Category Archives: Movies

Review of Neruda – a cinematic trip to Chile

Here is my published review of the film Neruda, on TripFiction:

Neruda (a cinematic trip to Chile), in cinemas 7 April 2017 #nerudafilm

If truth be told, I don’t get quite as excited by poetry as I do by a good novel, or by a film. Or by travel, for that matter.

But Pablo Neruda somehow transcends poetry, and a special screening by the BFI of a film by celebrated Chilean director Pablo Larrain about an intriguing episode in Naruda’s life was too good an opportunity to miss. And I have always been interested by Chile since watching Missing, a 1982 film about the coup of 1973, launched almost on the exact same day that Neruda died.

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Why special? An introduction by Adam Feinstein, author of the first English language biography of Neruda, provided perfect context for when and where the film slotted into the complex life of the Nobel prize-winning poet. And animated recitals of several of Neruda’s poems by actors – in Spanish by Jorge de Juan, with English translations performed by Nickolas Grace – offered a glimpse into the prodigious creative output of the poet.

The film covers a 13-month period from 1948-49. At the outset, Neruda is a Communist party senator in the country’s riven government, speaking out loudly against the right-wing President’s increasing oppression of workers and unions. Neruda and his Argentinian wife Delia enjoy a somewhat elitist and sybaritic lifestyle, but that all changes when the poet is forced underground to avoid arrest and potential assassination.

Moving from house to house, thanks to support from Communist party supporters, Neruda’s reputation as The People’s Poet is cemented through his increasingly radical social poems, mocking the government and rallying workers.

But this is far from being a biopic. In fact the director himself calls Neruda an anti-biopic. Larrain intentionally blurs fact with fiction, creating a cat-and-mouse story between the poet and his police pursuer, Oscar Pelucchonneau. Pablo somehow always manages to stay just one verse ahead of Oscar, leaving poems for the hapless policeman to ponder.

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But what is real and what is imagined?

Beautifully filmed, Neruda is an intoxicatingly original concoction of genres….film noir, road movie, thriller, love story, parable. Take your pick.

In a cinematically epic finale, the policeman finally closes in on the poet in the snowy landscape of the Lilpela Pass, high in the Andes, as Neruda has been forced to flee from his home country to Argentina. But who is really the hero?

Luis Gnecco perfectly captures the flawed Neruda. A poetic genius? Definitely. Hero of the people? Probably. Arrogant, debauched and selfish? Maybe.

Gael Garcia Bernal almost steals the film as the nuanced Pelucchonneau, in many ways purer of spirit than his quarry, fedora tilted over his lean, noirish face. If only he were real…..

But there is one certainty: this luscious and thought-provoking film has cemented my desire to travel to Chile. And to read more poetry.

Andrew for the TripFiction Team

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Movie review – The Sense of an Ending

Thanks to my Times+ membership, we’ve just seen a pre-release screening of The Sense of an Ending, based on the Julian Barnes novel of the same name.

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Tony Webster is the divorced, almost reclusive and somewhat curmudgeonly owner of a second-hand Leica camera shop in London. He is in close contact with his ex-wife and heavily pregnant daughter, and yet he is emotionally aloof from them.

He is forced to reconsider his view of family, friends and life though, when he receives a strange legacy. The mother of his old girlfriend Veronica from university days, 40 years ago, has died and has bequeathed him a diary. Unexpectedly, the diary belonged to Tony’s old school friend Adrian, who dated the enigmatic Veronica after she and Tony ended their brief and unconsummated relationship.

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But Veronica refuses to give the diary back to Tony, for some reason, and the film delicately unravels the mystery of why, spanning the generations and uncovering uncomfortable truths for Tony.

This is a very English production, filmed mostly on location in Bristol and London, and featuring a stellar cast delivering beautifully understated acting. In the current timeline, Jim Broadbent is the essentially good Tony Webster; Harriet Walter his slightly acerbic wife Margaret;  Charlotte Rampling the older but still mysterious Veronica; Michelle Dockery is the mature daughter Susie facing motherhood alone.

The lesser known actors playing the main characters in their younger years capture perfectly the period and the zeitgeist of youth.

