Tag: Michael Stuhlberg

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Marvel opens up its infinite universes as it lays the groundwork for bringing back old characters with new faces in this corporate outing

Director: Sam Raimi

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch), Rachel McAdams (Dr Christine Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Karl Mordo), Benedict Wong (Wong), Xochitl Gomez (America Chavez), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Nicodemus West)

Spoilers: The main spoiler would be looking at the cast list. I won’t name the cameos are but I do mention a main plot development revealed within 15 minutes.

Parallel universes have infinite possibilities. These are largely not found in this lumpen, fan-service obsessed and (whisper it) slightly dull film that fails to follow-up on either the promise of the first film (to which it makes awkward call-backs) or its main concept. It allows Raimi scope to indulge his Evil Dead style visuals, but all within the confines of producing another entry in the series that feels like a bridge between chapters rather than an interesting story in its own right.

Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) attends the wedding of former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), when he’s torn away to fight a squid monster chasing a teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). America has the power to travel between parallel universes – and is dragging behind her the dead body of a parallel Strange who failed to protect her from a mysterious foe trying to steal her power. Strange, Wong (Benedict Wong – the most engaging performance in the film from this under-rated actor) and the Sorcerers protect America – but Strange’s attempt to recruit Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) goes awry when it turns out its she hunting America, using dark magic in an attempt to find her parallel versions of her lost children.

DSITMOM has been called the MCU’s horror film: which by no means it’s The Exorcist. It’s a sort of very, very gentle entrée to the genre – like Cronenberg’s Videodrome was turned into a kid’s TV series or a comic-book version of Raimi’s The Evil Dead. It has a few flourishes, but none of this is allowed to get in the way of the corporate enterprise. It’s more interested in giving people what it feels they want and fitting itself into the timeline of a series.

In fact it sometimes feels like an attempt to mirror the success of Spider-Man: No Way Home (I wonder how many of the cameos were added after that film’s release?). It takes the elements of guest stars and parallel universes and presents them in ways that provide little insight or long-term reward. In No Way Home alternate versions of characters are used to explore how different events could have shaped our heroes. The returning stars aren’t just thrown in, they have arcs and emotional journeys. The whole is both fun and an engaging story but also nostalgic. Compare, as well, the TV series Loki (by the same writer) that brilliantly used parallel versions of its lead to deconstruct and develop his character.

DSITMOM does none of this. There are rich opportunities to see how Strange may have developed in different universes: after all this is the closest thing to an “ends justify the means” character in the MCU. Would different versions of him go more or less further – and how might it make our Strange reflect on his occasionally ruthless ‘big picture’ thinking (this is after all, as the film mentions, the guy who allowed half of all life to blink out of existence as part of a masterplan only he knew). We don’t get nearly enough of that. In fact, we get virtually none of it.

These opportunities are ignored in the two parallel universes we spend the most time in, where Strange is either a dead war hero or an insane hermit corrupted by dark magic. Neither of these characters is really contrasted effectively or interestingly with our version. A faint plotline of Strange learning trust from the mistakes of others is threaded through, but only lightly. Instead, the film focuses more attention on Strange’s lost love for Christine Palmer, an oddly unsatisfying focus since Strange has appeared in at least four films since his first solo effort six years ago, and the franchise has failed to mention this motivating loss once (not even a throwaway line in No Way Home to build it up).

Mind you it’s better than the development Wanda Maximoff gets. DSITMOM is pretty much impenetrable unless you’ve watched WandaVision. Even if you have, as I have, you’ll probably be a little annoyed at the ‘development’ she gets here. At the end of that series, Wanda had accepted the damaging consequences of her grief and started moving on. Here though, she’s a sociopathic monster defined solely by her motherly grief and her ruthless determination to tear universes apart to heal it. It feels retrograde to, essentially, be saying “women who suffer loss go axe-crazy” or to double down on her willingness to harm others to cling to a ‘normal life’ fantasy (as well as contrary to the hopeful tone the series ended on).

That’s not to mention the clumsy fan service peppering the film. The main outing to a parallel universe is basically an excuse for fan-pleasing cameos. These amount to nothing more than a series of actors popping up say “Hello I’m Y” and promptly suffering terrible fates (because it’s a parallel universe and your plot armour means nothing there). Like Yoda fighting Christopher Lee, it’s cool when you first see it but risks becoming less and less rewarding overtime because it’s utterly insubstantial.

DSITMOM is basically insubstantial. It drags on – it’s a chase film that largely lacks momentum – it has a series of slightly bored looking actors (Ejiofor wins, with a Mordo who seems to have become Strange’s nemesis in the interim between this and the first film despite never being mentioned in any other film since), gets absorbed in a MacGuffin filled plot (there are no less than two Magic Books of Wham-a-bam that are being hunted or fought over) and flattens down most of Raimi’s style into a corporate product with little heart (compare this to his Spider-Man films which look like Citizen Kane or Vertigo next to this).

There are about two moments of invention: a sequence when Strange plummets through a series of bizarre parallel universes (including one where he’s made of paint) and a battle between two Stranges that utilises musical notes as weapons. Everything else feels production flattened, as do the actors, and ends teeing you up for a third film with another “whoop” cameo. Flat, lumpen and failing to capitalise on its possibilities, this is a big disappointment, an empty lightshow with brief but shallow pleasures.

Steve Jobs (2015)

Michael Fassbender excels in Danny Boyle’s superb Sorkin scripted biopic Steve Jobs

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), Kate Winslet (Joanna Hoffman), Seth Rogan (Steve Wozniak), Jeff Daniels (John Sculley), Katherine Waterston (Chrisann Brennan), Michael Stuhlbarg (Andy Hertzfield), Perla Haney-Jardine (Lisa Brennan aged 19), Makenzie Moss (Lisa Brennan, aged 5), Ripley Sobo (Lisa Brennan, aged 9), Sarah Snook (Andy Cunningham)

The art of movie biography shouldn’t be slavishly covering every second of the subject’s life. It should be capturing their essence. Steve Jobs does exactly that, a superb distillation of its subject’s life and personality through focusing on the preparation for three vital project launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998, each playing out in real time. The contrasting (and continuing) clashes and tensions at each event – personal and professional – tells us more about the man and his impact than a cradle-to-grave biopic ever could.

