Tag Archives: Film Review

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! 

Anna and the Apocalypse – Review

Given that the United Kingdom has produced some of the most enduring popular music of the 20th Century, it is surprising that it hasn’t produced more enduring, original musicals. On the stage, Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborators have crowded out the market for over 40 years, taking inspiration from pre-existing texts, some of which were not written by Brits – The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, Cats after T.S. Eliot’s poems.

The best musicals focus on aspiration, with visionary protagonists singing their dreams, The Greatest Showman, beloved of this website, being the most recent example. In the movies, the last great British screen musicals were Tommy (1975), based on a rock opera by The Who, about a mute, visually and aurally impaired young man (Roger Daltrey) with a talent for pinball, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), directed by an Australian and featuring Americans in the leads. Although as far as musical sequences are concerned, the finale of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) – ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ – was a suitable epitaph. I must confess that I’m not a fan of Pink Floyd: The Wall filmed by Alan Parker – it doesn’t work as a narrative. As for Absolute Beginners – don’t get me started.

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The non-zombie antagonist is Savage (Paul Kaye, whose credits include playing a zombie at the Winchester pub in Shaun of the Dead, an inspiration behind the film). He desperately can’t wait to be King – sorry, Head Master – once the current incumbent has retired, and displays questionable attitudes towards the teenagers performing in the end of term show. Antagonist number two is Anna’s ex, Nick (Ben Wiggins) who cyber-shamed Anna, but wants her to crawl back to him.

In the film, written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry and directed by John McPhail (2015’s Where Do We Go From Here) zombies turn up gradually and are mostly older people. As with Shaun of the Dead, the fun comes from the kids crunching the head with bowling balls and other appropriate props, which only goes so far. Anna’s imperative is to rescue her father and, erm, catch a plane.

In many ways, Anna and the Apocalypse is an anti-musical. Zombie hordes place a real dampener on ambition and there is pathos when characters we care about are bitten. Songs like ‘No such thing as a Hollywood ending’ underline the point. Ultimately, the film turns on a clash between Anna and Savage, whose twisted ambition is aided by circumstance.

Musicals are judged by their songs – their hooks. Sadly, the tunes here don’t linger, the lyrics nonsensical. When one character sings ‘I need a human voice’, you wonder, ‘as opposed to a Google assistant?’ In a sense, the zombie musical has already been done to death in the extended pop video Michael Jackson: Thriller directed by John Landis. The image of the King of Pop dancing with a collection of grave dodgers pretty much shows the limits of the sub-genre.

Nevertheless, the cast are infectiously personable and there’s definitely a market for a film that bunches together genre tropes and takes them on the road. Ultimately, Anna and the Apocalypse is a film that wishes it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show but doesn’t enshrine the pleasures of the musical in a horror movie context. I’m still waiting for the next great British movie musical. Director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, working with Ed Sheeran, Lily James and Kate McKinnon, just might be making one, due out in September 2019.


Anna and the Apocalypse is out 30th November 

 

In general, when the British offer an aspiration, it doesn’t work out too well – partitioning India for example, and, of course, Brexit. That said I’m sure someone will propose a musical biography of Sir James Dyson entitled Vacuum.

In recent years, filmmakers have turned to the so-called jukebox musical, constructing a narrative around pre-existing songs, with the most successful example being Mamma Mia (2008), structured from songs by the, er, Swedish super group, Abba. Lower budget versions have included Sunshine on Leith (2013), featuring songs by the Scottish group the Proclaimers – Meryl Streep was not even a consideration.

This brings us finally to the Scottish original musical, Anna and the Apocalypse, about a group of young people who wake up to find their town taken over by zombies. Structurally, it has two problems: the protagonist’s aspiration – to travel to Australia – isn’t clearly linked to the zombie apocalypse plot. Secondly, at least half the cast – well, more than half – can’t sing. They’re undead and, as such, have trouble auto-tuning.

Experts on musicals will tell you that the songs are supposed to drive the plot or at least sum up an attitude. When Timon and Pumbaa sing ‘Hakuna Matata’ in The Lion King they are making a ‘problem free philosophy’ attractive to young Simba – though I have no idea whether, in the forthcoming live action remake, Seth Rogen, voicing Pumbaa, will follow it by offering young Simba a bag of weed with his trademark snigger. Probably not, it’s a Disney movie.

The songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly certainly start with an objective: Anna (Ella Hunt, Ellie Marsden in TV’s Cold Feet) sings ‘I know I must break away’, which is a classic musical sentiment. Her widower dad (Mark Benton) who works at her school as a janitor wants her to go to university. Anna would rather go to Australia first, financed by her part-time job at a bowling alley. Her best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming) is an enthusiastic cheerleader, but so obviously in love with her that his heart is melting inside his Christmas jumper. Why Anna doesn’t have a girl as her best friend is a bit of a mystery. The only other sympathetic females are lesbian American Steph (Sarah Swire, the film’s choreographer) – key line, ‘Christmas is my least favourite ‘C’ word’ – who has been abandoned by her parents and Lisa (Marli Siu), who is appearing in the school’s Christmas musical and has a film geek, Chris (Christopher Leveaux) for a bestie.

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The non-zombie antagonist is Savage (Paul Kaye, whose credits include playing a zombie at the Winchester pub in Shaun of the Dead, an inspiration behind the film). He desperately can’t wait to be King – sorry, Head Master – once the current incumbent has retired, and displays questionable attitudes towards the teenagers performing in the end of term show. Antagonist number two is Anna’s ex, Nick (Ben Wiggins) who cyber-shamed Anna, but wants her to crawl back to him.

In the film, written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry and directed by John McPhail (2015’s Where Do We Go From Here) zombies turn up gradually and are mostly older people. As with Shaun of the Dead, the fun comes from the kids crunching the head with bowling balls and other appropriate props, which only goes so far. Anna’s imperative is to rescue her father and, erm, catch a plane.

In many ways, Anna and the Apocalypse is an anti-musical. Zombie hordes place a real dampener on ambition and there is pathos when characters we care about are bitten. Songs like ‘No such thing as a Hollywood ending’ underline the point. Ultimately, the film turns on a clash between Anna and Savage, whose twisted ambition is aided by circumstance.

Musicals are judged by their songs – their hooks. Sadly, the tunes here don’t linger, the lyrics nonsensical. When one character sings ‘I need a human voice’, you wonder, ‘as opposed to a Google assistant?’ In a sense, the zombie musical has already been done to death in the extended pop video Michael Jackson: Thriller directed by John Landis. The image of the King of Pop dancing with a collection of grave dodgers pretty much shows the limits of the sub-genre.

Nevertheless, the cast are infectiously personable and there’s definitely a market for a film that bunches together genre tropes and takes them on the road. Ultimately, Anna and the Apocalypse is a film that wishes it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show but doesn’t enshrine the pleasures of the musical in a horror movie context. I’m still waiting for the next great British movie musical. Director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, working with Ed Sheeran, Lily James and Kate McKinnon, just might be making one, due out in September 2019.


Anna and the Apocalypse is out 30th November 

Love, Simon – Review

Same sex love stories in American cinema are traditionally the province of independent films. There have been films that have crossed over, notably 2005’s Brokeback Mountain starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger. Essentially, Hollywood relegates gay characters to the supporting cast, or presents them in a farcical setting, notably in the Robin Williams-Nathan Lane box office hit, The Birdcage (1996).

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Love, Simon
, adapted from Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel, ‘Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker and directed by Greg Berlanti, who began his career on the popular TV series Dawson’s Creek but more recently produced the superhero series’ Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl, is potentially a game changer, a film that normalises homosexuality currently playing in over 2,000 screens across America. It is released by 20th Century Fox, a studio that attempted this once before, with the 1982 film, Making Love, starring Michael Ontkean as Zach, a married Los Angeles doctor who finds himself drawn to gay hedonist Bart (Clash of the Titans’ Harry Hamlin). In that film, as the advertising makes clear, Zach’s wife Claire (Kate Jackson of Charlie’s Angels fame) had to deal with her unexpected ‘problem’, apparently the only way Hollywood could portray homosexuality in America under Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Thankfully, though not fast enough, perceptions have changed. Love, Simon has a story that is relatable to gay and straight audiences alike. It is about a young in-crowd High School student, Simon (Nick Robinson, last seen in Everything, Everything) who finds a soul-mate on line in the mysterious Blue, a young man who writes about his gay identity online, but hasn’t come out to his family yet. Simon, who is exactly in that position, opens up and the two begin a correspondence that stops short of them meeting. Then Simon’s secret is discovered by another student, socially-awkward Martin (Logan Miller), who is nuts about one of Simon’s best friends, Abby (Alexandra Schipp) and blackmails him into engineering a date.

