CINEMA REVIEW: THE HANDMAIDEN (2016)

MOVIE REVIEW: THE HANDMAIDEN (2016)

TITLE: THE HANDMAIDEN (2016)

DIRECTOR:  Park Chan-Wook

WRITERS: Park Chan-Wook, Chung Seo-kyung (from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters)

CAST:  Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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You may be too young to know or too old to remember but Channel 4 in the 1980s used to have an eclectic choice of arty independent and World Cinema films.  Now you get a few on Film Four but Channel 4 was a main outlet for interesting cinema not shown on the BBC or ITV channels. Channel 4 also used to, for a short period between 1986 and 1987 have a ‘Red Triangle’ on certain films to advise of sexual scenes and material that may be considered controversial. Not surprisingly the films with a ‘Red Triangle’ guaranteed nudity and erotic scenes causing audience figures to actually rise. After some moaning from the likes of Mary Whitehouse – a right-wing puritanical harpy who was a self-appointed anti-everything woman – the ‘Red Triangle’ was vanquished by Channel 4, but not before gaining notoriety and publicity.

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As a teenager I used to look forward to the more risqué content on Channel 4 as the Internet was at the virgin stage and yet to be invented; so titillation was often confined to late night films on a Friday night. Flash forward thirty years and because I’m more mature and it’s very easy to access pornography online I’m not a big fan of overtly sexual material in mainstream or independent features. Not sure why but I prefer subtlety and suggestion over all-out copulation. In Park Chan-Wook’s majestic erotic con-artist thriller there are some wonderfully subtle erotic scenes which raise the blood pressure and enhance the characterisation. There is also some serious scissoring between the two female leads going on too which in my view pushes the boundaries between eroticism, controversy and exploitation. However, this is the line Chan-Wook has always skipped along in classic films such as: Old Boy (2003), Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), and Thirst (2009).

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The Handmaiden is set in 1930’s Korea amidst the backdrop of the Japanese occupation and the cultural differences between the two nations are expertly drawn and examined in the story. Class differences are also highlighted in a rich text which finds Sook-hee seconded to look after the neurotic Lady Izumi Hideko, who is a ward and being groomed for marriage by her controlling Uncle Kouzuki. I will not give any further of the plot away but safe to say it is an incredibly complex narrative structured into three parts which overlap different perspectives within flashbacks and contrasting character voiceovers and angles.  Did I enjoy it? Absolutely, this is a beautifully shot period masterpiece which I took great pleasure in viewing. In my view the running time was arguably over-long and a couple of the more overt sex scenes could have been trimmed. Nonetheless, the film had me gripped throughout.

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Park Chan-Wook directed a gem of a noir thriller called Stoker (2013) for his first Hollywood film, but here is a bigger-budgeted and thematically richer cinema affair. It takes a complex con-artist-twisting-plot and imbues it with an erotically charged and explicit feminist love story which finds sharp-witted female characters overcoming the dominant and deviant patriarchal beast. Moreover, Chan Wook’s screenplay is a masterful adaptation of the original novel, the wonderfully titled Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. Like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, Christopher Nolan, Jacques Audiard, Michael Haneke to name a few, Chan-Wook’s work is always a must-see-at-the-cinema-event and you don’t need a ‘Red Triangle’ to ensure you watch it.

 (Mark: 9 out of 11)

‘SIX OF THE BEST’ #5 – BRITISH ACTRESSES

‘SIX OF THE BEST’ #5 – BRITISH ACTRESSES!

In my occasional series called Six of the Best, I select six of something of the other which I like the best. So here goes with six of the best British actresses working today and who, of late, have put in some sterling performances which have very much impressed me.

There are some great actresses not on the list such as: Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Keeley Hawes, Rosamund Pike and Helen McCrory but while they are awesome the performers listed have stood out for me slightly more.

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING

Rampling has had a wonderful career which began in the sixties and had continued powerfully ever since. Some of my favourite performances of hers include the films: The Verdict (1982), Angel Heart (1987), Lemming (2005) to name but a few. For someone so beautiful she owns a fragile vulnerability which she puts to great effect. Having impressed me in the second season of TV drama Broadchurch, I found her role in bittersweet drama 45 Years (2015) to be so compelling. She just owns this story of a woman “celebrating” forty-five years of marriage, shook up by revelations from her husband’s past.

EMILY BLUNT

Has Emily Blunt ever given a bad performance? I don’t recall one! She is funny, attractive and tough when she needs to be, but I think her greatest asset though is portraying sensitive vulnerability amidst steely determination. This is borne out in roles such as Looper (2012), Sicario (2015) and the movie potboiler Girl on the Train (2016). The latter had mixed reviews yet Blunt was terrific in a complex performance which really drew you into her characters’ plight. She’s funny too as seen in her scene-stealing role in The Devil Wears Prada (2006).