It also helps that Steve Jobs has an electric script from Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin approached the project not like a film, but as a classic three-Act play. Steve Jobs is an explosion where all the special effects are the words, held together by pulsating ideas and a sense of rhythm musicians would envy. This is Sorkin at his absolute best, a script with zip and jokes but also a profound understanding of exactly the sort of tunnel-visioned visionary perfectionism Jobs encapsulated, all wrapped up with a beautifully judged emotional through-line. Only Sorkin can make just actors delivering dialogue as dynamic and edge-of-the-seat as a car chase.

And (like The Social Network) his intensely intellectual style, and sense for the frustration of the super-intelligent at the rest of us for not keeping up, is perfect for this tale of the creation of the future of computing. Sorkin uses product launches as a window into how fresh idea can be accepted (or not) by the world. The battles over them, with the focus on small details that communicate the big picture and the difficulties of making others understand the visionary core that makes something work is crucial – and brilliantly delivered here. That’s perfect for Sorkin, who is gifted at making big-picture passionate thinkers sound as brilliant as they are.

But what makes Steve Jobs perhaps his most compelling script, is that he adds an emotional undertone to it. Jobs was a visionary, who understood better than the customer what they really wanted. But he was also a flawed individual. Sorkin’s script makes clear that, like his computers, he was a closed system. Just as the Macs were designed to only work with their own software and not interface with others (Jobs’ gospel, the exclusivity of the product being what makes it special), so Jobs himself built his own conception of the world and refused to let anything outside that influence it, or allow any external factors to change his mind. Decide he was loyal to someone, and nothing they do will shakes that. Decide another has betrayed him, and the system locks them out.

Central to this is Jobs’ relationship with his unacknowledged daughter. From the 5-year-old he reluctantly spends time with, to the young girl he starts to form a carefully emotionally managed bond with to the 19-year old who finally tells him how much she resents his closed-system management of their relationship. Sorkin’s script brilliantly balances an insight into why Jobs might have acted like this (bound up in issues with his birth parents) and the emotional impact it has on the daughter (the hugs not returned, the words not said). Jobs isn’t a bad man – although the script doesn’t shy away from his selfishness, or the appalling things he said about Lisa’s mother in the press – or a straight-forward terrible dad. He’s just not quite capable (or willing) of giving the emotional commitment needs. It’s written tenderly with a great deal of empathy for both father and daughter.

This emotion is further bought out by Boyle’s dynamic humanism at the helm. It’s a reminder of what a great theatre director Boyle is: this film is basically one of the most dynamic plays you’ll ever see, fast cuts and graphics intermixed with extended one-shot dialogue scenes that allow his actors to flourish. Boyle employs on-screen graphics and montage to move us between the product launches, but isn’t afraid to let his camera serve the dialogue, with the exchanges brilliantly cut to the rhythm of the dialogue.

He also sets out a space for the actors to deliver uniformly superb performances. Front and centre is Michael Fassbender’s transformational performance. He communicates Jobs’ brilliance and his ruthless determination to never compromise. It’s a performance of messianic intensity, but also extremely grounded and real – and, like Sorkin, he understands the heart of the film is the father-daughter relationship. Fassbender carefully hides Jobs’ emotional need, just as he understands the dynamism that wouldn’t allow a hint of vulnerability and arrogance that judges everyone as second-best to himself. He’s a tough, difficult, uncompromising man – but also an egalitarian one, (eventually) willing to acknowledge his flaws, the biggest being his fear of emotion.

Equally brilliant is Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ long-time confidante and ‘work-wife’, manager of each of the launches and a combination of mentor, conscience, counsellor and parent. Jeff Daniels is excellent as the businessman who goes from mentor to unforgiven rival. Seth Rogan gives his finest dramatic performance as Steve Wozniak, here a decent man and computing genius, who lacked Jobs’ ability to “play the orchestra” and shape events to his will.

It’s all wrapped up in a gripping film that feels like a fusion of theatre and film. If it has a problem, it’s that many will find its focus on the nuts-and-bolts of Apple hard to follow (and I confess, the script makes me understand the drama without understanding the product). But its strength is in understanding visionaries, their ability to shape ideas that wouldn’t occur to the rest of us – and the selfishness, and the damage that causes, that often goes hand-in-hand with that. With scintillating acting, skilful direction and, above all, a superb script, Steve Jobs is sharp and engrossing drama.

Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

Liev Schreiber and Tobey Maguire recreate Spassky/Fischer in Ed Zwick’s pointless chess drama

Director: Ed Zwick

Cast: Tobey Maguire (Bobby Fischer), Liev Schreiber (Boris Spassky), Peter Sarsgaard (Father Bill Lombardy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Paul Marshall), Lily Rabe (Joan Fischer), Robin Weigert (Regina Fischer)

In the 1960s and 70s, Chess suddenly became world news. Like the space race before it, it was effectively a way for the USA and USSR to combat each other without the risky side effect of blowing up the whole world. The USSR had all the best players: until American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer emerged to shatter this monopoly. In 1972 the world seemed to come to a stop to watch the world championship clash between Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Reykjavik. Ed Zwick’s film attempts to bring together the personal and the political – two superpowers using a game as a proxy for war – into an enlightening package. It fails.

The film opens with Fischer trashing his apartment in search for bugs on the eve of the 1972 final before flashing back in time. You’d expect the film to give us an idea of what bought our “hero” to this point. Zwick’s film utterly fails to do this. Now Fischer – very well played by an aggressively prickly Tobey Maguire – was a hugely troubled man. Though never formally diagnosed some combination of paranoia, OCD and a myriad other personality problems meant he was never more than a step away from self-destruction. Despite this he was deeply driven by an ambition to be the best chess player in the world. Its rich material, but the film never begins to get to grips with Fischer.

