week with the arrival in cinemas of Swallows And Amazons.  And one of the film’s stars, Andrew Scott (above), is in The Big Interview hot seat to talk about the movie.

Among the other new releases this week are hard-hitting Belgian drama, Black, and The Childhood Of A Leader, which does what it says on the tin.  Sort of.

On DVD, Helen Mirren is a tough army Colonel in Eye In The Sky, family drama Louder Than Bombs, Mads Mikkelson in Danish black comedy Men & Chicken and British low budget family movie, A Dozen Summers.

Plus there’s the new top five at the British box office and the latest movie news headlines.  Your essential guide to the movies is packed into exactly 20 minutes and it’s on iTunes, TuneIn and right here:

 

 

Review: The Childhood Of A Leader

A future leader?

A future leader?

 

Directed by Brady Corbet

Certificate 12A

Starring Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson

Released on 19th August 2016

 

Now there’s a title that begs a question.  Which leader?  Assuming, of course, that first time director and writer Brady Corbet had a specific one in mind.  I’m not going to give you the answer, although it’s been well publicised that it’s definitely not Hitler.  But what I should also say is that this is a film that requires serious concentration on the part of the audience.  Not that it’s a great effort, because it’s a fascinating piece of cinema which demands your attention, especially when it comes to solving its inherent puzzle.

The setting is the end of World War I, and the focus is the seven year old Prescott (Tom Sweet), who lives in a shabby mansion in the French countryside.  His mother (Berenice Bejo) is German born, cultured and multi-lingual, his American father (Liam Cunningham) works for the government and is heavily involved in peace treaty negotiations.  The boy is a solitary figure with no friends, apart from the elderly maid Mona (Yolande Moreau) who’s the only one to show him any real affection.  As the film progresses, the peace treaty is signed and Prescott’s behaviour, which had been difficult from the outset, becomes progressively more extreme.

It’s almost like watching The Omen set in the early 20th, especially when you look at the boy.  He’s unnervingly knowing for his years, intelligent and stares people straight in the eye without flinching.  And that otherworldliness is made all the stronger by his long hair and his shirt with its massive, ornate collar.  He looks just like the little boy in Millais’ Bubbles painting, but he gets extremely annoyed if anybody mistakes him for a girl.  And they do.  He’s part of the reason for the sense of menace and foreboding that hangs over the film.  Another is the gloomy, candle lit interiors with their smoky light and dark wood.  And then there’s the score from Scott Walker – yes, the Scott Walker.  Discordant, disturbing and loud, it’s an unexpectedly good match for what we’re watching on the screen.

Prescott is a troublesome and troubling child, a forerunner of teenager Kevin, who we were all talking about a few years ago.  And you can see him turning out in a similar way.  He looks like a monster in the making as his behaviour deteriorates, but there’s no definitive reason for it, although the inference is that it’s the distance between him and his parents.  The fact that their marriage is less than happy doesn’t help, because the child must sense it, especially as it’s more than likely that both mother and father are having affairs – she with journalist Charles (Robert Pattinson) and he with his son’s teacher (Stacy Martin).  It’s no wonder he grows close to the doting maid.

But it’s not just about the boy growing up: the film’s political background is just as important.  The final scene of the film reveals that it’s just as much about the rise of fascism, not the purely domestic story it appears to be.  The final moments, which show us red banners hanging from imposing buildings, are chaotic in their camerawork, to the extent that you wish it would stop.  But there’s also a young girl observing it all – she almost looks like she could, or should, be Prescott’s sister, with that same unnerving, worldly wise look on her face, despite her being so young.  And then we see the leader.

The Childhood Of A Leader is a dark, enigmatic film that fascinates and teases but is never less than absorbing.  The acting throughout is strong, with young Tom Sweet holding centre stage with confidence and conviction as the boy.  Chilling and evoking a sense of dread that you’d usually only associate with horror films, this is a film that’s hard to categorise.  If anything, it’s closer to being in a class of its own.

 

Verdict:                     4

 

The Childhood Of A Leader is released on Friday, 19 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 18 August.

 

 

Review: War Dogs

The most unlikely of arms dealers ……

 

Directed by Todd Phillips

Certificate 15

Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper

Released on 26th August 2016

 

The posters are already up, a fortnight before War Dogs opens.  “Based on a true story,” they proclaim, along with “jaw-dropping” as their solitary, and rather generic, quote.  You can take that however you like.  They also make the film look like a riotous comedy with a modern war background.  And that’s over-simplifying things.

It’s a comedy all right, but as cynical as they come, inspired by the real story of two friends in their early 20s.  Efraim (Jonah Hill) fancies himself as something of an entrepreneur, while David (Miles Teller) is just about surviving as a mobile masseur – and now he has a pregnant girlfriend to think about as well.  The two re-kindle their childhood friendship, but this time as business partners in Efraim’s latest venture, selling military supplies to the US government by exploiting its procurement system.  And they’re soon earning seriously big bucks.  Until they link up with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), who is far more experienced at the game …….

Efraim describes what he does as “picking up the crumbs” – trawling the government’s website, ignoring the big contracts that everybody wants to bid for and going for the small ones.  Put together, they represent large amounts of money and the pair are soon raking it in.  The American dream has gone sour again: greed gets the upper hand and the desire to make even more money becomes all-consuming.  Especially for Efraim, who becomes so over-confident that he neglects one small detail in a million dollar deal.  The result is one unhappy supplier who gets his revenge by tugging on the end of their metaphorical piece of knitting and unravelling everything at breakneck speed.

The film is divided up into chapters, each one starting with a forthcoming line of dialogue.  “If I’d wanted you dead, you’d already be dead.”  “This isn’t crumbs, this is the whole f*cking pie!”  You get the picture.  It also has David as a narrator, with the picture freezing while he does the explaining: it certainly helps move the story along and, as he’s the more sympathetic of the pair, he’s a more convincing and credible guide to goings-on.  Although, if Efraim had been narrating, we’d have had a very different proposition.  Something even more cynical – and perhaps meatier.

As it stands, it’s cynical enough, both in its humour, what it shows you about the system in the States and human nature in general.  Everybody is out for what they can get, regardless of the cost – and that isn’t necessarily financial.  The setting is the Afghanistan conflict, although the possibilities of anybody being killed or even injured seem remote – because this is all about the economics of war, trying to make as much money as quickly as possible and exploiting the loopholes in the government system.  Not so much the American dream as the American nightmare.

It paints a crazy picture of the US involvement in Afghanistan and war in general, following in the footsteps of the likes of M*A*S*H and Catch 22. But it doesn’t have the savage bite of either of them, nor does it prick your conscience about the morality of what’s on screen.  Instead, it nibbles at the subject, which certainly makes for an entertaining watch, but also the unavoidable sense that there’s a much meatier film to be made and you’ve just had the side salad.

If the film has a moral, it’s a dubious one: greed and over-confidence mean carelessness and getting caught.  Which is, of course, what happens to the two unlikely arms dealers.  Like I said, it’s cynical – and it’s also highly entertaining.  Jonah Hill’s Efraim is especially good, unpleasant and funny all at the same time.  But if director Todd Phillips was trying to make a 21st century Catch 22, then his ammunition is a touch out of date.

 

Verdict:         3.5

 

War Dogs is released in cinemas on Friday, 26 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 25 August.