IMELDA STAUNTON

Imelda Staunton gave one of the greatest acting performances I have ever seen when I witnessed her live in the stage show Gypsy.  It was a barnstorming delivery of passion, energy, singing and pathos.  Staunton has been giving her all for many years now and was, in my view, the best Harry Potter villain ever as the venal Thatcherite matriarch Dolores Umbridge. Her stage and screen CV is second-to-none and in Vera Drake (2004) she gave one of the most subtle and emotional performances ever committed to celluloid.

OLIVIA COLMAN

The Night Manager (2016), Hot Fuzz (2007), Tyrannosaur (2011), Broadchurch (2013), The Lobster (2015), Rev (2010 – 2014)), Doctor Who (2010), Peep Show (2003 – 2015)  and much more film and television work confirms Olivia Colman as a doyenne of her field. She can play funny and sad and angry which is to be expected from such a talented actress but Colman does everything in such a memorable manner. No matter who she portrays they’re always believable and played with a warmth, toughness and humanity. Her character in Tyrannosaur (2011) was so heartfelt and empathetic you wanted to reach into the screen and rescue her.

 

SHERIDAN SMITH

Having seen Sheridan Smith in the stage musical Funny Girl I was left very impressed. As Fanny Brice she had big shoes to fill in a role previously owned by the incomparable Barbara Streisand, and fill them she did with aplomb. She was indeed funny and spirited and has a fantastic vocal range; a voice which was put to great use in the not-bad Cilla Black biopic called, surprisingly enough, Cilla (2014). Yet, her acting as Charmian Biggs in TV drama Mrs Biggs was exceptional as she gave her all as the long-suffering wife of train robber Ronnie Biggs. All-round she can do comedy, drama and sing brilliantly too.

THANDIE NEWTON

Thandie Newton has been working very successfully in all manner of film and televisual work for years now. I recall her debut appearance as the object of Noah Taylor’s desire in the film Flirting (1991) and showing spark in the crime noir Young Americans (1993). Subsequently Newton has worked regularly in Hollywood and was a standout performer in ensemble drama Crash (2004). However, her recent performance in HBO’s post-modern sci-fi-Western Westworld (2016), confirms Newton as one of the most compelling actresses around. Her character work as Maeve Millay is a masterclass of rage, pathos and devious delight.

 

MOVIE PREVIEW: THE BEGUILED (2017)

MOVIE PREVIEW: THE BEGUILED (2017)

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TITLE:  THE BEGUILED 

DIRECTOR/WRITER:  Sofia Coppola adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel.

CAST: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Emma Howard, Addison Riecke

RELEASE DATE (UK): 14 JULY 2017

GENRE: Thriller, Suspense

PITCH:  The Beguiled is an atmospheric thriller from acclaimed writer/director Sofia Coppola. The story unfolds during the Civil War, at a Southern girls’ boarding school. Its sheltered young women take in an injured enemy soldier. As they provide refuge and tend to his wounds, the house is taken over with sexual tension and dangerous rivalries, and taboos are broken in an unexpected turn of events.

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FIVE REASONS THIS COULD BE GOOD!

  1. It’s directed by Sofia Coppola who has — with her earlier films The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost in Translation (2003) marked herself as a very talented filmmaker, progressive on building character and atmosphere within her work.
  2. Award winning actors Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell lead the cast as do some very talented younger actresses such as Elle Fanning.
  3. It’s an intriguing remake/reimagining of Thomas Cullinan’s gothic novel originally made in 1971 by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood.
  4. The Civil War setting is interestingly explored as the film promises to be more than a war film but rather contain subtle battles of gender and sexual tension; relying on performance, atmosphere and characterization.
  5. Cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd produced some amazing work on The Grandmaster (2013) for Wong Kar Wei and his lighting talent should add to the compelling nature of the story.

 

 

TV REVIEW: LEGION (2017)

TV REVIEW: LEGION (2017) – SEASON 1

DIRECTOR(S): Noah Hawley, Michael Uppendahl, Larysa Kondracki, Tim Mielants, Hiro Murai, Dennie Gordon

WRITER(S):  Noah Hawley, Peter Calloway, Nathaniel Halpern, Jennifer Yale  – based on Marvel’s Legion created by Chris Claremont & Bill Seinkiewicz

CAST:  Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Jeremie Harris, Jemaine Clement, Bill Irwin

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**REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS**

Noah Hawley is a postmodern auteur par excellence. He takes established genre output and influences from film, television and literature, before translating them through his creative persona to breathe paradoxical original life into his productions. For example, he actually had the creative courage to take one of my favourite films Fargo (1996) and turn it into a brilliant and quirky television series. Similarly he has done the same with Marvel’s comic-book-X-Men-based-anti-hero Legion.