Could this be because it wants to tell an uplifting story – the film is really building towards the standing ovation Spassky gives Fischer in game 6 at the 1972 championship when Fischer whipped him in about 40 moves of perfect play – but is struggling with the fact that Fischer himself is deeply unsympathetic. A paranoid conspiracy freak who even by the standards of the 1960s was an aggressive, virulent anti-Semite (Fischer would later match Mel Gibson in his anti-Semitic tirades, blaming Zionism for everything from 9/11 down). A bully who refused to interact with anything except on his own terms, who cut all friends and family from his life for the most minor transgressions. There is no insight given here at all, or suggestion of what was wrong with Fischer.

It’s hard to hang a “triumph against the odds” structure – as Zwick’s unimaginative and conventional film tries to – around this. A far more interesting film would have used the 1972 tournament as an Act 2 triumph and then explored in more depth Fischer’s long spiral of self-destruction that would see him as a bearded eccentric ranting against Jews and America, in exile in Iceland. A film like that would also have then been able to properly do service to the idea of Fischer as a pawn of American state interests, who celebrate him when they want to rub the Soviet nose in it, but then drop him as soon as his purpose is served.

Instead, the film becomes formulaic and empty, leaving us with the impression that we learn nothing about Fischer at all. Why did this man of Jewish descent hate Jewish people so much? Was it self-loathing? What motivated him to seemingly self-destruct his own career so regularly? Was it a fear of being beaten? We have no idea. Instead that opening scene of Fischer destroying his apartment tells us everything we learn about the man over the course of the film. He remains an enigma – and since he’s also deeply unpleasant (the film skirts a little around how much) and we don’t get given any rich material to understand why he’s like this, he becomes a tedious figure to spend time with.

Zwick’s film also fails to communicate the cold war motivations behind this. Although there are the odd shots of the powers-that-be watching on TV in the Kremlin and the White House, we get no sense of how or why these powers are using chess to promote their own ideology. The film is endlessly reliable on vintage and reconstructed newsreel footage to constantly tell us directly things it can’t work out how to do with dialogue, from the political situation to chess moves. You learn nothing about the Cold War from this film. Michael Stuhlbarg’s lawyer turned promoter for Fischer states openly that he wants to use Fischer to show up the Russkies – but that blunt statement is it.

Instead the film is only really interesting when it is effectively recreating footage from the 1972 championship. And when a film’s strong points are recreating real events perfectly, you know you are in trouble. Zwick’s film lacks ideas, a compelling plot, insight or invention. It suffers badly today when compared to the far more dynamic and insightful The Queen’s Gambit (whose lead character is a heavily fictionalised female Fischer). Zwick’s film is him at his plodding, middle-brow worst, presenting a would-be epic shorn of anything of actual interest of controversy. The only thing that redeems it are decent performances from Maguire, Sarsgaard and Schreiber. Otherwise, this is an empty mess that tells you nothing at all about anything. You could checkmate it in about four moves.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Cate Blanchett dominates the screen in Blue Jasmine

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Cate Blanchett (Jasmine Francis), Sally Hawkins (Ginger), Alec Baldwin (Hal Francis), Peter Sarsgaard (Dwight Westlake), Louis CK (Al Munsinger), Andrew Dice Clay (Augie), Bobby Cannavale (Chili), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Flicker), Aldren Ehrenreich (Danny Francis)

Every so often an actor intersects with a director and, such is the actor’s brilliance, they seem to take the film by the scruff of the neck and almost carry the director along to success. Such is the case with Blue Jasmine, a film so seized upon, so wonderfully played and brilliantly observed by a truly phenomenal (she won every award going) Cate Blanchett, you feel Woody Allen just let the camera record her work and carefully built the film around her.

Allen’s film, easily one of his best of his troubled later years, is a modernised remix of Streetcar Named Desire. After a Ponzi scheme scandal leads to her husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) arrest and suicide, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) finds herself landing in the poor end of San Francisco and sharing a house with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Ginger’s marriage to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) collapsed after Hal’s dirty dealings destroyed their lottery win landfall. Jasmine, teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, living half in the present and half in an imagined version of her own past, soon clashes with Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and eventually finds hope for a second chance with diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) who is oblivious to her background.

The parallels between Blue Jasmine and Streetcar should be pretty clear to anyone reading that summary, and Allen draws some neat modernisation parallels (and thankfully, and wisely, drops the rape plotline that ends that play) between the two. Placing Blanche/Jasmine as the trophy wife of a corrupt businessman, who has shut her eyes to his dealings and let her own intellect drain away in shallow frippery, works really well. Not least dramatizing very well the cultural shift from this extreme wealth (detailed in a series of cleverly interwoven flashbacks) to the relative poverty of normal life.

But the film really works from the super-intelligent, hyper-brilliant, eye-catching wonderfulness of Cate Blanchett in the lead role. This is one of those performances for the ages, a tour-de-force of fragility, self-pity, self-deception, hostility, undirected anger, desperation and pain that dominates and shapes the entire movie. Blanchett is particularly effective because she never, ever overplays the role, but let’s these complex, contradictory emotions play constantly behind her eyes and slowly seem to dribble out until they dominate her entire body. Several times, Allen plants the camera and allows us to simply watch Blanchett go through various stages of mental collapse in front of our very eyes, with this amazing actress able to seemingly fall apart in slow motion in front of us.

