Tag: Richard E. Grant

The Player (1992)

Tim Robbins is the ultimate heartless Hollywood exec in Altman’s vicious satire The Player

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Tim Robbins (Griffin Mill), Greta Scacchi (June Gudmundsdottir), Fred Ward (Walter Stuckel), Whoopi Goldberg (Detective Susan Avery), Peter Gallagher (Larry Levy), Brion James (Joel Levison), Cynthia Stevenson (Bonnie Sherow), Vincent D’Onofrio (David Kahane), Dean Stockwell (Andy Sivella), Richard E. Grant (Tom Oakley), Sydney Pollack (Dick Mellon), Lyle Lovett (Detective Paul DeLongpre), Gina Gershon (Whitney Gersh), Jeremy Piven (Steve Reeves)

Hollywood: it’s a hell of a place. Sharks ain’t got nothing on studio power-brokers, hunting product to sell. After all, not a single letter of “Art” appears in “Hollywood”. Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) hears 50,000 pitches a year and gives the green light to ten or twelve. Mill is plagued with death threats. Confronting the writer (Vincent D’Onofrio) he believes responsible, he kills him in a fight. Can he get away with murder and successfully romance the writer’s artist girlfriend June (Greta Scacchi)? And, even more importantly, can he protect his job from hotshot executive Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher)?

Robert Altman had been working outside of the studios for well over two decades after negative experiences creating his critically acclaimed but hard-to-digest masterpieces (including McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye, the sort of films only Altman could make). His career had drifted during the 1980s, as his edgy, ‘disciplined ill-discipline’ approach (with overlapping sound and roving cameras) moved out of fashion. The Player was not only his payback expose on the studio system, with the exec a sociopath, but also his triumphant comeback to the frontline of film-making (he earned several awards, including a nomination for Best Director).

The Player is nominally a comedy, but in the way of Altman it also fits half a dozen other labels: from film noir to corporate satire. Above all it’s a maverick’s view of a system designed to produce product (Mill constantly speak of his films like this – he would love our modern age of “content”). The studio’s offices are lined with posters from classic Hollywood – but the studio produces the most crowd-pleasing cookie cutter movies you can imagine. It’s all about squeezing in all the ideal elements a film must have: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.” (In a neat subversive twist, these are of course all present in The Player – but then it’s to be expected when what we are seeing might actually be a film within a film).

Film pitches all have an air of desperation, every idea boiled down to simple, easily digestible slogans. It’s nearly always a combination of two other films – “Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman!” – or involves the biggest stars (“Julia” and “Bruce” were those two stars – and both actors hilariously spoof themselves in the film’s climactic sequence). Ahead of its time, the film even features a pitch (from a cameoing Buck Henry) for The Graduate 2, a nostalgia tinted exploitation of the IP with all the original cast, that basically sounds like the sort of thing they’d actually make today.

There is no place for film-making as an art – any idea that can’t be compressed into 30 seconds is worthless. Mill’s knowledge of film is patchy at best, his attempt to make small talk about Bicycle Thieves boiling down to “Perhaps we should remake it?”. The film (possibly the film within a film within a film), Habeas Corpus, pitched by Richard E Grant’s pretentious writer (“No stars! No pat Hollywood endings!”) is only attractive because it has the wisp of Oscar about it (and Oscars mean Big Bucks). Even then, Mill plans to rework the whole film into exactly the sort of pat-Hollywood romantic thriller Grant’s character claims to hate (no character will support this decision more than Grant’s sellout writer). The only person who seems to actually watch films is Fred Ward’s studio head-of-security – and at least half of his references are met with blank incomprehension. When Griffin makes a speech donating the studio’s old films to a cultural library, his words about art and culture are incredibly hollow.

This vicious satire of the shallow culture of Hollywood – Larry Levy’s up and coming executive attends AA solely to network, not because he has a drink problem – is wrapped up in a beautiful noir framework, that’s brilliantly a few degrees off reality (for reasons that later become clear). Deluged by death threats from (he surmises) a disgruntled writer, Griffin meets the man he suspects – a pretentious holier-than-thou wannabe, played with chippy fury by Vincent D’Onofrio – who he beats to death in a neon-lit carpark, after a dig too far about Mill’s job security (as nothing threatens these guys more than the prospect of being drummed out of town).