Out in cinemas on general release on April 14th, I’d urge you to see this slow-burning emotional film, whether you’ve read the book or not.

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Movie review – A United Kingdom

Based on a remarkable true story, A United Kingdom opens in post-war London.

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Young black African Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is coming to the end of his education, and about to be recalled to his home country – Bechuanaland, later Botswana – to rule the British Protectorate as hereditary King of nation and tribe.

But he falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund  Pike), who is from a very humble background and who is most definitely the wrong colour, alienating many in Bechuanaland and in Whitehall.

If the story told in the film is remotely close to the truth, it is yet another episode in British colonial history of which we should be ashamed. Driven by the burgeoning cold war, the new policy of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, and the possibility of finding valuable minerals in Bechaunaland, Seretse is banished by the British government from his own land, initially for 5 years and then for life.

But Ruth has remained in Africa, where she gives birth to a daughter and where she slowly wins round the local people.

The only British politician or diplomat to emerge from this shameful overbearing behaviour is a young Tony Benn, who fights Parliament for the right of Seretse to return. Newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill reneges on an earlier promise to overturn the exile, and Jack Davenport deserves credit for his reptilian portrayal of Sir Alistair Canning, a devious – though fictitious – career diplomat who thrives on wielding colonial power over subjugated nations.

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The film moved me to tears. It is a powerful tale rooted in reality, and told with vivid cinematography, particularly of the African landscapes. But it is related somewhat in stark black and white tones – the evil colonial masters against the wholly good Seretse and his pale skinned wife – when I suspect there were many shades of grey in the truth of history.

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No matter. Good wins out, Seretse returns to his homeland and facilitates a new democratically independent country.

And Ruth is even finally reconciled with her own family.

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Movie review – Moonlight

Did Moonlight really win this year’s Oscar for Best Picture?

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I’m sorry, but I really can’t understand why. I’m glad feel-good La La Land didn’t – despite the almighty cock-up that briefly put that movie’s hands on the gilded trophy – but I thought Manchester by the Sea was a more worthy winner. Or even Lion.

Moonlight tells the story of a young black boy growing up in a rough Miami ‘hood, with a crack-head mother, being bullied at school and slowly realising he’s gay. That’s an awful lot of politically correct boxes duly ticked, especially after the previous year’s Oscar furore at the lack of recognition for Black American and other non-white actors.

The film tracks the hard early life of Chiron in three stages: at school, as “Little”, as teenager Chiron; and – 10 years later, after imprisonment – as fully-fledged drug-dealer “Black”, relocated to Atlanta.

The boy’s mother is well played by Naomie Harris, who finally cleans up her act and asks Chiron for forgiveness.

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The only person who really recognises how Little is suffering in his early life is Juan, brilliantly acted by Mahershala Ali, and ironically the dealer who is supplying Little’s mother.

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The potential for some sort of happiness out of this troubled early life comes in the shape of Kevin, an old school friend of Chiron’s, but who also played a part in him being sent to juvenile prison.

The story is sensitively told, but for me the film was too slow, the language of the street too hard to understand, and – call me superficial – but this was a couple of hours of endurance, rather than entertainment.

 

 

 

Movie review – Lion

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A 5 year-old boy lives in poverty in rural northern India, but is much loved by his hard-working mother and older brother Guddu.

Tragically, he is accidentally displaced to the mean streets of Calcutta, where he survives with other lost children, until swept up into a secure facility. Unspeakable things happen here, but young Saroo is fortunate and is adopted by a caring Australian couple.

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He settles in well – Nicole Kidman as your new Mum can’t be a bad experience, after all – but the family unit is destabilised by another arrival from India. Saroo’s newly adoptive brother Mantosh struggles with demons that he sadly never really overcomes.

Saroo thrives in Tasmania though, and qualifies to study hospitality management at university in Melbourne. He embraces the cosmopolitan environment there, and meets and falls in love with Lucy, sympathetically played by Rooney Mara.

But 25 years after being separated from his real family, Saroo becomes desperate to track them down, with inevitably damaging consequences for his Australian family and friends.

Based on a true story, this is a charming film, if a little mawkish at times. I defy you not to be reaching for the Kleenex when Saroo, played by Dev Patel, finally locates his village and family in India.