Jasmine is a complex and fascinating character, in some ways hugely unsympathetic. She’s a massive snob, she certainly feels the world owes her something (she flies into San Francisco first class complaining she has had to sell everything just to make ends meet, while dragging Louis Vuitton luggage behind her), she lies when she needs to and treats everyone around her with a slight air of condescension. But she’s also  incredibly vulnerable, and carrying a great deal of guilt and pain, as well as only barely able to deal not only with the loss of her privileged lifestyle, but also her growing (but denied) realisation that the price of the lifestyle wasn’t worth the having it. 

The film throws her into a series of contexts that show her at her best and worst, as victim and as fantasist. Getting a job at a dentist’s reception desk – a job she seems to only barely have the patience or aptitude for – she is forced to see off the unwelcome advances of her creepy boss (played with a passive aggressive sleaziness by Michael Stuhlbarg) with horror. Later though, she wilfully deceives Dwight (a fine performance of assured arrogance by Peter Sarsgaard) about her background and character. She is partly right in her assessment of her sister Ginger having a very low opinion of herself, so only pairing herself with men who treat her badly; but Chili is also right about her having no regard or time for her sister when she was wealthy.

The use of flashbacks throughout the film works very well to show us Jasmine before and after her economic crash. What’s fascinating is that her fragility is an ever-present, kept suppressed under a shower of gifts, but quickly coming to the fore when Hal’s (has there been a better role for Baldwin than this jovial, greedy cheat?) serial infidelity is bought to her attention. It also serves to remind us to keep Jasmine at a certain distance, her own evaluations of what her past life was like frequently not squaring with the version we see.

All of this hinges on Blanchett’s brilliant work, but she’s not alone in delivering a fine performance. As her blousy sister, moving like a weathervane from person to person, changing her opinions quickly depending on her recent experiences, Sally Hawkins is possibly at her best here as well. Andrew Dice Clay is excellent as an honest Joe who hovers over the film like an object of destiny. Bobby Cannavale does some very good work as a feckless but sort-of honest Stanley Kowalski.

Allen’s direction is calm and almost in awe of Blanchett, and that’s fair enough because whatever you look at, it comes back to her striking genius in the film. Blue Jasmine may remove some of the depth that Blanche has (with her life of pain and guilt in the play’s backstory) but it substitutes that with a gripping exploration of a long-running mental collapse that is so movingly and superbly brought to life by Blanchett you can’t help but be engrossed by it.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer are lovers drawn together in Call Me By Your Name

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Cast: Timothée Chalamet (Elio Perlman), Armie Hammer (Oliver), Michael Stuhlbarg (Professor Perlman), Amira Casar (Annella Perlman), Esther Garrell (Marzia), Victoire Du Bois (Chiara)

First love is a story everyone can relate to. Call Me By Your Name unfolds an engrossing early romance, where precocious 17-year old Elio (Timothée Chalamat) discovers his bisexuality through his deep attraction to his professor father’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) summer research assistant, 24-year old Oliver (Armie Hammer). An attraction which, over a long hot summer in Northern Italy in 1983, finally leads to a deep romantic and sexual bond forming between the two.

Refreshingly, Guadagnino’s film is relentlessly positive and devoid of tension or disapproval. You’d expect a romance such as this – especially a gay one – to lead to an eventual outburst of furious disapproval from someone or tear-filled remonstrations that what the couple have isn’t wrong. These are avoided completely, for something that feels intensely real and convincingly grounded, especially as it follows Elio’s stumbling attempts to identify his own sexuality and understand how his feelings affect him. 

This is also a showcase for acting, a film like this living or dying on the chemistry between the two lead actors, and Chalamet and Hammer have this in spades, suggesting from the very start a deep bond, that grows in emotional intensity. The relationship is a slow dance, with both of them blowing hot and cold at different times. Oliver’s first tentative approach is resoundingly rebuffed by Elio, only for Elio’s fascination with Oliver to grow into a deep unexpressed longing, which Oliver is nervous about responding to for a host of factors, from the age difference to his residence in Elio’s parents’ house. Even after the two come together, Elio’s confusion about his own feelings leads him to turn colder before the two finally find an equilibrium that works. 

It’s also a classic coming of age story, as Elio moves out of adolescence and into adulthood. Elio never feels like a traditional teenager in the first place, a musical prodigy and talented autodidact who seems to have read nearly everything (“Is there anything you don’t know?” Oliver jokingly says at one point after Elio explains the detailed history of a war memorial). But in other ways he is the same as any other teen: sex-obsessed and confused, spending a lot of time with two female friends who he seems to be unsure of his feelings are towards, indulging in explorative sexual fantasies and fumbled exploration of his own and others’ bodies, working out what he likes and what he doesn’t.

It leads to a superb performance from Chalamet (youngest ever nominee for Best Actor at the Oscars), who perfectly captures both the intelligence of Elio, and his confused lack of understanding of who or what he is. Chalamet’s body language – a mixture of awkward teen and assured adult, is a perfect physical expression of his part-adult, part-child psyche. Like any teenager, he’s at times selfish, greedy or plain annoying. But at many others he’s sensitive, delicate, vulnerable and desperate to express his love. Chalamet juggles all these competing emotions and hormonal drives brilliantly, and his face is a true instrument of expression, a sliding kaleidoscope of confused urges that compels your attention.

It’s a perfect match-up with Hammer, who is superb as just the sort of boisterous, confident, exciting and sexy presence you can imagine being drawn towards. But Hammer also laces Oliver with a tenderness, a concern and a gentleness beneath his joie de vive that really expands the character’s soul and makes him not just a force of vibrancy but also a genuinely lovely man. Hammer is very careful (as is the film) to avoid the possibility of Oliver being seen as a seducer, and it does this by giving him a touching restraint as well as manipulation-free openness, an honesty and an emotional freeness that helps make him more often the pursued rather than the pursuer.

Guadagnino lets this gentle love story unfold over a luscious, gorgeous Italian summer, with his camera drifting contentedly around the two lovers and their environment, as much a part of the dance of their initial attraction. The film is resolutely “in the moment” and has no flashbacks, flash forwards or any real reference to any narrative events outside of what we see on screen. It unfolds gracefully and naturally, with the camera work largely taking an unflashy but still warm view on everything we see.