Altman’s film wonderfully echoes the neon lit shadows of classic noir, while building a homage filled trap around Mill, desperate to escape punishment. Mill of course has killed the wrong man – and his stalker knows it – and his own heartless-but-effortlessly-cool business dealings are contrasted with his efforts to avoid the dogged pursuit of a police department (led, in a curious but just-about-effective piece of casting, by Whoopi Goldberg) correctly convinced he is guilty. The film asks, how much does morality intrude on Mill, when he’s led his whole life trampling people: isn’t literally killing someone only the next step up from all that metaphorical killing he’s been doing?

His one weakness is falling in love with his victim’s girlfriend, an artist played with a breezy sexiness by Greta Scacchi. Scacchi’s June is intriguingly unknowable – how much does she suspect Mill, and how much does she even care? – and the dance of seduction and suspicion between them is highly effective, culminating in a tastefully, imaginatively but highly sensually shot sex scene (built from Scacchi’s refusal to do a nude scene – instead the nudity comes from a full frontal of Robbins emerging from a mud bath).

Scacchi’s June feels like halfway between a real person and a movie construct – and that’s a deliberate effect in a film which, the ending suggests, may well have been a movie within a movie. Mill takes a pitch in the final moments from his actual blackmailer, who outlines the very film we have been watching, a pitch Mill accepts on condition the film (he?) gets a happy ending: cue Mill arriving home to June and the two of them using the same pat Hollywood pay-off lines to greet each other, we just saw Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts mouth in Mill’s happy-ending for Habeas Corpus. Apply the logic of a film to all the action and it suddenly makes sense on a whole new level, as a beautifully judged exploration of the very crowd-pleasing elements Mills praises, repackaged in a sharp and bitter satire.

Tim Robbins performance of restrained amorality is vital to the film’s success. In his career, any weakness is deadly – a mantra he applies to his interactions with the police and with June. Mill is so eerily controlled – fear is the only emotion he categorically shows, guilt never crosses his mind – you start to wonder if he even has a real personality. But, in the movie’s structure, he’s both a real person and also a construct whose life echoes scenes from the movies whose posters fill his office.

Altman balances these ideas of truth and reality perfectly within the studio satire. The film is astonishingly well-made, all Altman’s trademarks of overlapping dialogue and roving camera present and correct. It opens with a hugely confident seven-minute tracking shot around the studio, which feels like a real “I’m back!” statement – and is beautifully and wittily done. The film is crammed with dozens of celebrities playing themselves (they were given no dialogue and encouraged to improvise scenes), all of them keen to show they were in on the joke.

The Player is dark, witty and very clever, one of Altman’s sharpest and most enjoyable films. Crammed with echoes of film noir and a brutal expose of Hollywood business practice, it’s very well performed and keeps just enough lightness and humanity (it encourages to empathise, but not sympathise, with Mill, for all his amorality) to also be entertaining. One of the great films about Hollywood.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Gary Oldman prowls the night as Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Gary Oldman (Count Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina Murray), Anthony Hopkins (Professor Abraham van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Jonathan Harker), Richard E. Grant (Dr Jack Seward), Cary Elwes (Lord Arthur Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Quincy P Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy Westenra), Tom Waits (Renfield)

In the 90s Francis Ford Coppola planned a series of high Gothic films of classic monster stories, kick starting the plans with his own production of Dracula (the only other film that came of this was Kenneth Branagh’s equally operatically overblown Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Going back to the story of the original novel (more or less), Coppola presented a deliberately high-intensity, theatrical, over-the-top version of Stoker’s tale that becomes as overbearing as it is visually impressive.

In 1462 Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman) renounces God and becomes Dracula, after false news of his death leads to his wife (Winona Ryder) committing suicide and being damned by the church. Over four hundred years later, the immortal vampire Dracula plans to travel to England, with his plans unwittingly aided by his solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves). His interests are peaked all the more when he sees a picture of Harker’s fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder again) – the reincarnation of his dead wife. Dracula heads to England, preying on Mina’s friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) leading to an alliance of Lucy and Mina’s friend, led by Professor van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to combat Dracula’s villainy and save Mina from her own dark temptations to join the besotted Vampire.