As irritating, dweebish and opportunistic as Martin is, we don’t totally hate him, because he is like every teenager who wants the opportunity to impress the beautiful girl who doesn’t notice him. However, in admitting Martin into his group, Simon is drawn into deception that drives his friendship with Abby, Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) and Leah (Katherine Langford) apart.

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Berlanti directs with a lightness of touch that extends to a sequence that asks ‘why don’t heterosexuals have to go through a declaration of sexuality to their parents?’ This is a cue for an amusing montage. Tony Hale provides comic relief as the smart-phone confiscating teacher, Mr Worth, who knows that social media has its place, but not in his school halls. Essentially, this is another of those High School movies in which adults barely register.

As far as we can tell in the movie, Simon’s role with his friends is as designated driver – he also encourages his younger sister’s dubious cooking. The film has so much plot that it scarcely squeezes in a ‘normal’ conversation, except when Leah opens up about her feelings. Meanwhile Simon assumes the role of detective, quizzing potential Blues, but finds that he can’t keep doing disagreeable things for good reason.

The finale is immensely satisfying. Perhaps the film’s most radical moment is not the gay kiss but that, given the opportunity, Simon doesn’t deliver a single sock to the jaw of the weak-willed individual who compromised his status quo in a way that, say, Holly Gennero (Bonnie Bedelia) deals summary justice to reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) in Die Hard.  Incidental pleasures include a football game embarrassment and a fancy dress party, both of which ensure that apart from its message of tolerance and equivalence, Love, Simon delivers the pleasures of the High School movie.


Love, Simon is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now! 

 

The Escape – Film Review

Over the course of two decades of film and television work, writer-director Dominic Savage has perfected a form of improvised cinema. It begins with an idea in which the actors work with the director in exploring the options. Savage’s collaboration with Gemma Arterton, who has three careers in Hollywood (Clash of the Titans, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters), Britain (Quantum of Solace, Made in Dagenham, Their Finest) and France (Gemma Bovery, Orpheline, The History of Love), has yielded a three-quarter gem, The Escape. Arterton excels as a young mother, Tara, whose life at home with her breadwinner husband, Mark (Dominic Cooper) stifles her.

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Savage really makes you feel how Tara is trapped in the routine of her life: sex on demand, feeding the two children, doing the school and nursery runs and being there for her man. She is under-nourished: culturally, socially and emotionally. On a trip to London, she picks up an art book and becomes obsessed with a tapestry and yearns to take an art class. Mark can’t take it in because their life is it. He has a good job, they have a nice house – sorted. Tara’s ache drives her to the escape of the title.

The Escape feels like two movies and Arterton gives two performances. The first is utterly sympathetic, the second a bit of a cliché. During ‘the escape’, Tara becomes a different person and has a form of adventure, though I can tell you that having recently wandered the streets all night in the city where the last quarter of the film is set, you don’t get befriended by a rich person who takes you home because they see your sadness – not unless it’s transactional. You usually get asked for a cigarette.

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The final quarter of The Escape is forgivable because the rest of the film is so good. The scene at a barbecue, or getting the children to eat, or seeing toys everywhere – parents can relate. At one point Tara screams at her young child for touching her art book and although her anger is disproportionate, we see and understand its roots.

Like any good director, Savage does not try to solve the social problem that he depicts. He – and Arterton – are honest about it. Tara doesn’t have friendships that sustain her, people to whom she can turn, though Savage might have included a scene or two to explain this. Savage understands that people whose lives turn into obligations need a release valve to appreciate who they are and to find a form of fulfillment, but it should not be at a cost.


The Escape is out 3rd August! 