Guadagnino deliberately treats much of the central romance element with reserve, avoiding too much nudity and panning discretely away from sexual encounters between the two. (I will say though, that he has no such reserve with Elio’s heterosexual encounters, where female nudity and sex are shown in full.) It does successfully preserve a sense of innocence and purity in the relationship – and keeps the focus on the fact that this love between the two is about them becoming better people, who understand themselves better, through the relationship. 

This positive message is reinforced by the acceptance of Elio and Oliver from all in the film, including Elio’s parents. Michael Stuhlbarg in particular has a scene near the end of the film of wonderful power – cementing his status from this film as a dream dad – with a speech to his son so full of acceptance, encouragement and love that you’ll feel your heart melt. Both Elio’s parents are very aware of the relationship and tacitly encourage it: according to this film at least, if you’re young and gay, growing up in a Bohemian, academic household does make your life easier! (Even Oliver comments that Elio has no idea how lucky he is.)

This film is also refreshing for its lack of casualties. Sure the two girls Elio and Oliver flirt with are disregarded swiftly, and the film gives only a little time to their rather shabby treatment, but generally it’s a film about learning who you are by spending time with someone else. And if that includes a few moments of teen awkward sexual exploration that are almost unbearable to watch (a scene with a curious Elio and a peach is a case in point, replete with queasy sound effects) then so be it.

Call Me By Your Name is a terrific coming-of-age tale, emotionally honest, true and mature and directed with a graceful ease and unshowy skill that is a testament to the deep confidence and grace of its director. With two superb performances and some excellent support work, it’s a glorious summer movie of love that will speak to you regardless of sexuality.

Trumbo (2015)

Bryan Cranston is the put-upon idealist Trumbo under the scornful eye of Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Cast: Bryan Cranston (Dalton Trumbo), Diane Lane (Cleo Trumbo), Helen Mirren (Hedda Hopper), Louis CK (Arlen Hird), Elle Fanning (Nikola Trumbo), John Goodman (Frank King), Michael Stuhlbarg (Edward G Robinson), Alan Tudyk (Ian McLellan Hunter), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Virgil Brooks), Dean O’Gorman (Kirk Douglas), Stephen Root (Hymie King), Roger Bart (Buddy Ross), David James Elliott (John Wayne), Christian Berkel (Otto Preminger)

Hollywood loves to make movies about itself. It particularly loves to make movies where Hollywood is seen to be working on a higher moral plane. Trumbo is a film about the Hollywood Ten – the ten major screenwriters, directors and actors in Hollywood whom the industry blacklisted in the 1940s because of their sympathy for communism. Their leading light was Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a rich screenwriter who finds himself imprisoned and unemployable. Trumbo encourages the writers to group together and write under pseudonyms for cheap film studios – although the right-wing in Hollywood continues to persecute them. Trumbo cannot reveal his identity as a writer – even after winning two Oscars – until 1960 when Kirk Douglas gives him a credit for Spartacus.

Trumbo is a very earnest, straightforward and rather bland re-tread of a key moment in Hollywood. It’s made with very little imagination, and remixes the world of 1940s politics into something that bears more resemblance to the political situation now than it does to the time. That’s not to defend the House Committee on Un American Activities (HUAC), the Congress Committee that led the campaign against communist subversion in Hollywood. Their persecution of communists flew in the face of American ideals of free speech, and their ruin of the lives of innumerable actors, writers and directors not found to be ideological pure is appalling.

But this is a film that simplifies its politics into a world of good and bad. It also works hard to try and whitewash Hollywood. Watch this film and you would believe it was Congress that had worked overtime in order to ban certain Hollywood creatives from working. Not so: the black list was put forward by the movie studios themselves and endorsed by the various guilds. Famous actors and directors, such as Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, furiously dropped their support for the Hollywood Ten after feeling they had been deceived by the Ten about their Communist associations. The film mentions none of this of course, running with a Hollywood-vs-Congress story line and crowbarring in people like McCarthy and Nixon who had very little to do with HUAC.

The main Hollywood figures campaigning against the Black List are either faceless Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals types, or lip-smacking, practically mustachio-twirling gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played with ludicrous OTT camp wickedness by Helen Mirren). John Wayne is the only recognisable Hollywood “legend” shown on the side of these guys – and, while he does get mocked for his non-war-record early on by Trumbo, he is quickly shown to be a moderate pushing for forgiveness for those who repent (and is noticeably absent from the villainy of the organisation later in the film) – Hollywood doesn’t want to be too harsh on one of its own.

Roach’s political simplicity also affects the actors who found themselves in an impossible position. As Michael Stuhlbarg’s Edward G Robinson points out, writers can work under a pseudonym, actors can’t. I was reminded of when Elia Kazan won an honorary Oscar and several famous Hollywood actors refused to applaud him, as Kazan had “named names” (or rather confirmed names HUAC already knew) when pulled before the committee. Robinson here is rammed into the same position, denounced as a snitch and a traitor for confirming the names of the Hollywood Ten when many of them are already in prison. As at the Oscars, I’m not sure it’s our place to judge. It’s cosy to assume “I would have told them no” but who can say if we would have or not? And can we really judge those who decided they didn’t want to go to the wall for a communist cause they didn’t believe in (as Kazan and Robinson didn’t, being more left-wing sympathisers than Stalinists like Trumbo)?

It’s another part of the film’s simplicity that Communism is not of course interrogated any further. Watch this film and the political views of Trumbo and his colleagues come across as nothing more than a more idealistic version of Obama-ism. In reality, Trumbo was a Stalinist who pushed for non-intervention in World War II until Russia was attacked by Hitler. This is not mentioned or explored in the film at all. In fact, the complexity of these idealists climbing into bed with a regime soaked red with blood that was suppressing freedom across large chunks of the globe isn’t even raised. Roach wants to tell a story about good-old-fashioned-Hollywood-democrats being persecuted by nasty right-wingers.