Coppola’s film doubles down on Gothic romance, thundering through the action with everything dialled up to 11. The (rather good) score hammers home every beat, the camera swoops and zooms through a parade of tricks, wipes and dynamic angles with cross fades frequently throwing two images on screen at the same time. It makes for a sensual – in more ways than one – overload, but also a rather oppressive viewing experience, with no respite or sense of calm but every single scene delivered with stomach churning acceleration.

It’s a film directed with a deliberate operatic style, that celebrates (and makes no attempt to hide) its set-based theatricality. The opening sequence sets the tone with its Kurosawa inspired costumes in front of an Excalibur style blood-red sky, with battle scenes (and impalings) staged as an elaborate puppet show. Oldman – with a hammy Eastern European accent that you could wade through like treacle – then rages and roars over his wives crumpled body, stabbing a cross that leaks blood all while images are cross-cut showing his wives demise and the beginnings of his own monstrous transformation. The film doesn’t ease up from there.

To be honest Coppola massively over-eggs the pudding, producing an over-blown monstrosity of a film that shouts and shouts and shouts and drains all subtlety from every frame. In particular the sexual undertones of Vampirism – and the harsh male judgement of female sexuality – that the book explores are placed unsubtly front and centre. Every vampire attack is presented as a positive ravishing, Frost and Ryder writhing orgasmically (poor Frost has to undergo the indignity of being humped and bitten by a Dracula in part human-part wolf form) while boobs are left on display after every single assault. From an early scenes that sees Lucy and Mina gawping at a pornographically illustrated Arabian Nights, we are left in no doubt that IT’S ABOUT SEX YOU KNOW.

Coppola shows no restraint at all in his directing, which leaves nothing to the imagination, and ends up leaving the actors adrift between a film that is part serious attempt to film the book and part ludicrous bodice ripper, like the cheapest 60s salacious horror film from the worst excesses of Hammer.

It certainly leaves the actors adrift. Oldman gives it a go with gusto, even if he seems completely lost as to what tone this character should hit (is he a monster, a lost soul, a conflicted lover, a megalomaniac – who knows?). Anthony Hopkins channels Orson Welles with the sort of ham that was to become more-and-more his go to in later years. Winona Ryder does her best with a role that oscillates wildly between Good Girl and Minx. She’s saddled with an English accent, which restrains like a straitjacket. Tom Waits has fun as the insane Renfield (here imprisoned in a crazy asylum that resembles a medieval dungeon).

The rest of the performances are pretty much abysmal. Poor Keanu Reeves is left ruthlessly exposed, horrendously miscast as a stiff-upper lip English lawyer in a performance that surely goes down somewhere in history as one of the worst ever. His acting here would barely scrap by in a school play, his delivery of the dialogue wooden beyond belief and some talcum powder added to his hair for the film’s later sections only makes him look ridiculous. Reeves is a decent performer in the right role, but he was never worst case than this. But then the rest of the cast are pretty much just as bad: Frost is out-right awful, hopelessly unable to make Lucy anything other than a slut, while Grant, Campbell and Elwes are all wooden and dull to a man.

The film does get some points for reverting closer to the plot of the book – unlike many versions – although the addition of the love story between Dracula and Mina is marred by tonal problems and the utter lack of chemistry between Oldman and Ryder (they famously fell out on set and the film never recovers). Coppola directs the film with no discipline at all, and no sense of balance between spectacle and story. While it has many merits in its design – it won no less than three Oscars and the costumes, make-up for Oldman and much of its look and style are flawless – it’s basically a pretty over-bearing and dreadful film that shouts at the viewer so long and so hard that it becomes easier in the end to laugh at it rather than with it. A sad misfire.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Our heroes prepare for one final adventure in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Director: JJ Abrams

Cast: Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Richard E. Grant (Allegiant General Pryde), Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), Keri Russell (Zorii Bliss), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbecca), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico)

When Disney took over the control of the Star Wars franchise, they had in mind an epic continuation of George Lucas’ space opera that would take in everything from more tales from the renamed “Skywalker saga” to standalone entries like Rogue One and Solo. Well, we are almost seven years into this journey now, and the series has delivered some hits but also the first flop Star Wars film (Solo) and the most divisive entry for the fandom ever in The Last Jedi. So where does Rise of Skywalker fall in its plans to cap the third (and they claim final, but let’s see…) trilogy?

