All posts by Pat Mulcahy

Film Reviewer from back when they had magazines. See also

The Last Tree – Sundance Film Festival London Review

Writer-director Shola Amoo’s debut feature, A Moving Image, about the gentrification of Brixton, a neighbourhood of South West London predominantly occupied by Afro-Caribbean residents from the 1940s to the early 2010s, was a didactic and at times tedious work that straddled drama and documentary. It does not prepare you for his exceptional second feature, The Last Tree, in which Amoo redefines what we think of as a British film.

It tells the story of Femi (played as an eleven year old by Tai Golding and as a late teenager by Sam Adewunmi) who is reclaimed by his Nigerian birth mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) and taken from rural Lincolnshire to inner city London. In his new home, where love isn’t demonstrated and his mother leaves him alone, Femi is expected to sweep the floor, keep his room tidy, feed himself and not watch television. In his new classroom, he is mocked for his name. Cut to several years later and he is sure of himself but drawn into unspecified criminal behaviour, which coincides with his disinterest with his exams. He is given a mobile phone by a criminal with the promise of an upgrade.

You might expect the story to be told in a social-realist way or else with an agenda. Not so. The stylised opening, set against golden wheat fields has Femi indulge in horseplay with white kids in an unproblematic manner. Each boy yells in sequence at the others whilst in a circle, the camera panning around them. In a second sequence, Femi breaks away from the group and yells alone. This prefigures the rupture to come.

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His middle-aged foster mother (Denise Black) doesn’t want to give him up. Femi does not want to leave. He is compelled to do so. The car journey to London in which the landscape changes from rural to urban, always out of focus, takes longer than you might ordinarily expect. Amoo does not obey the conventions of economical storytelling. He wants to give sequences a weight, as well as their own momentum. It is as if he wants you to forget about expectation, to break cinema’s shorthand of cause and effect and with it our understanding of Femi’s psyche, so that there is no clear cut way he will react. His destiny isn’t written by the things that happen to him.

The adjustment in the storytelling has the effect of challenging stereotypes. There are two sequences that exemplify this superbly.

First is a scene in which Femi is beaten up in the street and he lies off the curb in the road for the longest time, getting up slowly. In another movie, this would be the catalyst for a revenge attack, but the way Femi gets to his feet is considered. It is hard; Femi’s sense of hurt is conveyed. Yet the sequence stresses his endurance; he has taken the worst someone has thrown at him.

In a later sequence, in Lagos, Femi is in a front room and waits. In front of him is an ornamental elephant tusk. Behind him is a tall, ornate staircase. A maid asks him if he wants a drink. He refuses. She asks the question several different ways, but neither receives the acknowledgement nor gratification of receiving a request, as if he had rendered her purposeless. Femi then sits alone, waiting for the longest time before his mother reappears. Then he has cause to go into another room. Amoo makes the delay the point; what happens next is an anti-climax – one he has prepared us for.

With the un-naturalistic lighting and out-of-focus backgrounds (cinematography: Stil Williams) Amoo creates an atmosphere that is slightly dreamy. We are not entirely sure when the film is set – the mobile phone suggests the last decade. Femi is at odds with both his mother and his teacher (Nicholas Pinnock) but becomes protective of a girl in class who is mocked for her blue braids and called either ‘Blix’ (slang for a gun) or ‘blick’ (slang for smoking pot) – I’m not sure of the meaning; I may need that 2008 video by Dizzee Rascal to help me. Amoo isn’t interested is establishing a relationship between them, rather to show Femi’s changing state of mind.

The film does not pit two cultures – Nigerian and British – against one another. Femi questions his foster mother’s motives and receives an explanation that he sort of accepts. He isn’t defined by ‘street music’ either. Femi finds that he likes the synthesized sound of New Order, perhaps because he is culturally synthesized himself.

The Last Tree is a vividly alive film that pulls you away from a ‘reading’. It is not a film that anchors itself to a value system. Femi is no more defined by his Nigerian heritage than by his English upbringing. The film makes a really compelling case for making us rethink identity and for appreciating people in the here and now, not as individuals severed from an authentic, defining culture but as adaptable people who can, as Amoo does in a compelling manner, create something new. It also makes The Last Tree one of the most important British films of the year.

The Last Tree screens at PictureHouse Central, Piccadilly, Central London, on 1 and 2 June and is on general release in September 2019.

