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Knives Out

“We had a blast making this movie,” says writer-director Rian Johnson in a pre-recorded intro to Knives Out. Alas, I did not have a blast watching it. The trailer promised a clever, waspish and stylised take on the whodunnit genre, but the film itself was overlong, curiously unengaging and only intermittently fun. There were a couple of laughs and twisty flourishes, but the starry ensemble cast struggle to breathe life into a disappointingly pedestrian script. “Something is afoot with this whole affair,” ponders private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). “This is a donut case.” No shit, Sherlock.

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When millionaire mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his turreted mansion, throat slit while reclining on his chaise longue, the police interview his family and nurse, aided by the eccentric Blanc. At first, “the last of the gentlemen sleuths” stays in the background – his only  contribution a few random ‘plinks’ on the piano.

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Who done it? Take your pick from a motley crew of selfish and conniving relatives, who all have motive. Most had arguments with Harlan while attending his 85th birthday party on the night of his death. Was it eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), or her Trumpish husband Richard (Don Johnson)? How about publisher son, Walt (Michael Shannon), peeved at Harlan’s refusal to sell film rights for his books to Netflix? Or lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Collette). Grandson Ransom is the black sheep of the family, who clashed with the old man before storming out – he seems like the obvious culprit.

Given that it is always the person you least suspect – often those who are featured least – could it have been Great Nana Thrombey, Harlan’s mother (K Callan)? The ancient matriarch lurks in the shadows, beady eye trained on the shenanigans. She looks like Maggie Smith’s Lady in the Van, with costume by the Cardinal of Wolsey.

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Amidst all the backbiting, warm-hearted Hispanic nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) is called upon by Blanc to help him figure things out. As luck would have it, she cannot lie without vomiting. Despite supposedly being “one of the family,” Marta was not invited to Harlan’s funeral. Johnson pokes fun at the Thrombeys’ racism and there is a running joke about her country of origin, with an ironic quote from the musical Hamilton thrown in for good measure: “immigrants – we get things done.”

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Daniel Craig has fun as the enigmatic Blanc, his gravelly Southern drawl sometimes redolent of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards. He is fond of embellishing his speech with long words, claiming “ma presence will be ornamental,” or boasting that his brain “arrives unerringly at the truth.” He is also fond of brandishing an even longer cigar – the size of a policeman’s truncheon.

The first half of Knives Out really drags. Despite the Cluedo board visuals there is no real atmosphere or tension to pull you in. With its tedious close-ups of faces and furniture, the film has a queasy ‘made-for-TV’ feel to it, with little sense of anything going on beneath the surfaces.

Thankfully, things do liven up when we escape the confines of the ancestral mansion and opulent estate, which we eventually learn, “was bought off a Pakistani in the ‘80s.”

Knives Out may all be an elaborate satirical game, of the sort beloved by its control-freak murder victim. But it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

Monos

This critically-acclaimed Columbian war drama about a guerrilla band of teenage soldiers fighting for survival has echoes of Lord of the Flies, Apocalypse Now and Deliverance. But Monos (‘Monkeys’ in Spanish) has its own unique atmosphere and style, one created in large part by its outstanding cinematography and score, but also by a welcome shift of gears half-way through in which campfire surrealism is replaced by primal Rambo-esque jungle action.

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Director Alejandro Landes’ film opens with a dark screen and we hear a scuffling sort of tinkling sound, difficult to make sense of. Eventually we see a group of blindfolded kids playing football with a homemade ball with a bell attached to it. They are on a mountain-top above the clouds, as if they were in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. But their home is weirdly unnatural – a flattened plateau with concrete bunkers.

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Why are they here? And what are they doing? Bits of the puzzle are gradually explained but the whole situation remains mysterious. The teenagers are called ‘The Monos’ by The Messenger, a sergeant-major dwarf who trains them. The kids go by nicknames like Smurf, Bigfoot, Lady, Boom-Boom and Rambo. They work for ‘The Organisation’, entrusted with guarding a prisoner-of-war (Julianne Nicholson) and a cow named Shakira.

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The Monos have their own rules and rituals, such as taking it in turns to beat someone with a belt on their birthday. They also have their own automatic rifles, which look huge next to them, and sound deafening when they go off. The different personalities jostle for position in the group and sexual passions cause rifts and resentments. Sensitive Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) increasingly feels like an outsider amongst the more macho types such as Bigfoot (Moises Arias) and Dog (Paul Cubides).