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Two things linger in my mind after seeing Lion. The scene where Sue Brierley tells Saroo that she and husband John could always have had children of their own, but wanted to offer a better life to parentless children from a poorer society.  And the caption – as the closing credits roll – that 80,000 children are lost in India every year.

 

 

Movie review – Manchester by the Sea

I like a film that has the confidence to play its hand slowly. Very slowly. One that keeps the audience guessing, rather than ramming its plot down your throat from the opening credits.

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In the opening scenes of Manchester by the Sea we see a shell of a man. He’s a janitor, living in a single room in the basement of a block of flats in a Boston neighbourhood. He shovels snow every day. He does the plumbing. He unblocks toilets. He’s disinterested in the siren calls of two women. He drinks alone. We see a man who is both isolated and angry, going through the motions of an empty life.

It’s only in flashbacks that we come to understand the backdrop of Lee’s separation from life, and when he has to return to the workaday seaside community where he once lived, an hour or so north-east of the city.

Back for his brother’s funeral, Lee is shocked to hear that he has been made the legal guardian of his 16 year-old nephew.

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The unwanted relationship, forced on both Lee and young Patrick, is painful to watch. The confident teenager has a much fuller life than his sad uncle, but it seems that he will be forced to move to Boston with Uncle Lee.

But gradually they come to understand better each other’s difficult situation, and we also grasp the tragic reason why Lee is sleep-walking through life.

The acting is understated in the extreme. Casey Affleck, as Lee, says more with his haunted expressions than a mountain of words could ever portray. His is a performance that fully deserves the Best Actor nod. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is sensational as teenager Patrick. And Michelle Williams, Lee’s ex-wife Randi,  will break your heart all over again.

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Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea is not a feel-good movie, but the quality of the writing and the acting, the beauty of the cinematography and the slowness of the hand-playing make this a cinematic joy.

Movie review – La La Land

For once the hype is justified.

Well, almost….

Winner of a record 7 Golden Globes – in every category for which it received a nomination – La La Land is surely bound for Oscar glory too.

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The movie is written and directed by the enviably talented Damien Chazelle, still only 31 and the creator of Whiplash, another jazz-themed original piece of artistic brilliance from a couple of years ago.

La La Land sets out its musical stall in the dazzling opening set-piece. Gridlocked LA commuters jump out of their cars and onto the freeway tarmac, bursting with colourful, choreographed energy.

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Chazelle has created a musical drama very much for the 21st century. There are too many nods to old-time Hollywood song-and-dance classics to call out, but La La Land is a brilliant and original updating of the genre.

Emma Stone is Mia, a wannabe actress pouring coffee for stars in the Warner Bros film studios between her own unsuccessful auditions .

Ryan Gosling is jazz pianist Sebastian, forced to betray his musical principles to pay the bills.

Mia and Sebastian meet, They fall in love. They break up.

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So far, so very Hollywood. But the freshness comes from Chazelle’s use of music, dance and lush cinematography – and the chemistry between Stone and Gosling – to bring the story to sumptuous, vibrant life.

With a critic’s hat on, the movie feels a little like a game of two halves. The first is musical, the second more conventionally wordy. And I’m not totally convinced by the Sliding Doors-like alternative ending to the love story…..

But these are churlish observations.

Leave your cynicism at the cinema door, open your cold English hearts and embrace the cloudless skies and musical warmth of highly original La La Land.

And start counting those Oscars……

Movie review – I, Daniel Blake

First Odeon Screen Unseen for a while last night. What a great concept. For just £5, it’s a complete surprise what movie you’ll see. Like Forrest Gump’s words of wisdom from his Mum – life is like a box of chocolates…..you never know what you’re gonna get. 

Well, we got I, Daniel Blake, this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, from film-making legend Ken Loach.

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Dave Johns is Daniel Blake, an ageing carpenter who is signed off work with a heart problem.

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This proud, honest working class man loses his dignity and just about everything else as he struggles to penetrate the opaque benefits system. On one of his futile visits to the Job Centre, he tries to help single mother Katie – played by Hayley Squires – and her two young children, relocated from London to Newcastle and also being stonewalled by the rules-bound staff.