Road to the Oscars: Free Solo – Review

Destined for Oscar glory in the eyes of this reviewer, especially since Three Identical Strangers didn’t make the shortlist, the documentary Free Solo follows climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to climb the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope. Husband and wife directing team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi make us care about the obsessively single-minded Alex as he challenges himself to scale 3,200 feet of sheer rock face with no safety net and a significant risk of death.

From that description, you might think that Alex is some rich kid with an expensive but dangerous hobby. When we first meet him, he is living in a van. He has climbed many rock faces before but has never attempted ‘El Cap’. No other free-solo climber has successfully ascended it, with its seemingly insurmountable features such as the ‘Boulder Problem’.

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With many successful climbs behind him, as well as an autobiography, ‘Alone on the Wall’ the thirty-one year old Alex has a degree of celebrity. A high school student asks him how much money he has. ‘As much as a dentist,’ he replies. He donates a third of his earnings to a charitable foundation improving lives in Africa and considers himself lucky to turn his hobby into a living.

However, he has also been shaped by his father Charles, who ‘never hugged him’ and may have had Asperger’s. Alex describes himself as a ‘real dork’ at high school, earning straight As. However, he dropped out of the University of California in his second term, drawn heavily to the outdoors.

Does Alex share his father’s condition? He is honest – or unguarded – enough to say that he would never put the love of a woman before his hobby. Yet as he prepares for the El Cap climb, he has a girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who met him at a book signing and thought he was cute. ‘I didn’t hear the word ‘love’ in my household,’ Alex explains. He’s being pedantic: his mother spoke French (she was a teacher) and uttered ‘Je t’aime’. He learns hugging – he wasn’t hugged growing up – and now he’s a big fan.

In the most revealing section of the film, we see him have a CT scan. Alex’s amygdala, not to be confused with Natalie Portman’s character in The Phantom Menace, doesn’t register fear the way most brains do; the amygdala processes emotions. He doesn’t fear death when climbing; rather he is motivated to achieving peak physical condition to negotiate precarious hand and foot-holds.

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Sanni was indirectly responsible for one of Alex’s few injuries – she let go of the rope. However, they didn’t break up and still climb together. However, during his preparation, Alex undergoes another fall.

In many ways, Free Solo is a generic sports story, with the requisite setbacks. There is also the alternative. Sanni attempts to give Alex a normal life – they buy a house together in Las Vegas. He finds a coffee machine puzzling and eats his meals with a spatula used for cooking.

The climbing sequence is genuinely thrilling: heart-stopping, suspenseful and gruelling to watch. We hear the debate about whether filming would distract Alex or threaten his safety if there was an accident with the drone. During the ascent, the cameraman on the ground can scarcely bear to look at the monitor.

How you feel about Alex’s climb may to some extent be determined about how you feel about rock climbing in general. I felt for the people Alex left behind as he continued alone. I didn’t marvel at his prowess – I just wanted him to live. I don’t think Free Solo will popularise climbing without ropes. But it does show how people with Asperger’s – or the son of a man with Asperger’s – have different abilities. Spiderman doesn’t need the bite of a radioactive spider to climb walls – just a differently functioning amygdala and an appetite for a challenge.

Free Solo is nominated for Best Documentary Feature. The Oscars will air on ABC on Sunday 24 February 2019 (01:30am, Monday 25 February, Sky Cinema in the UK)

Second Act – Review

It is some time since Jennifer Lopez headlined a crowd pleasing Hollywood comedy. But you glance at the poster for Second Act and there’s nothing on it that suggests 2019. Indeed, it looks like a film released ten years ago. You might find yourself asking, ‘have I seen this already?’

On the face of it, you have. Back in 1988, Melanie Griffith was sandwiched between Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford in the comedy, Working Girl, about a receptionist, Tess McGill, who steals her boss’ life after the villainous Katharine Parker (Weaver) took Tess’ idea. At its heart is the struggle of a working class girl: can someone without a college education succeed in business? You could ask Diane Hendricks, the co-founder and chairman of ABC Supply, a wholesale supplier of roofing, siding and windows in America with net worth of $6.2 billion.

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In Second Act, Lopez plays Value Shop assistant manager Maya Vargas. She has turned an ailing store around by allowing customers to choose cuts of meat online and providing a space with free coffee where shoppers can talk. Maya knows customer taste. When a promotion comes along (no, not a two-for-one), she is disappointed to be overlooked in favour of a college-educated white guy whose buzz words attract flies. Maya quits in disgust. Then a husband of a friend creates a social media profile for her complete with a degree from Harvard Business School and some Peace Corps volunteering experience and suddenly she has a job interview at a cosmetics company where she is hired as a consultant. Her criticism of the current line of products draws ire from some of the staff, notably the boss’ daughter Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens). The women are placed in opposing teams to come up with the next exciting revenue earner.