Set a year after The Last Jedi, the Resistance has rebuilt itself under the leadership of Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who has also been training Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the Jedi arts. Imagine their horror when a message from the not-so-late Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) rings out across the Galaxy, threatening revenge. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has been searching for Palpatine and forms a deal – Palpatine will make him emperor of the galaxy, if Ren will kill Rey. Meanwhile Rey heads out into the galaxy with Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) in a race against time to find the location of Palpatine and his armada, before the late Emperor can launch a deadly attack.

JJ Abrams’ return to the franchise is also a return to the fun-focused, action-packed, fast-paced explosion of entertainment and thrills that he offered with the excellent (and still best film in this new trilogy) The Force Awakens. It will excite you, entertain you, and offers some terrific work from many of its players, not least Daisy Ridley (who has grown and grown with each film as an actress confident in carrying a huge franchise) as Rey and Adam Driver as a morally conflicted Kylo Ren. JJ Abrams gently handles the death of Carrie Fisher, skilfully using off-cuts and deleted scenes from past Star Wars films to retroactively create a series of scenes using what dialogue they had from the actress to give her arc some sort of resolution.

It’s one of many things the film gets right here, along with its electric pace and sense of excitement, that never lets up and takes you on such a gripping thrill ride that you hardly notice that most of the film makes very little if any sense (so little sense, I didn’t really understand whether the baddies were the First Order, the old Empire or the Final Order or whatever they were meant to be). It’s a top-to-bottom piece of entertainment, designed to thrill the initiate and the casual fan and give all that you might want to the superfan.

In fact you could say it’s more or less a course correction from the deeply unpopular (with certain elements of the fandom, although its box office success was huge) The Last Jedi. Rise of Skywalker lacks all the iconoclastic “forget the past” attitudes of Rian Johnson’s film. In fact it goes out of its way to ignore as much as possible everything that happened in that film – to the extent that, apart from the growing bond between Rey and Ren and the initial training of Rey, you could more or less skip over it if you wished when viewing the trilogy. I’m not sure how I feel about this – or the fact that the franchise feels it has effectively side-stepped by-far-and-away the most interesting and different film it has produced in favour of a safe-return to familiar stories.

It does mean that Rise of Skywalker is a far less brave film than Johnson’s – and one that avoids doing anything new as well. Many elements from The Last Jedi are disregarded, and all the plot hooks that film are ignored are firmly, and hurridly, reinstated. It means that Rise of Skywalker rushes from revelation to revelation, from plot point to plot point, hardly stopping to draw breath, so eager it is to give the fans what it feels they want. It’s probably a testament to fan power – but also to the savviness of film producers, working out the vast majority of people will come and see any Star Wars film, but the hardened fans will only support a film that matches their agenda.

So it reckons the fans wanted to see answers to questions raised in Force Awakens, lots and lots of cameos and call backs, and plenty of action and space battles. So Rise of Skywalker is a film almost exclusively made up of these things. While there are flaws in this approach, it does mean that this film is a joyfully fun piece of excitement, with lots of great set pieces and some terrific gags among the screenplay. JJ Abrams is a wonderfully confident director of this sort of action, and while the film often feels like it never takes a second to really explain any of its plot dynamics, he is also able to create a narrative that is much more fun and exciting than The Last Jedi, for all its faults of pacing, narrative and characterisation.

What this film does the most is hammer home the bizarre fact that Disney set about making a franchise of three films – guaranteed three films! – with no coherent thought at all about how all these three films would work together either in terms of tone or plot. Now that all three are assembled there is no sense of them having any particular themes, or that they connect together to form an overarching story. The conclusions reached in this film are only faintly threaded in Force Awakens and all but contradicted in The Last Jedi. It’s this lack of planning that underwhelms the film – fun as it is, these are more like three loosely linked films rather than ones that progress one to the other, or feel connected to the original three films.

It’s of course made worse by the ignoring of The Last Jedi – Rose Tico, a character that film spent a lot of time building and establishing gets less than three minutes of screen time – and a re-focusing of the film on the “family of three” in Rey, Poe and Finn that mirrors the first film. This relationship is now far warmer and closer than we ever saw developing in Last Jedi (a film they never appeared in together until the final seconds) – and also laced with an odd, almost queer-baiting sexual tension, where they seem at times like a borderline thruple. (The film offers a cop out on LGBTQ people in Star Wars by having two background characters kiss at one point, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot, cut in China.)

