Tag Archives: Tragedy

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 – REVIEW

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER – LFF 2017 – REVIEW

I started writing film reviews a few years ago and the main reason was because I wanted to try and understand why I liked or disliked a film. I also wanted to improve my creative writing by understanding the thought process of others.  Living filmmakers whose work I have consistently enjoyed, save for the odd one here or there, are: Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, Lynn Ramsay, Jonathan Glazer, Woody Allen (even some of the later ones), Park Chan Wook, David Fincher, Edgar Wright, Jacques Audiard, Darren Aronofsky, Kathryn Bigelow; and many others no doubt!

Such directors capture the quintessence of what cinema is for me. Not simply just in style and form but also powerful themes, imaginative concepts and sheer bloody entertainment. Filmmakers, of late, you can add to that list are: Denis Villeneuve, S. Craig ZAHLER and Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. I have now seen three of his films, namely: Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015) and his next release The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), and they all defy conventional film conventions to deliver absurd, surreal, funny, dark, thought-provoking and imaginative visions of human nature. Also, let’s not forget the writer too; so kudos to his writing partner Efthymis Filippou, who combines with Lanthimos to create such memorable cinematic offerings.

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The story itself begins in a reasonably conventional fashion. Colin Farrell’s successful surgeon, Steven Murphy, is happily married to his wife, Anna, portrayed with glacial precision by Nicole Kidman. They have two healthy and intelligent children, a boy and a girl, and their lives are a picture of upper middle class contentment. Steven and Anna’s family equilibrium is skewed when a teenage boy, Martin, brilliantly portrayed by Barry Keoghan, inveigles his way into their lives through a combination of innocent charm and surreptitious pathos. Martin is a dark angel representative of the cloud of sickness and guilt and remorse and his actions force Steven and Anna to have to face up to a parents’ worst nightmares.

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Lanthimos and Filippou, in Godardian fashion, constantly calls attention to cinema form; especially with a strangely effective form of anti-acting where, Farrell notably, dryly delivers dialogue as unconnected non-sequiturs. The words also constantly surprise us as the characters speak at each other with phrases that create humour and emotional disassociation. Nonetheless, such artifice only adds to the off-centre and sinister nature of the piece. The film is also beautifully shot with a wonderful symmetry to the composition of many shots. I also liked the choice of wide-angle lenses and the flowing Steadicam shots. Many were pitched at just over head-height, and provided an eerie floating sensation throughout the drama.

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Colin Farrell (as he did in The Lobster (2015), Nicole Kidman and the rest of the cast buy completely into Lanthimos and Filippou’s striking vision which takes its’ influence from l Greek tragedy. But while Farrell excels in another praiseworthy under-stated deadpan performance, Barry Keoghan steals the show. The young actor follows up his impactful supporting appearance in Dunkirk (2017), with a compelling character study and eerily mature portrayal. Overall, this is a gripping, absurd thriller-turned-horror film which constantly wrong-footed me with its plot turns. It is a truly chilling, yet darkly comical and surreal genre film that manages to be somehow extremely accessible too.

(Mark: 9 out of 11)

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) – LFF REVIEW 2017

“There’s no question that a great script is absolutely essential, maybe the essential thing for a movie to succeed.”Sydney Pollack

Directors are often held up by critics and audience alike as the God’s of film; controlling and pointing and designing and envisioning and corralling their mass creative power to thrust upon the cinema screen. Of course, with many directors or auteurs, the lofty praise is deserved but hey, did they create that vision or story or character arc in a vacuum? No, they had blueprint on a page first. They had a screenplay written by themselves or a determined writer or writing team sitting in a windowless office smoking a thousand cigarettes while slaving to get words on a page in some semblance of a coherent filmic fashion. It seems obvious to say but a great screenplay is the (skeleton) key for any great film; it’s the bones with which to hang the meat and muscle and later the clothes of any movie.  Without powerful bones a film will not stand strong. It will fall.