The writers Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas give us the set pieces that we expect, notably when Maya’s lack of coxing experience is exposed. Then there is a plot twist that is something out of a telenovella, Lopez having one eye on the Latin audience.

Does it work? Well, in spite of the twist which does at least overcome the problem of some antagonistic female-led comedies – one woman having to supplant another to be successful – much of the film feels tired. There is the guy in the firm who tries to unpick Maya’s past and a dance sequence choreographed by Mandy Moore (La La Land) that is a stand in for a fist fight. Then there a bunch of doves that are released only to collide with traffic, a gag that would not be out of place in director Peter Segal’s 1994 directorial debut, The Naked Gun 33 1/3 – The Final Insult. Personally, I prefer the police light tracking shots during a space dog-fight.

Lopez is an empathetic presence but the comedy heavy lifting is provided by the supporting cast, including Charlyne Yi as an office worker with a fear of heights and a kinky side, Annaleigh Ashton as an unconfident researcher who trips a woman over to better talk cosmetics and, best of all, Leah Remini as the straight-talking best friend, Joan. Remini has an inspired moment when during a conversation in the kitchen with Maya and to show how relaxed and ‘blown-out’ she is undoes her trouser button. Okay, it is not on a par with Marisa Tomei illustrating her body clock in My Cousin Vinny but it takes you by surprise.

The film is backed by STX, which has predominantly Chinese finance behind it, so there is the obligatory scene where, for a business meeting, Maya pretends to speak the language, having words recited to her through an ear piece by a veterinarian.

It’s not just the plot that feels retro. At one point, Maya’s trying-too-hard-to-impress make over causes Joan to remark, ‘oh my God, you look like Mrs Doubtfire’. The film has one eye on the audience who first enjoyed Lopez in Anaconda.

As far as a trip to the multiplex goes, Second Act feels second choice. It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about social media makeovers. Yet, I didn’t hate it. I know that’s faint praise, but there is something enjoyable about Maya’s Value Shop colleagues pretending to be her friends from Harvard. You’ll smile at least once – honest. If I haven’t mentioned Milo Ventimiglia as Maya’s love interest, Trey, it is because he isn’t germane to your enjoyment, though he cheer-leads well.

Second Act is in cinemas from Friday 25 January 2019

The House That Jack Built – Review

Provocateur or irritant? Artist or idiot? Lars Von Trier divides audiences like his adopted ‘Von’ separates his first and last name. He is the writer-director who gave us Dogme 95 and a four hour film entitled Nymphomaniacwhat’s to love? Not much. He doesn’t travel by air but instead lures talent such as Nicole Kidman and Bjork to Scandinavia to participate in his cinema of cruelty. For decades, he was a staple at Cannes, until he expressed sympathy for Nazism at a press conference and suddenly he was not an artist any more. If he has a muse, it’s Charlotte Gainsbourg – for most actresses, once is enough. Given his penchant for ‘child women’ – most notably Emily Watson’s character in Breaking The Waves – I suspect he’d like to work with Sally Hawkins. I have no idea whether he has placed that call.

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Von Trier’s ‘comeback’ film – his first in five years – is an assault on good taste. The House That Jack Built is his serial killer movie. It features four instances of violence against women, as well as violence against children and the threat of violence against an African American. His protagonist Jack is played by a charismatic Matt Dillon, who hangs dog just as much now as when I first saw him forty years ago playing a school bully in My Bodyguard – goodness, how dogs fly. It’s the actor’s best leading role since Drugstore Cowboy in 1989, but then Dillon is not exactly Box Office or Oscar Bait – he’s no BOOB. He smoulders as if permanently posing for a photograph. Von Trier totally understands Dillon’s 1960s style appeal, so much so that he pays homage to Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, Don’t Look Back, with gratuitous use of caption cards.

At Cannes this year where it screened out of competition, the film elicited boos, walkouts, one star reviews and social media reactions that tried not to give it the time of day. Yet for those who can tolerate its questionable, mostly comic attitude to violence and its misogyny – Von Trier is not known for his complex female characters or complex characters full stop – there is something to enjoy. Von Trier can stage artful sequences – Anti-Christ has a stunningly slow-motion tragic opening that eclipses everything after it, including the fox that says, ‘chaos reigns’. Here, he has made his most simplistic film to date; it is practically a cave painting. Yet it is his most memorable film in years – let’s forget about John Hurt calling every woman ‘Betty’ in Melancholia. It also features his starriest cast, in order of demise: Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl and Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough.