Of course the superhero/heroine genre has become massive business at the box office. I loved Nolan’s Batman trilogy and personally am also a big Marvel and Avengers fan, believing the Captain America trilogy to be representative of the height of the genre model. Meanwhile, the X-Men franchise also has some fine entries too notably X-Men: First Class (2011) and Days of Future Past (2014); and Netflix’s Daredevil (2015) has also given us two seasons of gritty and energetic delight too. Yet arguably some of the more intriguing Marvel adaptations have been the lesser known products such as: Ant Man (2015), Doctor Strange (2016) and the effervescent Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Now, FX’s sensational television series Legion (2017) proves to be the most mind-boggling and consistently brilliant of the lot.

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It features a talented ensemble cast led by the intensely brilliant Dan Stevens portraying a mentally disturbed young man called David Haller. The pilot episode’s opening sequence establishes his issues from a young age through teenage-hood right through to the now as he finds himself in a psychiatric hospital being treated for schizophrenia. Patients he connects with mostly are Aubrey Plaza’s eccentric and wild Lenny Busker and the more sensitive Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller). Syd cannot stand to be touched – a character quirk which is soon to be revealed more than a phobia – yet her and David fall for each other. This romance propels one facet of the multi-stranded narrative; at the same time providing the story with much empathy and heart.

The main thrust of the narrative though is totally cerebral. While David finds himself in the middle of a war between mutants and the shady government agency called Division Three, we essentially spend many of the episodes in David’s troubled mind. There events unfold in a whirling cavalcade of images, characters and monsters all battling for supremacy of his brain. At times I could not work out what was happening yet I felt compelled, like last year’s HBO production Westworld (2016), to persist and the rewards and payoffs in the final episodes are indeed legion. Because the show, no doubt propelled by Hawley’s creativity and the original source material, is brimming with stunning ideas and visuals that literally burst out of the screen.

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The cast are incredible. Dan Stevens cements himself as one of the best emerging actors and he is destined for stardom in my view. Aubrey Plaza, who was great at laconic sarcasm in Parks and Revelations is wildly over-the-top and entertaining in her devious role; while Rachel Keller is the polar opposite: doe-eyes cute, vulnerable but with steely determination to protect David. My favourite supporting character was Flight of the Conchords’ comedian Jemaine Clement as a far-out scientist lost to the astral plane. His delivery and deportment just made me laugh out loud amidst the madness on show.

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This is as imaginative and original take on the superhero/mutant/X-Men genre you are going to find. Many people lost their shit over Logan (2017) but that is pedestrian compared to Legion. It also very cleverly melds themes relating to: mutation, special powers, telekinesis, split-personality, disassociation and schizophrenia expertly while wearing its’ influences neatly on its sleeves. Indeed, if you’re a fan of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay (2005), Clockwork Orange (1971), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) , Inception (2010) and the work of David Lynch, then you’ll love Noah Hawley’s masterful Marvel adaptation.

(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)

 

 

 

MOVIE REVIEW – RAW (2016)

MOVIE REVIEW – RAW  (2016) 

 TITLE:  RAW  (2016)

DIRECTOR/SCREENPLAY: Julia Ducorneau

CAST:  Garance Marillier, Laurent Lucas, Rabah Naït Oufella, Ella Rumpf

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Often you watch films and think it’s not a great movie but such is the intriguing premise or themes, it could make a fascinating essay. With Raw, however, it’s both a bloody good coming-of-age-gory-horror-story and has a number of thematically powerful messages that makes you think too. Indeed, in this film meat is definitely murder.

It begins with innocent-goody-two-shoes-veggie-star-student entering her first week at Veterinary college. With it being the first week she is subject to the more experienced student practical jokes and initiation ceremonies; all amidst hedonistic sex and drug parties reminiscent of something from the fall of the Roman Empire.

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Not surprisingly this is a very sexual, animalistic and instinctive film dealing as it does with beasts both human, canine and equine. The lead actress Marillier is a prominent force throughout as her journey follows a carnal, chemical and gory path. Ducorneau, the director, gets a great performance from this young talent as her character transforms from angel to devil without the loss of audience empathy.