Away from the film’s simplicity it’s nothing special. Roach does competent work and there is the odd good scene. Trumbo himself is basically a rather selfish arsehole, who judges everyone around him and frequently ignores his put-upon family. Cranston does a decent job as Trumbo – but you can’t help but feel his generous Oscar nomination was in part a recognition for his work on Breaking Bad. Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel get some of the best scenes as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger working with Trumbo on Spartacus and Exodus. Bizarrely, the film totally avoids diving into the themes of Spartacus– or exploring what Trumbo was thinking about when he wrote “I’m Spartacus”, that paen to unity from the pen of a man abandoned by everyone, surely a hugely personal line not in the original source material – and instead skirts only on the surface, ticking off events. It kinda sums the film up: a solid enough to watch, but basically forgettable, that never engages with the inner lives of the men it claims to understand.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer work together to save a misunderstood creature in The Shape of Water

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Sally Hawkins (Elisa Esposito), Michael Shannon (Colonel Richard Strickland), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Doug Jones (The Creature), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Robert Hoffstetler), Octavia Spencer (Zelda Delilah Fuller), Nick Searcy (General Frank Hoyt), David Hewlett (Fleming), Lauren Lee Smith (Elaine Strickland)

Guillermo del Toro: part arthouse director, part thumping action director, who else could have made both Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim? The Shape of Water falls firmly into the former category, and continues the director’s long-standing interest in fairy-tales and fables, creating adult bedtime stories filled with romance and wonder, but laced with violence and human horror (and it’s always the humans who are the monsters). The Shape of Water has been garlanded with huge praise – but yet I’m not quite sure about it. Just not quite sure.

In 1962 in Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaner working in a government facility with her colleague, friend and effective translator Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Her only other friend is her neighbour, a gay out-of-work advert artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). The research facility takes delivery of a strange amphibious creature (Doug Jones), captured in the wild by sinister CIA man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). While Strickland and lead scientist Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) conduct tests on the creature, Elisa befriends it – the two of them drawn together by their isolation and inability to communicate verbally. When the decision comes from above to dissect the creature, Elisa decides to help it escape. 

The Shape of Wateris an adult fairy-tale that uses the structure, rules and heightened reality of the bedtime story. So we have Elisa as “the Princess without a voice”, the government facility as the evil castle, the creature as a mixture of damsel in distress and knight errant, and Michael Shannon’s vile government spook as a sort of perverted evil Queen. While the film is set in 1962, it’s aiming for a fantasy world feeling: Elisa and Giles even live above an old-school movie cinema, while the facility itself is a dank, subterranean concrete prison, part medieval dungeon, part industrial complex, dressed in a retro-1950s style. There’s no denying the film looks fantastically impressive.

The plot hinges on the growing bond between Elisa and the creature, which flourishes first into a mutual friendship, then semi-romance and finally into a full-blown relationship. If there is one part of the movie which I felt didn’t quite work, it was the build between friendship and love. While del Toro does some excellent work showing these two bonding over a common lack of language – she teaches him some basic sign language, they both share a love of music – I felt the jump between friendship and sexual attraction seemed a little big.

Del Toro films it all beautifully – and his empathy for both characters is very moving. But the film wants us to feel this deep connection for (and between) the two characters – and I’m just not sure I did. I’m not sure the film gives the time it needs for this development. Great as Michael Stuhlbarg’s (and excellent as his conflicted performance is) character is, could the film have removed his sub-plot and invested more time in the relationship? Yes it could – and I think this could have made a stronger movie. This is of course a personal reaction – I’m sure plenty of people will be bowled over by the romance of the film – but I didn’t quite buy it. For all the soulfulness of the film, I just didn’t find myself investing in this relationship as it built as much as I should.

This is despite Sally Hawkins’ expressive acting as Elisa. I find Hawkins a bit of an acquired taste: she is a little too twee, something about her eyes and vulnerable smile is a little too head-girlish. Of course that sprightly gentleness works perfectly here, but the character is more interesting when del Toro explores her depths, her desire and well-concealed resentfulness under a cheery exterior (practically the first thing we see her do is masturbate in the bath – a daily ritual timed to the second via egg timer, functionally getting these feelings out of the way before the day ahead). Hawkins mixes this gentle exterior and passionate interior extremely well throughout the film.

The principal supports are also excellent. It’s no coincidence that del Toro makes our heroes all outsiders: a mute, a black servant and an ageing gay man. As well as showing why these characters might be drawn together, it’s also a neat parallel commentary on attitudes of the time – Octavia Spencer in particular makes a huge amount out of a character that is effectively a voice for Elisa half the time, investing the part with a huge sisterly warmth.

Richard Jenkins is both very funny and rather sweet as a man scared of being alone and frightened about doing the right thing. Most of the film’s laughs come from him – but so does a large degree of its heart. Jenkins gets some fantastic material – from hints that he has been fired for social and sexual misdemeanors from his Mad Men-ish former job, to his growing realisation that his hand-drawn art is being left behind in a world embracing photography (“I think it’s my best work” has never sounded like a sadder mantra), and above all his hopelessly sad infatuation with the friendly barman at a local diner (the sort of hopeless crush you feel he must realise isn’t going to go anywhere good – but still manages to be endearing before it gets there).

Del Toro’s dreamy fable has plenty of potential monsters and obstacles in it – from government suits to Russian heavies – but the main antagonist is Shannon’s Strickland. Great as Shannon is in this role as a menacing heavy with a hinterland of insecurities and self-doubt, it’s a character that feels a little obvious. He’s the monster, you see! It’s a heavy-handedness the film sometimes uses – not least in its occasional references to the race politics of the era – that weights the deck, and tries to do a little too much of the work for the audience. Again, a film with one fewer sub-plot might have allowed this character greater depth. As it is, his vileness is established from the first second, which means the metaphor of his hand with its increasingly rotten, gangrenous fingers seems a little to on-the-nose.