Loveless – Review

How can a mother stop loving her child? Let’s imagine. The child is born, a miracle: fingers, toes, senses – all. Green poop? Let’s forget about the first excretion. The babe takes milk – ouch, steady. The crying, the nappy changes, the feeding – can someone please help? The father dotes but has to go to work. The child’s grandmother is severe in disapproval. She never liked the father. Her only daughter could have married better. The mother recovers her shapeliness – still beautiful. But the crying, the potty training, feeding, walking – where has baby got to? Then the crying again – an accident. Mother searches for a towel to stem the bleeding. She takes the best one – ruined. She has been brought to this. Suddenly the father is interested. Lifting him up, carrying him on his shoulders. ‘He never shows such affection with me,’ she thinks. Adult talk: no promotion. The mother wants to live better; she’s fed up of this apartment. The father’s pained face: he’s trying. The child breaks a plate. It’s an accident. The mother counts the crockery, a wedding gift depleted by ignorance. The boy goes to school. Mother looks at herself in the mirror – still beautiful. She attracts attention, warmth. Her child is an embarrassment. She wants to be seen for herself. She takes a lover who showers her with compliments, real food and company. There is a world outside her home and she can taste it. She married too soon, she did everything too soon. The child is a reminder. The father discovers her infidelity and leaves. He seeks solace with another woman in another cramped apartment. Before long he is expecting another baby. Why can’t he take the boy? ‘A boy deserves to be with his mother.’ Impasse: the mother hates the father. She looks at the boy, the reminder of the life she doesn’t want. The boy understands everything. Away from the other boys at school, relieved of the pretence of bravado, he starts to cry.

This, with some embellishment, is the starting point of Loveless (Нелюбовь) a film co-written and directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena, Leviathan) who is Russia’s most internationally acclaimed chronicler of contemporary urban woe. The film is set before the Russian intervention in Ukraine, before the mother nation shows its scrupulous concern for the peoples of Donbas, who, owing to the inconvenience of geography, experience the neglect of care that only a military intervention can provide.

Alexey (Matvey Novikov) is a twelve year old boy who wants a home, not a room, not a mother cursing him, ordering him, full of indignation and barely suppressed regret. His mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) has lost of the softness of discourse with the two men who share her patronymic. But at least the apartment will be sold and her connection with the boy’s father, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) will be severed. Only one day the boy disappears and the warring couple are reunited in anxiety and recrimination, searching with as much feeling as they can muster for the missing child.

Zvyagintsev has little sympathy for Zhenya, except when we meet the aforementioned maternal grandmother in the hope that young Alexey is somehow with her. Her bitterness, accompanied by a barking dog – a metaphor for inchoate discontent – speaks volumes. Boris has to act the happily married man for the sake of getting on in his company; divorced men don’t fit in. Society in modern Russia denies the possibility of personal disappointment, emerging alienation, bad choices fuelled by flickers of desire. Every attempt to find the boy is punctuated by argument – at one point, on a quiet country road, Boris orders Zhenya out of the car. Only the volunteer services can help in the search, though there is something perfunctory about their stop-start efforts – they are not conducted out of care.

Like many women in the film, Zhenya’s eyes are locked on her mobile phone. Instead of some issues being more important than others, each post on her twitter feed somehow merits more attention than her own flesh and blood. Zvyagintsev discounts any motion that Zhenya is suffering from mental illness – bipolarity and the like. Instead, he attacks attention-sucking social media, observing that narcissism and not empathy has won.

With characters that are hard to like, it is surprising to discover that sex scenes involving Zhenya and her wealthy lover offer some erotic pleasure. It is the one time that the (male, heterosexual) viewer feels something. Then with a start it occurs to you: you experience most pleasure watching others having sex only when you don’t care about them. The film doesn’t make us experience guilt about feeling little for the characters. Rather it actually compensates for our lack of empathy by giving us another pleasure. In this sense, Loveless is not a condemnation of a world without warm or investment in others, warts and all; instead, it shows us how it is possible to live without love through other sensory gratifications.

There is a coda, a few years on, in which the military intervention in Ukraine is observed by desensitised characters. We are invited to reflect upon our own distance from the sufferings of others, to consider whether it is enough to be a consumer taking what is available to us or whether we should make choices that could affect – for the better – the world in the future. I suspect that Zvyagintsev, in his sincere appeal for compassion, is preaching to the compassionate and that if he really wants to shake the unfeeling out of their torpor, he ought to give them something to worry about.


Loveless is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!