The film is relentlessly bleak in its assessment of the welfare state bureaucracy, but through the despair an unlikely friendship is formed and at least some human decency is glimpsed.

Ken Loach is renowned for his political views…somewhere left of Trotsky. But there’s no denying that he makes films that shatter you emotionally and which resonate with powerful issues of the day.

I remember being wowed by Land and Freedom, his 1995 homage to the communist protagonists in the Spanish Civil War….which coincidentally is also what Laurie Lee experiences in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, which I’ve just finished reading.

Next Screen Unseen in November. Hope it’s got a slightly softer centre than I, Daniel Blake.

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Movie review – Swallows and Amazons

Arthur Ransome is partly responsible for my lifelong love of books. Along with Mum & Dad for encouraging me to read from a young age. And Mr Ingram, my English teacher for later “O” and “A” levels, introducing me to Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Master Shakespeare and so many other disparate, illuminating writers.

But it was the adventures of Swallows and Amazons that opened my youthful eyes to an exciting wider world, both physically and in the imagination.

We borrowed Gill’s nephew Ben (11) and nieces Jess and Lucy (7) last week. In a high-risk strategy, we took them to see the new movie Swallows and Amazons. No inter-galactic wars, no dazzling animation, and not far short of two hours….would they survive an old-fashioned yarn lasting longer than a WhatsApp exchange with their friends?

The film is largely faithful to the concept of Ransome’s well-spoken Walker family, zooming north to the idyllic Lake District while the patriarch captains a destroyer somewhere in the Far East, not long before the outbreak of World War II.

The four older Walker children – John, Susan, Tatty and Roger – persuade their baby-cradling mother to let them set sail in the Swallow across the lake, to camp for a few days on Unexplored Island.

Park your 21st century cynicism at the cinema door: of course no responsible mother would let her brood loose on such an adventure now. Especially as the youngest can barely swim. And how sad that the author’s Titty has succumbed to contemporary political correctness and had her name changed to the ridiculous Tatty.

The out-of-towners are attacked by friendly local pirates Nancy & Peggy Blackett on the Amazon, sporting the evil Jolly Roger on its mast. But they soon share a mutual respect. Just as well, because – in another diversion from Ransome’s original innocence and a further sop to modern demands – they have to work together to foil a Russian spy plot.

No matter. Swallows and Amazons remains a nostalgic tale, conjuring up days spent in the open air, having old-fashioned adventures and making a campfire, with no sign of Facebook, Instagram or texting.

Ben, Jess and Lucy stayed awake – and hopefully fully engaged – until the happy ending.

I wonder if they’d like The Famous Five books too…..

 

Movie review – The Nice Guys

I’m not going if it’s just a blokey film, Ruth said.

But it’s getting some great reviews. And it has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer ratingparried John.

We were looking for something to do, on a soggy Saturday afternoon and within spitting distance of Dublin. Something to stop us eating and drinking for just a few hours, after a heavy couple of days enjoying Irish hospitality. Something that wasn’t too mentally challenging, after a Leonardo da Vinci culture-fest at the National Gallery the day before. And something sitting down, after some energetic yomps through the moody Wicklow mountains.

John won.

Sure enough, The Nice Guys is a grand way to escape reality. Just park your critical faculties at the door, stick your nose in a bag of Maltesers, lean back in the velvety seat….and let your mind drift back to the 1970s.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe stumble around a time-warped Los Angeles as a private-eye Odd Couple.

The plot is a load of old hokum, but has something to do with a dead porn star, a missing girl, some dangerous gangsters and a conspiracy. Maybe.

But forget the plot.

The point of the movie is the undoubted chemistry from the unlikely pairing of Ryan and Russell. Gosling in particular is a revelation in a comedy role, what with his droopy moustache, drink problem and bad father issues.

Enjoy the authentic soundtrack, party scenes, clothes and scenery. Hell, even the title credits transport you back to 1977.

Enjoy some good one-liners too, and a cracking performance from Angourie Rice as Holly, Gosling’s wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter.

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It’s a buddy movie. We laughed a bit. It won’t win any Oscars. We stayed dry for a couple of hours. We ate and drank loads more afterwards.

Job done.