It’s part of a general lack of imagination in the film as a whole, which leans often on bringing back people from the previous trilogy and even sidelines the villains of the rest of the trilogy to shoe-horn back in Palpatine (a reintroduction that is barely explained – like much of the film – and also rather undermines the ending of Return of the Jedi) as the big-bad, and which again doubles down on many of the tropes of the first trilogy. JJ Abrams often mistakes bigger for better – and this film is big, with races against time, fleets beyond imagining, planet destroying tech that can be put into a single star destroyer, Sith powers that can stretch over thousands of miles etc. etc. He takes the same approach with the film, throwing so much of the old trilogy in that it becomes more of a surprise that stuff is missing rather than appearing (I was shocked Yoda wasn’t in this one).

But it’s what the film is going for, offering something safe and recognisable, something that is a thrill ride like you remember rather than the different path the trilogy seemed to be heading towards. There is nothing wrong with that of course at all, but it feels like a missed opportunity. For all its faults, The Last Jedi tried to do something new. This doubles down on the things it knows fans will love, and offers all the entertainment it suspects the casual viewer wants. And maybe that’s enough.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer have a love that cannot survive the morals of society in The Age of Innocence

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Newland Archer), Michelle Pfeiffer (Countess Ellen Olenska), Winona Ryder (May Welland), Miriam Margolyes (Mrs Mingott), Geraldine Chaplin (Mrs Welland), Michael Gough (Henry van der Luyden), Richard E. Grant (Larry Lefferts), Mary Beth Hurt (Regina Beaufort), Robert Sean Leonard (Ted Archer), Norman Lloyd (Mr Letterblair), Alec McCowen (Sillerton Jackson), Sian Phillips (Mrs Archer), Jonathan Pryce (Rivière), Alexis Smith (Louisa van der Luyden), Stuart Wilson (Julius Beaufort), Joanne Woodward (Narrator), Carolyn Farina (Janey Archer)

In 1870’s New York, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), is a fastidious connoisseur of the arts, part of the super-rich elite of New York society. He’s engaged to be married to young May Welland (Winona Ryder), but finds his world view and values turned upside down when he meets May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen is a scandalous figure, a woman separated from her philandering European husband, trying to make her way in New York society. Newland and Ellen are irresistibly drawn together, but do they have a chance to be together in the oppressive society of the New York upper classes?

That’s one question. The one more people were asking was: how would Scorsese follow up Goodfellas? Probably very few people would have bet on an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In fact, in 1993, there was more than a little annoyance among some viewers at the idea of the master of gangster movies, the guy who directed Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, turning his hand to the realm of Merchant Ivory. The film bombed at the box office – but did it deserve that reaction? Was Scorsese a director out-of-place?

Well the reaction is slightly unfair, because The Age of Innocence is a marvellously filmed, exact, brilliantly constructed piece of film-making, that so lays on the opulence and wealth of New York society that it turns everything in the film into feeling like a gilded cage. That’s a cage carefully controlled and monitored by the inmates, with their strict, inflexible rules about every single social interaction, unbreakable rules of decorum and etiquette covering everything, with any deviation from these rules met with instant expulsion. Put it like that, and this doesn’t sound a million miles away from the gangster families Scorsese is more associated with.

Inspired by the films of Powell and Pressburger in its intricate construction, and flashes of artifice in filming and editing, as well as its rich colour palette, with touches of everyone from Visconte, Ophüls, Truffaut to name but a few, this is a film-maker’s love letter to cinematic classics. A beautiful sequence of Newland watching Ellen from behind and a distance on a jetty, yearning for her to turn around before a boat passes a lighthouse, using that landmark as the point when he will stop looking and accept something is not to be. The scene is bathed in a Jack Cardiff-ish red, with the objects in the light given a sharp definition in contrast to the colours. It’s a beautiful image, and one of several that run through the film. Inspired by paintings of the era, Scorsese also layers in Viscontish scenes of opulence, with The Leopard very much in mind as every detail of the vast wealth, and huge accumulation of objects in every room of these people’s houses, seems to crush and entrap the people in them. The rooms themselves become metaphors of the oppressive, rule-bound society the characters are trapped in, like the people have been designed to fit into the rooms rather than vice versa. The one exception is Ellen’s rooms, which have a sense of personality to them.