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Screenwriter (and director) Martin McDonagh has, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri constructed one of, if not the most, formidable screenplays of the year.  As a playwright he won many awards for his works and his film, In Bruges (2008), was a deceptively simple story of two hitmen on the run which, with rich thematic power, became a darkly hilarious existential comedy-drama. His follow-up Seven Psychopaths (2012) was a heady mix of criminals versus writers in a meta-fictional Hollywood-based narrative; which while brilliantly written and performed arguably lacked the punch of In Bruges. Now, with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has delivered his best film to date; a highly emotional human drama which contains some of incredible characterization, dialogue and zinging one-liners which bounce off the page and crackle on the screen.

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Eschewing a more traditional structure the script’s inciting event – the murder of a young girl called Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) – has already occurred and therefore we are thrust immediately into the grief of main protagonist Mildred Hayes, portrayed with an iron veneer by the remarkable Frances McDormand. Her study of a grieving Mother, who is no longer prepared to sit by and wait for her daughter’s killers to be found, is awe-inspiring. Firing a rocket into the patriarchal-dominated police department ran by Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) she sets in motion a series of unforgettably tragic, violent and blackly comedic scenes.  In using the three billboards to question Willoughby’s investigation she utilises physical media as a larger form of the ‘Scarlet Letter’; an old fashioned “name and shame” device. Because Mildred, is refreshingly traditional and old-fashioned and in rural, small-town America the Internet just won’t hack it for her. She is about direct, in-your-face and ballsy action.

As a study of grief this is similar in feel to the majestic Manchester-by-the-Sea (2016) and no doubt, like Kenneth Lonergan, McDonagh will be picking up many awards for his nuanced screenplay. He imbues each of the characters with a flawed, yet rounded humanity. He takes risks by making his main protagonist, despite her loss, kind of unlikeable. Yet we are always with Mildred because she is righteous and swimming against the tide of authority and masculine dominance. Plus, she surprises us with her actions and language and violence. Below the tough exterior though there is also a vulnerability which makes us love her too and empathise fully with her loss.

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McDonagh and his filmmaking team have also put together a phenomenal ensemble cast including: Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Abbie Cornish etc. Sam Rockwell is especially memorable as the immature, inept and thuggish mother’s boy, Jason Dixon. His scenes with both Frances McDormand and his on-screen Mother, played with deadpan gusto by Sandy Martin, crack with complex emotion and humour. Collectively they portray imperfect characters whose lives have not just been dealt a bum hand but their situation is exacerbated by poor decisions based on emotion and frustration with life and the world. Ultimately, this is an excellent cinematic experience funny, shocking and moving; only possible because of the expert script from a great writer.

(Mark: 10 out of 11 – and the script goes up to 11!)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)

TITLE:             BRIEF ENCOUNTER 

DIRECTOR:    DAVID LEAN 

WRITERS:      NOEL COWARD, RONALD NEAME, ANTHONY HAVELOCK-ALLEN

MAIN CAST:   CELIA JOHNSON, TREVOR HOWARD, STANLEY HOLLOWAY

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While I’m not a classic romantic I must admit you can’t beat a really good love story when it’s done well. The ones I enjoy the most are usually the tragic failed or unrequited romance stories which tug, unravel and then break the heart-strings. While I have a soft spot for a jolly rock ‘n’ roller such as Grease (1978), the romance films that stay with me are the likes of: Casablanca (1942), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Dr Zhivago (1965), End of the Affair (1999), Last of the Mohicans (1992) and the sterling understatement of Remains of the Day (1993).  Of course, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is another brilliant example of a heart-breaking doomed love affair.