When things fall apart the Columbian jungle beckons. Monos then becomes a thrilling chase movie, a white-knuckle ride into the heart of darkness with a superbly vivid natural backdrop. Composer Mica Levi’s score, which had been a minimalistic breathy panpipe riff, becomes more explosive, with sonic booms and phased electronic ‘whap-whaps’ to evoke whirring helicopter blades.

Amidst the action there are stunning images of nature: mist on the mountains; an aerial shot of a torrential river running brown as mudslides join it; underwater bubbles in raging rapids and the luminous greens of the jungle as rain cascades down.

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Glimpses of civilization and normal family life feel like a relief and nearly succeed in bringing a smile to Rambo’s face. It is a shock to rejoin ‘real life’ after so long with the renegades. In a surreally funny scene, we get to watch a snatch of TV about the German city Bonn, famous as ‘the home of Gummy Bears’, with film of factory conveyor-belts of bear-shaped sweets.

Monos is a plea to safeguard Columbia’s children and natural resources, but as its cryptic ending shows, Landes and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos do not have the answers, only more questions about how to keep children safe in a dangerous society that is stealing their childhoods and threatening their future (a newspaper headline reads: DEFORESTACION). These monkeys need looking after, not brutalized.

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Joker

“What do you get if you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” This is the sort of killing joke delivered by party clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he embarks on an unlikely career in standup comedy. The punchline is: one of the best films of 2019 and a devastating performance from one of our finest actors. Joker is ostensibly a DC Comics origin story of Batman’s enemy, The Joker, but Todd Phillips’ film is a long way from superhero CGI bombast. Instead it feels like a 1970s arthouse classic, a Taxi Driver for our own troubled times.

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Similarities with Scorsese’s antihero, Travis Bickle, were also made after Phoenix’s last film, You Were Never Really Here (2018). The actor has shed much of his (then) bear-like bulk to portray the wiry Arthur, who sometimes contorts his torso like a tortured Iggy Pop, but also waltzes gracefully with his mother (Frances Conroy), who he still lives with. Their favourite TV programme is the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) talk show, which Arthur dreams of appearing on.

We are in Gotham City, 1981. Garbage is piling up in the streets and ‘Super rats’ are on the loose. Graffiti-covered subway trains flash past like pop art film strips. As funding cuts start to bite, resentments simmer, not helped by mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) labelling the poor as ‘clowns.’

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The film opens with the camera on Arthur’s clown face. It seems like he is practicing laughing in front of the mirror, but his eyes signal despair and this laughter feels more like crying. We later learn that he has a neurological condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at random times; he has a printed card that explains this to members of the public. Arthur is on seven different sorts of medication but still can’t get relief from his mental suffering, telling his social worker that he felt better when he was “locked up in the hospital”.

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After Arthur gets beaten up by robbers while working on the street, a sympathetic colleague gives him a gun to defend himself from “all the crazy shit out there.” As he begins his quest for recognition, what could possibly go wrong?

As part of a magnetic performance that dominates Joker, Joaquin Phoenix humanizes his anti-hero. Arthur has old-fashioned manners; he deplores how ‘awful’ people are, these days. He is kind to old ladies and children. There are glimmers of light in the darkness of his life, but how many are real, rather than just fantasy?

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Arthur’s mental turmoil and journey to his new Joker persona are mirrored by a terrific original score from Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir. Her mournful cello builds to a glacial intensity and, joined by violins and clattering percussion, achieves a symphonic grandeur.

Another musical highlight is the use of Gary Glitter’s 1972 hit Rock and Roll Part 2, which adds a transgressive frisson to one of Joker’s most stylish and memorable scenes: the perfect ‘outlawed’ soundtrack to the creation of an outlaw. The film’s representatives have been quick to point out that the disgraced former pop star didn’t earn a penny in royalties from the song’s use.

The Joker himself looks like a kind of mongrel 80’s pop star, with the face of Morrissey, the hair of Bono, make-up by Kiss and wardrobe by Kid Creole & The Coconuts.

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Ad Astra

Sometimes film trailers are far better than the films they advertise. I was looking forward to seeing Brad Pitt in space, fighting baddies on the moon, saving the world with craggy support and gravitas from old timers Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones. Alas, this sci-fi tale of an astronaut sent to find his long-lost dad is bafflingly bad, strangely unengaging and lacking in excitement.

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For two long hours we wait for what must surely be a Big Reveal or extra-terrestrial payoff. But … nothing much happens and when it does we don’t much care. As one character says, he has seen the “sublime surfaces” of the universe, but in the end, “there was nothing.”