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This is both an entertaining contemporary horror film and a very intelligent one. It works on so many different levels with themes covered including: veganism, peer pressure, initiation, fitting in, animal cruelty, sexuality. lesbianism, homosexuality, animalism, sisterhood, hedonism, nature versus nurture, cannibalism, family etc.  It crosses genres effortlessly and has one of the greatest and disgusting scenes I have had the pleasure to see for some time.   (Mark: 9 out of 11)      

CINEMA REVIEW: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

CINEMA REVIEW: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

TITLE: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

DIRECTOR: James Gray 

SCREENWRITER:  James Gray (based on the non-fiction book by David Grann)

CAST:  Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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I’m not a great traveller myself. Boats and trains aren’t too bad but I can’t stand flying. If I feel the need to experience the world I am more than happy to either Google a place or vicariously familiarise myself with other worlds and cultures by absorbing it through TV or indeed at the cinema. Moreover, stories about explorers, adventurers, mountain climbers, adrenaline junkies and the like are not always my favourite kind of sub-genre film. Obviously, if it is a story well told then I am open to all genres but more often than not the obsessive and narcissistic characters in pursuit of thrills or far flung places can leave me cold. Not so with James Gray’s epic adaptation of The Lost City of Z which focuses on soldier, surveyor and explorer Percy Fawcett’s dogged search for definitive archaeological proof of a historical Amazonian civilisation.

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The story begins at the turn of the 20th Century where Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) is a mid-ranked officer in the British Army. Keen to find some serious military action he’s disappointed to be given the job of surveying and mapping the uncharted borders of Bolivia and Brazil. Accompanying him is his guide and aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Pattinson) and what begins as a punishing journey into the heart of darkness becomes, over the course of the film and subsequent expeditions, an obsessive ‘Holy Grail’ type quest for Fawcett. The drama in the jungle gives us Fawcett’s encounters with: the elements, piranhas, rapids, illness, wild animals, starvation, dehydration, cannibal natives and even an Opera concert at a plantation deep in the forest. However, the conflict back in Blighty is just as resonating as Fawcett battles the naysayers who question his belief that the indigenous tribes may have been in anyway civilised or cultured. Indeed, as a historical critique of the old British Empire and their inherent racism the film makes some interesting points.

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I watched the film at the Picturehouse Central on a 35mm print and it really added to the old-fashioned, poetic and golden feel of this attractive sprawling epic.  Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Tom ‘new Spiderman’ Holland and Sienna Miller all provide excellent performances. Hunnam – who I know from his sterling work on Sons of Anarchy – stood out especially and given the right script choices he’s likely to become a bona fide movie star. His Fawcett is a complex, confident but honest man who, while obsessed with his pursuit of the Lost City, loves his family and stands on the side of the righteous. The director James Gray and his filmmaking team, above all else, deserve special mention for delivering a beautifully shot, acted, paced and edited historical drama. Indeed, this fascinating material deserved more screen time and it was so mesmeric I could easily have watched this film for hours.     (Mark: 9 out of 11)

CINEMA REVIEW: ELLE (2016)

CINEMA REVIEW: ELLE (2016)

TITLE: ELLE (2016)

DIRECTOR: PAUL VERHOEVEN 

WRITER: DAVID BIRKE based on the novel Oh by Phillipe Dijan

CAST: ISABEL HUPPERT, LAURENT LAFITTE, ANNE CONSIGNY, CHARLES BERLING, VIRGINIE EFIRA

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**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Where do I begin with this film?  Is it a comedy? Is it a satire? Is it a drama? Is it a horror film?  Well, all of the above I would say and then some.  For starters Isabel Huppert SHOULD have won the Oscar for best actress over the candy floss performance of Emma Stone. That genuinely was a first world artistic travesty!  Huppert is absolutely sensational as the damaged anti-heroine who having been part of a horrific childhood event is then subjected to a vicious sexual attack in the very first scene. Thus, immediately the film brutalises the main character and makes the audience complicit with her subsequent actions which are complex to say the least. Because as a successful business-woman with a murky past she doesn’t go down the route of victim but rather something completely different.

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As it’s directed by the rambunctious cinema satirist Paul Verhoeven I expected a difficult yet entertaining ride, however, this film at times was painful to watch and not what I would call easy entertainment at all. In fact, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more controversy or outrage from the liberal left in the queasy representation of sexual violence. Don’t get me wrong there is a lot to like about the film, especially: the darkly humorous screenplay; the hilarious representations of bourgeois-middle-class-family life; and the unexpected twists in the plots take the breath away. Yet, both male and female humiliation is at the heart of the story and Huppert’s character is kind of unlikeable, making it is difficult to get behind many of her decisions.

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Overall, Elle has been laden with awards and received much critical acclaim and I can certainly confirm it is a brave and challenging character drama with very risky themes at its heart. My interpretation is that the writer and filmmakers have a nihilistic view of the French bourgeoisie and that humanity in general is full of damaged lunatics out for what they can get. Essentially too, Huppert’s character has been ruined by the actions of men and her motivations are borne out of trying to gain control of a horrific situation. Thus, I would recommend this film for those who prefer their cinema to challenge, shock and question the nature of sexual politics, rather than spoon feed us fluffy and patriarchal love stories. Because, mainly, this is not a love story but rather one of hate.

(Mark: 8 out of 11 for the film)
(Mark: 11 out of 11 for Isabelle Huppert)