At the beginning of the film, we hear Jack conversing with Virge (Bruno Ganz) who, unimpressed, asks him about his life. As it becomes apparent, Virge – Virgil – is escorting Jack to the Underworld and it’s a tricky journey – in the last section, as Jack negotiates a narrow watery crevasse, one scene is filmed with a GoPro. Ganz’s heavily-accented English throws Dillon’s drawl into relief. You can feel the amusement in Von Trier in putting these guys together – forget Midnight Run, this is the real unlikely buddy movie. Jack explains himself by relating five random incidents in his life that illustrate his addiction to serial killing. But there is at the heart of the film a joke. Von Trier plays with the tropes of the serial killer movie, but he isn’t interested in explaining Jack, rather telling us that the serial killer movie can never be redeemed by pretensions to profundity. The ‘pleasure’ of Von Trier’s film is in a tacit identification with Jack in what he rejects, a stranded motorist (Thurman) who calls him a wimp, an older woman (Fallon Hogan) who lets him in on the off-chance he can improve her pension, a mother (Sofie Gråbøl) who is seeking a father for her two boys and a young woman (Keough) who becomes his girlfriend.

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Each set piece is long and drawn out. We continue watching in anticipation of the break in Jack’s temperament. In the ‘2nd incident’, Jack is overcome with obsessive compulsive disorder and keeps returning to the crime scene to clean up; Von Trier puts us in Jack’s head as he imagines, Lady Macbeth-style, that damned spot. If the film has a serious point it is that, in the face of evil, no one can help. There is no force of goodness that saves the day.

Von Trier’s play with Americana extends to Jack hiding out in an abandoned pizzeria – he has a use for the fridge but no taste for the stock of pizzas that he has inherited. Yet he doesn’t downplay the shock value of the violence, replaying the nastiest scenes in jarring flashbacks.

The other joke is that Jack imagines himself as an architect. At the end of the film, he builds his house, one not exactly for human habitation, though there are humans in it.

The humour extends to a play on words – the complaint about a broken Jack in the first sequence and the use of ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ over the end credits. Von Trier wasn’t trying to win the Palme D’Or with this one, but he reflects on his own route to Hell. The film ends with a montage of his work.

Von Trier is no more going to Hell than he is getting on an aircraft. His film is the opposite of an arthouse pleasure. The ‘moral’ finale is a put-on. He is making the point that serial killers, like provocative film directors, are deviants who can’t or shouldn’t be saved. Don’t imagine that’s what he really thinks; Von Trier is entirely disingenuous.

Marvel’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N: Be a Superhero for a Day – and Watch out for those Ants

If you ever wanted to channel your inner superhero, or relish the opportunity to try and lift Thor’s hammer, you’ll want to head to London’s ExCel Centre to Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N, an interactive exhibition of props from the Marvel Cinematic Universe that runs from 29 November 2018 to 31 March 2019.

Fresh from Las Vegas, it offers you the chance to see the effects of gamma radiation (or the Marvel version of it) first hand, get close to the Falcon before his wings pop out and sit on Captain America’s motorcycle – starting key not included.

Your experience begins with a briefing from Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders). You are there to undertake ‘training’ to be an associate member of S.H.I.E.L.D. – a replacement strap as it were – through a series of video-game like experiences. The raison d’être is the opportunity to suit up as Iron Man, or ‘Any Old Iron’ Man in my case and blast at stuff through the palms of your hands. I had no idea what I was doing and let’s face it, neither did Tony Stark.

A laboratory invites you to combine two elements – not comedy and drama, but neon and hydrogen. We’ve smelt it, but at last, I thought, we could see who dealt it. The response after much mechanical gurning is ‘new element created.’

Pass into another room and you’ll see all things Hulk, except perhaps, his charity shop donations. See the human brain during a Hulk transformation. Surprisingly, we don’t find out what happens to his language function – ‘Hulk smash? No, it’s Hulk’s mashed potato.’

All things Captain America greet us in another room, including that bike. There are also props related to Marvel’s second order superheroes – Black Widow, Hawkeye, including the latter’s bow (behind glass, so you can’t play with it). You can even test your own strength by squeezing a handle. I scored 653, a lot better than when it came to shooting at Marvel anonymous villains, Loki not included.