But The Shape of Water is a labour of love, and a testament to love – and del Toro reminds us all what a luscious and romantic filmmaker he can be. The later romantic moments between Elisa and the Creature have a beauty to them – not least the moments when they immerse themselves together in water. Other moments are too obvious: an imagined song-and-dance routine is so signposted in advance that it carries little emotional impact. In fact, the film’s main fault may be it is too predictable: most of its plot developments I worked out within the first few minutes – but it sort of still works. After all, fairy-tales are predictable aren’t they?

Del Toro has made one from the heart here. It’s not a perfect film – it’s not a masterpiece, and I think it’s a less complex and affecting work than the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth – but it’s made with a lot of love and a lot of lyrical romanticism. It looks absolutely astounding. It’s actually surprisingly funny and wonderfully acted: Richard Jenkins probably stands out, and my respect for Octavia Spencer continues to grow. Del Toro is gifted filmmaker, and he is working overtime here to make a romantic, sweeping, monster movie cum adult fairy-tale. All the ingredients are there: but somehow I didn’t fall in love. Did I miss it? Maybe I did. And I can’t think of much higher praise than I’m more than willing to go back and look again and see if I get more of a bond with it next time. But, for all its moments of genius, I found the delight was on the margins rather than the centre.

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo: a kids film in name only

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ben Kingsley (Papa Georges), Sacha Baron Cohen (Inspector Gustave Dasté), Ray Winstone (Claude Cabret), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Jude Law (Mr Cabret), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Michael Stuhlbarg (René Tabard), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick)

Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name you think of when your mind turns to directors of children’s films. So perhaps it makes sense that, in Hugo, he directed a children’s film aimed at virtually anyone except children. A huge box-office flop, Hugo was garlanded with awards and critics’ acclaim – but I’d be amazed if you find any child with a DVD of it. It’s a film made by a passionate lover of cinema, aimed at lovers of cinema, which just happens to have a child at the centre of it. 

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan, living in the Paris train station fixing the clocks, and attempting to fix a curious automaton which his late father (Jude Law) had taken from the Paris museum to repair. After being caught by Monsieur Georges (Ben Kingsley) stealing parts from his toy shop in the station, Hugo must earn back his confiscated notebook on the workings of the automaton. Hugo starts a friendship with Georges’ god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and together they begin to investigate the mysterious past of Papa Georges – and his connection with the early days of cinema.

Any understanding of what makes a good film for children is missing here. It’s not exciting, it’s not engrossing, it’s not particularly fun, it doesn’t place the child (really) at the heart, and most importantly it doesn’t have a story children can relate to. The characters spend a lot of time talking about the glorious adventure they’re on – but none of the excitement translates to the screen. Instead the action creeps forward uncertainly, with the motivations of Hugo himself unclear. There are half hearted attempts to aim at a universal fear children can relate to – losing your parents and searching for new ones – but the film doesn’t run with it. 

Its real interest is the power of the movies. So Hugo’s story gets lost halfway through the film, as Scorsese focuses in on the redemption of famed cinema auteur and pioneer Georges Méliès. The children’s adventure is nothing more than visiting a library to find out who Méliès was – after that, they are effectively superfluous to the story. Details about Hugo’s relationship with his father, or with his distant uncle, are completely dropped – and the automaton that seemed like it held the key to Hugo’s purpose, becomes a MacGuffin. It’s a film about a giant of cinema, made by a giant of cinema.

So let’s put aside the marketing of this film as children’s film. The only element of the film that feels remotely like it is part of some sort of kids’ flick is Sacha Baron Cohen’s slapstick, funny-accented railway inspector – and as such Cohen’s hammy mugging sticks out like a tiresome sore thumb. The rest of the film is what you would expect from a cinema enthusiast making a film about the movies – a glorious, loving recreation of old silent movies and the methods of making them, shot and told with a sprinkling of movie magic. 

The film looks wonderful. The cinematography is gorgeous, the production design astounding. It’s beautifully made and has a light and enchanting score. Scorsese goes all out to homage the shots and set-ups of old silent movies. In fact the film only really comes to life in its second half, where flashbacks show the methods Méliès used to make his films. The recreation of scenes from these old classics is brilliantly done – and Scorsese’s designers delight in filling the screen with the sort of colour that you couldn’t find in the original. The photography also goes out of its way to give these scenes the sort of colour tinted look that the hand-painted prints of old movies had. Even the editing is designed as much as possible to replicate these old films.

Truly, these sequences are delightful – and Scorsese’s joy in making them is evident in the camerawork, and the emotional force he gives to Méliès’ story (helped as well by Ben Kingsley’s sensitive underplaying as the depressed genius). It’s just a shame that he couldn’t get as engaged with the first part of the film. Hugo’s story is largely dramatically inert – in fact the whole plotline around Hugo feels like a hook on which to hang the second half of the film. As if Scorsese couldn’t make the second part of the film without making the first. 

That’s why this film doesn’t work for children, but works better for film-loving adults. The ins and outs of Hugo’s early story just aren’t that interesting – and we aren’t given any real reason to relate to Hugo or to feel any empathy for his journey (whatever that might be). In fact the film stretches this plot line long past any actual content – already I’m struggling to remember exactly what happened in the first hour of the film. This is no comment on the performances of Butterfield or Moritz, who are both very good (even if Moritz is saddled with sub-Hermione Grainger character traits). While it always looks great, it never really finds the heart to get us engaged with Hugo.