This marvellous construction – with its beautiful photography, inspiring design and costumes – contains a storyline of frustrated love, a love triangle between three people where the man has to make a choice between what he wants and what is expected of him. Newland Archer clearly loves Ellen in a way he can never love May – indeed, he is dismissively cruel in his thoughts towards May, who he clearly considers nothing more than an extension of the mindless gilded objects of beauty around him, a woman he sees as lacking an imagination or daring. In Ellen, he sees far more opportunities for a world of change, of difference, or being something he does not expect. She is far more of a free-spirit, a more bohemian figure, confident in herself and something far more modern than May, who is very much a product of her time and place.

The film, carefully demonstrates the growing unease and unsettlement of Archer as he begins to feel things he has never done before, to start to react and aim for a style of living he would never previously consider. All his life before now is a careful studying and collection of moments, or savouring experiences in the way that a collector would place them in a glass box. From seeing only the moments of plays he wishes to see, to carefully collecting shipments of books from London and reading the choice moments, Archer is a coldly controlling figure who believes he guides and directs his own life. Ellen not only demonstrates to him that in many ways he is as conventional as anyone else, but also that there are other options in his life. Archer struggles to build the emotional language that he needs in order to express these feelings bubbling in him – key moments indeed seem reminiscent of the operas that this New York society spends so much time watching, and it is only late in the film in little, genuine moments of affection can he find something real.

Scorsese’s film artfully and carefully shows this developing affection between the two, a love that the two of them speak of surprisingly early, but fail to find a genuine way of expressing it. The film captures the attempt by New York society at the time to be more British than the British, and the hidebound restrictions this brings. Scorsese uses cinematic tricks to show Archer’s striving to escape. Spotlights zero in on Archer and Ellen in the middle of society, as if to drain out all other moments. Letters from his respective love interests are delivered with the actors addressing the camera, as if speaking to Archer direct. Flashes of screen colour cover key cuts, as if all this colour was just on the edges of his life but he is unable to access them. He is a man who feels himself trapped and committed to one form of life, but who still feels the longing for another.

The Age of Innocence is a beautifully made film, but there is a coldness to it. Perhaps this is why it doesn’t quite capture the heart in the way of other films. So much as Scorsese captured the cold and restrictive world of this society, that it seems to permeate the film and make the whole thing somehow colder and more restrictive. There is such artistry and effort in the film-making, that the film seems a coldly detailed piece of art. Perhaps this is why the use of narration – beautifully spoken by Joanne Woodward – becomes overbearing here in the way it doesn’t in other Scorsese films. It’s another distance from the entire experience, as if the film is keeping the audience at arm’s length as much as society is. 

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is expertly assembled, a masterful, brilliantly observed, intricately detailed masterclass in micro-expression, of layered frustrations and repression. But it’s such a marvellously constructed, detailed and well observed performance that it feels a masterful piece of art to be admired rather than loved. For all the film centres Archer in the story, he is a hard man to care for or invest in. Pfeiffer gives a wonderful performance as the far freer, intelligent and daring Ellen – but there is a slight lack of spark between them, for all the brilliance of both actors the feeling of an overpowering, obsessive love just doesn’t quite come out of the picture.

This coldness of the construction, carries through every frame. It is perhaps an easier film to admire than love, for all its brilliant construction. It is perhaps too successful in establishing the sharp rules of its society, and does not invest enough time in looking at the raw passions that bubble under the surface of its characters. It never quite explores the inner life of its characters, and they remain slightly distant objects from us. To be fair, this works very well in some cases: Winona Ryder as May carefully plays her hand throughout the film, so that it is a shock in the final scenes where she reveals depths of determination, strength of character and manipulation that far dwarf anything Archer is capable of. Where he is a man with a wistful longing for what he wants, but lacks the will to take it, she knows what she wants and is determined to take it.

The film uses its mostly British cast very well, their understanding of period and these sort of society rules crucial to its success. Margolyes, Wilson and McCowen in particular are very impressive as very different types of society bigwigs. Scorsese’s film contains many other things to admire, but it’s such a wonderfully made piece of film-making, so overburdened with intelligent interpretation of the novel that it fails to make a real emotional connection with the viewer. You will respect and enjoy scenes from it, but perhaps find its running time as overbearing as the characters find the society they are in, and eventually find yourself needing to come up for air.