The film starts with po-faced portentousness and a small bang: “The near future,” we read, “A time of both hope and conflict. Humanity looks to the stars …” (Latin translation: ‘Ad Astra’). Major Roy McBride (Pitt) jumps off a sky-high ladder to escape an explosion.

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This, we learn, is one of many worldwide ‘catastrophes’ caused by a mysterious ‘power surge’. For some reason the astro-boffins are blaming Roy’s dad (Jones), who disappeared 29 years ago after blazing a trail across the cosmos. “We believe your father is still alive near Neptune,” they tell him, and “all life could be destroyed” unless Roy finds him and puts a stop to whatever he’s doing.

Ad Astra could have been so much better. With Brad Pitt in military mode, it could have been Apocalypse Now in space, with Brad despatched into the Heart of Darkness to track down and kill a rogue commander. But instead of taking the audience on a cathartic acid-trip writer/director James Gray tranquilizes us with Soma-like ‘mood stabilisers’. The first-person voiceover, so immediate and vital in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece, is here disconnected psycho-babble. Roy’s interior voice says things like: “all I see is pain” and “in the end the son suffers the sins of the father.” But his face looks bored, and it’s contagious.

It’s not Brad’s fault. He tries his best with an antiseptic script. But he really needs to run around more, kick some ass and have fun. Roy is given no side-kick to spark off, and lovely though his face is, Pitt ain’t no Mark Rylance. It is cruel to expect Brad’s face and plodding voiceover to do the heavy-lifting in a science fiction film that should be much more visually interesting.

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There are occasional glimpses of life out there: the scenes on the moon, with its tube-trains, Lunar Path motorway signs and tourist enticements, reminded me of Total Recall (the Arnie version). And the buggy-chase and shootout with ‘pirates’ was fun.

But even raging killer space baboons can’t save this turkey from a roasting.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is a lovingly-crafted comedy-drama which recreates 1969 Hollywood at a time when the hippie dream had turned sour and Charles Manson and his Family lurked around the corner. As ever, the writer-director gives us a sweetshop of period eye-candy and musical treats to savour, a believably authentic magical history tour of the times. And he doesn’t let the truth get in the way of a good bloodbath.

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Above all, it is the first-time pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt that really strikes gold. As aging TV star, Rick Dalton, and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, the two Hollywood A-listers are an onscreen joy – funny, moving and richly human – the best handsome / charming leading man double-act since Newman and Redford.

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The film opens with a black and white TV trailer for Bounty Law, the western series that made Dalton famous. It is followed by an interview with him and Cliff, in which the stuntman describes his job as “carrying his load”.  We learn later that war hero Booth is now more like a driver and gopher. He lives in a trailer in the shadow of a drive-in theatre with his pitbull terrier, Brandy.

By contrast, Rick has a mansion and swimming pool on Cielo Drive; he swigs cocktails from a Bavarian tankard and talks along to tapes of his old films when he needs his ego boosting. Fearing that he is a ‘has-been’, Rick is an insecure drunk, prone to stuttering, forgetting his lines and crying on his buddy’s shoulder. But the pair seem to have a solid bond – “more than a brother, less than a wife.”

When new hotshot director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) moves in next door with his wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and Cliff has a run-in with the Manson family at their ranch, we expect events to unfold towards a historically-correct gory climax. But as the clock counts down on August 8th, 1969, Tarantino wrong-foots his audience with an alternative violent ending, one that is brutal, hysterical and horribly funny.

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Standout scenes include a masterful homage to a scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho and a comic argument/fight between Cliff and martial arts legend Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), who is controversially portrayed as an prissily arrogant upstart: “I unleash all my power,” he declares, boasting that if he had a fight against Cassius Clay, he would “make him a cripple.”

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Like many of Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood goes on a bit too long, but this is cinema to immerse yourself in. It never grates or bores. It would be hard to think of scenes which could be cut here. Perhaps Tate’s trip to the cinema to see her own film, The Wrecking Crew? Or Rick’s on-set exchanges with a precocious child actor (Julia Butters)? But these scenes humanize the characters and give them depth. ‘Barbie doll’ Tate is shown watching the audience’s response to her ‘klutz’ role, uncertain at first, then laughing along with their laughter. Rick bares his sentimental soul to his younger, wiser co-star and she boosts his fragile confidence.

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I left the cinema feeling strangely invigorated and refreshed. Quentin Tarantino has created another slow-burn classic, a film whose verve and ambience stay with you long after the credits roll. If you go and see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at a Picture House cinema, you will get a pre-film thank-you from Mr. Tarantino himself. And he rewards viewers who stay beyond the credits with more fun.