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I recently went to see Brief Encounter (1945) – on Valentines’ Day in fact – with my wife at the Festival Hall. It was screened in front of a live orchestra, the London Philharmonic no less, and introduced by the daughter of actress Celia Johnson. I’m not a fan of live orchestral presentations as I’m a bit basic and practical. I always think you could be at home listening to a recording via download or CD; yes I am a philistine and have no soul!  However, the live accompaniment to the screening of Brief Encounter was phenomenal; enhancing the filmic experience with beautiful renditions of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Based on Noel Coward’s one act play called Still Life, Brief Encounter really stands the test of time as a poignant narrative of romantic loss. It concerns a seemingly contented housewife, Laura Jesson, and her chance encounter with a respectable Doctor Alec Harvey. Their classic meeting on the platform where he removes grit from her eye sets in motion a touching will-they-won’t-they tryst which pulls you in throughout. The structure is sophisticated and layered with flashbacks as Laura, sitting in her comfy armchair, reminisces of her times with Alec, while her husband sits there unawares doing a crossword.

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Much praise has obviously been made of David Lean’s exquisite framing and direction and the searing power of the Rachmaninoff’s music but for me the script from Coward and Celia Johnson’s sorrowful performance were also things of beauty. Her clipped and dulcet tones resonated as she delivered vignettes of secret meetings, stolen memories and pulsing regret. After all this is 1938 and middle-class women were meant to be the bedrock of the household and affairs were a massive faux pas. Plus, she loves her husband and her children; the secrets and lies were just beastly products of a wicked passion and must be repressed. Their respective sense of duty, guilt and the unfair timing of their meeting just won’t allow a happy-ever-after story. Despite it being seventy years old the film is so sad and I still felt the characters’ heartache radiate through the screen.

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Much of the action takes place on shadowy platforms, moving trains and in the café room at the railway station. The rush of smoke, whistles and trains create a sense of urgency and panic to the love affair. The couple are always in a rush to be with and away from each other so as not create suspicion at home. Conversely Alec and Laura are like trains themselves passing each other in the night in transit but unable to couple up for the remaining life journey. It’s not all doom and gloom though as Coward’s script is full of wit, humour and suspense too. The secondary characters and extremely well drawn and while bordering on the stereotypical the characterisations reflect the various British types and the class system prevalent at the time.

Overall, Brief Encounter remains a classic romance and one of the best British films ever made. It tells us love has no logic or idea of timing as two innocent characters are made to be liars because of the power of their emotions. Only the goodness of their hearts, a sense of duty and what is right means they will ultimately return to their marriage partners. But the gaping vacuum created by love is something they will just have to contend with. Brief Encounter is a timeless classic and deserves to be seen on the big screen; especially when backed by the exquisite musicianship of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

 

2016 BFI – LFF – MANCHESTER BY-THE-SEA (2016) – REVIEW

2016 BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL – MANCHESTER BY-THE-SEA (2016)

SPOILER FREE REVIEW

TITLE: MANCHESTER BY-THE-SEA (2016)

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DIRECTOR: Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me (2000)

SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan (Analyze This (1999), Gangs of New York (2002)                

CAST: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges etc.

STORY: A distant and emotionally disconnected man must face family and friends following the death of his brother.

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REVIEW:             

Kenneth Lonergan, Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams should take a very long bow for their writing, directing and acting work in this moving and emotional, yet at the same time, humorous character drama.

Casey Affleck plays a seemingly unassuming handyman who buries anger and despair deep within his heart. Initially, he seems passive, yet during his interactions with one of his customers and during a bar brawl he reveals a volcanic tension simmering under the surface of his psyche. When his older brother passes away he returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea in Massachusetts and is forced to confront past tragedies plus take care of his brothers’ estate and teenage nephew.

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This is one of those films which moves at its’ own pace and in scenes of quiet drama, sporadic violence and subtle flashbacks, Lonergan builds a truly formidable narrative and character study. Moreover, Affleck portrays a lost soul with such exquisite pathos you could feel his characters’ pain jump out from the screen. His scenes with Michelle Williams genuinely made me want to cry because they were so sad.

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Ultimately, this is Affleck’s film as he haunts the screen with a truly award-winning performance. As well as the dark drama there are many witty lines and scenes too in what is one of the best films I have seen in 2016. If you prefer your films as real and raw as possible and are happy to experience a few hours without explosions or special effects, then watch this everyday story of humans trying to cope with their past, present and future existence.