Speaking of, the Thor’s hammer challenge – drinks not included – was a particular highlight. I was reliably informed by the black t-shirted S.T.A.T.I.O.N. staff, not the sort who say, ‘mind the gap between the train and the platform edge’, that someone had managed to lift the heavily magnetised prop and he wasn’t a long-haired Hemsworth brother. However, it was beyond me.

The cleverest effect is a battalion of ants on the floor pointing to Ant Man’s costume as opposed to, say, a slice of day old bread. Disappointingly, we don’t get to see the world through Ant Man’s eyes as he shrinks, but there is always the second edition to perfect this.

The piece-de-resistance is a recreation of the Tesseract, which you can switch on.  You can also get close to Black Panther’s costume.

In the ‘apply-what-you’ve-learned’ finale, visitors enter a room and are given swipe-up mobile phones to take on Ultron. We were but puppets on tiny ring tones. Together we combined to zap James Spader’s annoying villain and received a ‘well done, wait for our call’ speech from Agent Hill, which, let’s face it, you hear at any casting session.

Ultimately, this is good fun, but I missed Spiderman. I could hear my editor saying, ‘get me pictures of Spiderman’. I think brand ownership issues were at play, something no superhero could solve.

The Marvel’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N is open from 29 November 2018 to 31 March 2019 – for further information and tickets, visit


Three Identical Strangers – Review

At the beginning of Tim Wardle’s absorbing roller-coaster ride of a documentary, Three Identical Strangers, middle-aged Robert Shafran sits down in front of a camera to tell us a story. It’s 1981. He has just arrived at college. He is greeted by a whole bunch of people who are happy to see him. ‘Hey, glad you’re back.’ When you turn heads on your first day and elicit such positivity, it’s a dream come true. Only Robert has not earned such good will. He is mistaken for someone else. That someone is Eddy Galland, the biological brother he never knew. A guy at college takes Robert to a pay phone (remember those) and calls up Eddy. They meet – and the story ends up in a newspaper. But then – hey, ho – Robert and Eddy look exactly like another young man, David Kellman. They meet. They have exactly the same posture. Before long, the three young men can finish each other’s sentences. They all were wrestlers. Even though they were raised separately in three different foster homes, how is such synchronicity even possible? Indeed, what are the odds that Robert would go to the same college as Eddy?

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These questions are answered – and then some – by a documentary that explores the aftermath of the discovery. They are led to the Louise Wise adoption agency responsible for placing them in three separate households. Why were the brothers split up? Nominally, they are told, ‘couples would rather adopt one child than three’. But the foster parents were never given a choice. Indeed, one of them says, ‘we wouldn’t have taken them all. No question.’

Wardle tells the triplets story as they experienced it, complete with clips from talk shows, newspaper articles and follow up stories, as well as their cameo in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, a comedy about identity transference that gave Madonna her first lead role and a hit song on the soundtrack (‘Into the Groove’). Indeed, Robert, Eddy and David went into business together, exploiting their fame by opening a New York restaurant called Triplets. .

After visiting the adoption agency and getting insufficient answers, one of the brothers went back inside to collect an umbrella. He discovered a group of people clinking champagne glasses, ‘like they’d dodged a bullet’.  On their behalf, Wardle and his team make some uncomfortable discoveries.

To say anything more about the story would spoil the film’s emotional and intellectual impact. The documentary takes you to the heart of some difficult issues. There are some surprising interviews – the film is as much a triumph of investigation as much as it is of storytelling.

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There is, naturally, another way in which the story could have been told, raising questions about whether documentaries should be about individuals or ideas. Wardle is not the first documentary filmmaker who tried to tell the triplets story. There is at least one television documentary that was completed but suppressed.

Since it opened in the United States on 29 June, Three Identical Strangers has grossed more than $12 million, twice as much as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11 /9 though slightly less than RBG, a documentary about Supreme Court Justice and feminist role model Ruth Bader Ginsberg – the other US documentary hit of the summer, grossing $14 million. In America at least, documentaries perform better in movie theatres than so-called Sundance ‘hit’ movies like Blindspotting (US box office at end of theatrical release $4 million). This trend could actually lead to more narrative documentaries being released in cinemas but fewer feature films. Sundance 2019 could indicate whether the trend is here to stay.

Three Identical Strangers is out 30th December!