So Hugo is a film for cinema-fanatics. Scorsese directs with great invention – but it’s all too clear where his heart is: and that’s why the film failed so spectacularly as a kids’ film. Compare this to Toy Story 3say, and it’s clear which one most children are going to want to watch. However, if you want to see Scorsese make a charming film about his passions, one that is overlong but looks gorgeous, that playfully recreates the silent cinema era, even while its narrative is basically pretty dramatically inert, you’ll love it. There are moments in this film to treasure – it’s just not really for kids. Just because Scorsese made a film without someone’s head in a vice or zipped into a bodybag, doesn’t suddenly mean he’s going to find a new audience.

Arrival (2016)

Amy Adams tries to build an understanding with Earth’s visitors in this thinking man’s sci-fi film

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Amy Adams (Louise Banks), Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly), Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber), Michael Stuhlberg (David Halpern), Tzi Ma (General Shang), Mark O’Brien (Captain Marks)

Aliens in Hollywood movies don’t often seem to mean well. For every ET you’ve got a dozen Independence Day city destroyers. But few films have really dealt directly with the complexities that might be involved in engaging with a species for the first time. How would we talk to them? How could we find out what they want?

Those are the questions that Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), the world’s leading linguist, has to juggle with after she is called in by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to establish communication with the inhabitants of an alien ship, one of 12 that have appeared across the globe. Working with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks strives to build trust and a basis for common language with the aliens. Throughout, she must deal with her military superiors’ lack of understanding of the painstaking nature of her work, the paranoia and fear of the nations of the world, and her own increasingly intrusive dreams and memories.

This is grown-up sci-fi, directed intelligently by Denis Villeneuve, whose confidence and artistry behind the camera oozes out of every shot. It’s a film that wants us to think, and urges us to consider the nature of humanity. Communication between humans and the “heptapods” is the film’s obvious focus, but it is equally interested in demonstrating how distrust and paranoia undermine how we talk to each other. Not only is this in the clashes between nations, but on a smaller scale by the communication between military and science, the uniforms in charge largely failing to grasp the slow and painstaking nature of Banks’ work. On a personal and emotional level, we see the slow growth of understanding between Banks and Donnelly, their increasing ease with each other as they break down the barriers between them, and between humanity and the aliens. 

Far from the bangs and leaps of inspiration that science normally sees itself represented by onscreen, this film attempts to follow the methodical process of building an understanding of a concept from nothing, and the careful hours of work that underpin sudden revelations. The film is very strong on the complexities of linguistics and the difficulty of conveying exact translations, including intent, context and meaning, from one language to another. In fact it’s a wonderful primer on the work of linguistics experts, offering a fascinating breakdown of how language is understood, translated and defined between two groups without a common tongue. 

This is also helped by making the aliens truly alien: I can’t remember a set of Hollywood aliens as otherworldly as these are. Not only is their language completely different (based on symbols and strange echoes like whale song), but physically they bear no resemblance to humans at all (I confess that I was momentarily distracted here, as their tentacles and residence in a gas-filled box rather reminded me of The 465 in Torchwood: Children of Earth). They lack clear arms, legs or even faces. Their technology is advanced and immediately unsettling. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s wonderfully eerie and imposing score brilliantly helps to capture this otherworldly sense, as does the crisp photography and unique production design of the alien ship. The film walks a brilliantly fine line between wonder at the aliens and a sense of unsettling dread that means we (like the characters) are never comfortable in making assumptions about their motives.

Much of the film’s success as a viewing experience also depends on knowing very little about it. For me this film delivered one of the most effective late-plot re-evaluations I’ve seen: I had no inkling of this gear shift, or how a late piece of information demands that we adjust our understanding of everything we have seen so far in the film. This is actually one of the best done examples I’ve seen of a twist (calling it a twist seems somehow a little demeaning, as if this was a Shyamalan thriller, but a twist it is) – I in no way saw it coming, but it suddenly makes the film about something completely different than you originally believed it would be. I won’t go into huge details, but the film raises a number of fascinating questions around pre-determination and fate that challenge our perceptions of how we might change our lives if we knew more about them. To say more would be to reveal too much, but this twist not only alters your perceptions of the films but deeply enriches its hinterland.

I would say the film needs this enrichment as, brilliant and intellectual as it is, it’s also a strangely cold film that never quite balances the “thinking sci-fi” with the “emotional human drama” in the way it’s aiming for. Part of this is the aesthetic of the film, which has a distancing, medical correctness to it – from sound design to crisp cinematography – and which, brilliant as it is, does serve to distance the viewer emotionally from the film. Despite the excellence of much of the work involved, I never quite found myself as moved by the plights of the characters, or as completely wrapped up empathetically with Adams’ character, as the film wanted me to be. While the ideas in the film are handled superbly, it doesn’t have quite as much heart as the plot perhaps needs to strike a perfect balance.

What emotional force the film does have comes from Amy Adams. It’s a performance that you grow to appreciate more, the longer you think about it. It’s a subtle understated performance, soulful and mourning, that speaks of a character with a deep, almost undefinable sense of loss and sadness at her core. You feel a life dedicated to communication and language has only led to her being distanced from the world. Adams is the driving force of the film – though very good support is offered from Renner as a charming scientist who also convinces as a passionate expert – and the film’s story is delivered largely through her eyes, just as the aliens’ perception of humanity becomes linked to her own growing bond with them. I will also say that Adams also has to shoulder much of the twist of the film – and it is a huge tribute to her that she not only makes this twist coherent but also never hints at the reveal until the film chooses to. 

Arrival is a film that in many ways is possibly easier to respect than it is to love: but I find that I respect it the more I think about it. It does put you in mind of other films – the aliens have more than a touch of 2001’s monolith to them and Villeneuve’s work is clearly inspired by a mixture of that film and Close Encounters. But this is a challenging, thought-provoking piece of work in its own right and one that I think demands repeat viewings in order to engage the more with its complexity and the emotional story it is attempting to tell. It may well be that on second viewing, removed from puzzling about the mystery in the centre, I will find myself more drawn towards it on an emotional rather than just intellectual level. That is something I am more than willing to try and find out from a film that I think could become a landmark piece of intelligent sci-fi.