Volunteering at the Leper Chapel

Last week volunteers from my workplace braved a heatwave inferno to help a local charity with their ‘meadow management’. In energy-sapping temperatures of up to 36 degrees C (96.8 F) we raked hay while the sun shone and enjoyed the break from our office screens (if not the air-con).

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Cambridge Past, Present & Future (CPPF) is “dedicated to protecting and enhancing the green setting of Cambridge for people and nature”. They look after five sites in the area – we have previously volunteered at Wandlebury and Coton – but this was the first time we had visited the Leper Chapel and its meadowland. This 12th century Romanesque building is one of the oldest in Cambridge and was originally the chapel of an isolation hospital caring for people with leprosy.

It is now bordered by a main road, a railway line and a car scrap yard, a crazy juxtaposition that makes you wonder what the town planners were thinking. But this also has the effect of making the building and the land behind it feel more precious.

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CPPF wardens Ray and Thev explained that the aim of the hay-raking work was to encourage more wild plants and flowers. Ray took us to a patch of the meadow which had more biodiversity and gave us a quick botany lesson: we learned the names of plants and flowers such as plantains, knapweed and bird’s foot trefoil (or ‘eggs and bacon’). We saw grasshoppers and crickets and stumbled over a minefield of ant-nest mounds.

Lunch in the cool of the Chapel itself was a blessed relief. Ice-cold Coke and honeydew melon never tasted so good. Breaking news of a change to the UK’s Prime Minister was dispiriting, but also made some of us attack the hay a little more violently in the afternoon.

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As with the politics, the landscape around the Leper Chapel is also changing: diggers are gouging out a cycle route called the Chisholm Trail, which will soon join the two Cambridge railway stations and link to St. Ives. The result will be a window for cyclists onto the meadowland oasis that we helped to preserve.

20190723_131606Photographs by Heather Daniel

Midsommar

The sun shines down on a picturesque village as characters are killed off in outrageous ways. But folk horror Midsommar is more Wicker Man than Midsomer Murders, a hallucinatory bad-trip to a Swedish pagan festival with its own Pyramid stage and pyrotechnic climax.

Ari Aster’s follow-up to 2018’s Hereditary is also about family and grief. Both films feature nightmarish images that will be hard to erase from your memory. If Midsommar feels slightly disappointing after Aster’s brilliantly disturbing debut, it is an atmospheric, ambitious and unsettling film, with added comedy value.

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After a shocking family tragedy, college student Dani (Florence Pugh) travels to Sweden with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and three of his mates. They have been invited by one of them, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), to his home – a rural commune called the Hårga, which is holding a once-in-ninety-years festival.

In a long pre-credits sequence, writer-director Aster has already shown us that Dani and Christian’s relationship is under strain. All the signs are that this will not be a happy holiday: turbulence at the end of the flight; depth-charges of doom from Bobby Krlic’s creepy score. And a world turned upside down by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski as the group drive to their destination – the sky becomes a river with their car skimming along its surface.

The gateway into the Hårga commune is a through a homemade wooden sun and it feels like a portal into another world, like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Almost immediately the group are offered drugs and things get progressively weird.

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Midsommar goes on a bit too long, but its extended second act induces a woozy, trancelike state in the viewer, as if we, too, have been taking drugs and been out in the sun too long. When Christian asks what is in some potion he is being offered, he is told that the drink “breaks down your defences and opens you up to the influence.”

So many hallucinatory potions are swallowed or inhaled in the film that we doubt the truth of what we are seeing. Expected country customs such as maypole dancing and feasts (“Skol!”) intermingle with the jarringly unusual. The commune’s children play ‘Skin the Fool’ and carve wooden runes at school; we are shown embroidered sheets with graphic images (a girl has spiral eyes like Kaa’s in Jungle Book).  Dani sees grass growing out of her hands.  Is that a bear, there, in a cage?

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Comedy highlights include Will Poulter’s character freaking out about the lack of darkness at 9 in the evening (“I don’t like it!”) and an assisted  sex scene which defies description

Florence Pugh, who recently appeared in BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl, has a magnetic screen stillness and an open face that helps us side with Dani and empathise with what she is going through. Her grieving innocence also makes her very appealing to the villagers, if not her own boyfriend. Pelle helps her figure things out, telling Dani: “I have always felt held by a family … But do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?”

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Aster has crafted a kind of slasher break-up movie about family and belonging, dressed up as a folk horror, which puts Dani through a harsh bout of Gestalt therapy. Seen in this way Midsommar almost offers us a happy ending.

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