The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017)

He’s a hitman. He’s a bodyguard. Let the predictable hilarity ensue!

Director: Patrick Hughes

Cast: Ryan Reynolds (Michael Bryce), Samuel L. Jackson (Darius Kincaid), Gary Oldman (Vladislav Dukhovich), Salma Hayek (Sonia Kincaird), Elodie Yung (Amelia Roussel), Yuri Kolokolnikov (Ivan), Joaquim de Almedia (Jean Foucher), Kirsty Mitchell (Rebecca Harr), Richard E. Grant (Mr Seifert)

The buddy movie. Two mismatched people from two very different walks of life – ideally opposing ones – are thrown together to do something or, better yet, go somewhere and along the way (guess what!) they slowly put all their initial hostility behind each other and found out that, hey, perhaps they have more in common than they thought becoming mismatched pals for life. I’d love to say The Hitman’s Bodyguard does something different. But no, it doubles down on this plot. And doubles down hard.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is an elite UK-based private bodyguard – but after the sudden assassination of one of his clients (and if you can’t guess who the assassin turns out to be, you’ve clearly never seen a movie) his career falls apart and he ends up guarding drug fuelled corporate executives in London (a frankly demeaning cameo for Richard E Grant). All this changes when he is brought in – of course! – by his ex-Girlfriend Amelia (Elodie Yung), an Interpol agent charged with delivering to the Hague notorious hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson). Turns out Kincaid has agreed to testify against Slobodan-Milosevic-style-dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman, clearly using his recent Oscar to pick up a big pay cheque). But Dukhovich’s men are out to stop them, helped by turncoats in Interpol, so Bryce and Kincaid must hit the road together to get to the Hague – not helped by their obvious loathing for each other. Let the sparks fly!

If you didn’t notice just from that plot description that this is as familiar and overworn a plot as a moth eaten old coat, let me confirm for you. This film does literally nothing new, original, different and interesting than a hundred films before it. In fact it’s almost a work of art to make something so completely and utterly lacking in any form of originality. The entire film plays out, almost beat for beat, as a straight knock off of Midnight Run, but lacking its charm, comic chops, absurdity and heart.

Instead The Hitman’s Bodyguard is exactly the sort of film actors take on when they have a bit of a loose end and want to pick up a healthy cheque so that they can consider popping off afterwards to do something a little more interesting. To say the actors could play these roles standing on their head is an understatement: they could play them in a coma. 

Reynolds is charming as always, but the part barely stretches him. Jackson sprays swear words around like confetti, essentially playing his public personae and looks like a man shooting a film in between trips to The Belfry for a few rounds of golf. Salma Hayek plays a sweary, sexualised “bad girl”, in a role that I think she is embracing as a lark but in fact feels demeaning as the camera leers over her body as she does bad ass things (the part also lacks any charm whatsoever). As mentioned, surely the only thing that attracted Gary Oldman to this totally bland villain role was a stonking pay cheque – and who can blame him for that.

I suppose it passes the time okay, but the film frequently mistakes vast amounts of swearing and moments of violence for actual wit. Just hearing characters drop f-bombs and shout isn’t actually in itself that funny. There is nothing actually smart about the film at any point what-so-ever. No wonder the actors coast through it effectively playing versions of their own public personaes. 

The story line is so rammed full of ludicrous events and thumping clichés that, despite the enjoyment of a few bits of pieces, you can pretty much predict everything that will happen in the movie. If you can’t spot the second the Interpol characters appear on screen which of these guys is a mole for the baddies, then you’ve clearly never seen a movie. Every single beat and every single scene that this mismatched duo go through to get from enemies to frenemies is like reading a B-movie plot creation text book. 

But then if you’ve never seen a film before this might all seem rather enjoyable. If you are thinking about watching this film, I’d urge you to watch Midnight Run. It’s like this – it’s exactly like this – but much, much better. But then I guess the stars of this film will say the same. Even as they limber up to make a sequel: but then they’ve got bills to pay.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant excel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Director: Marielle Heller

Cast: Melissa McCarthy (Lee Israel), Richard E. Grant (Jack Hock), Dolly Wells (Anna), Jane Curtin (Marjorie), Anna Deavere Smith (Elaine), Stephen Spinella (Paul), Ben Falcone (Alan Schmidt)

There is a certain pleasure in seeing the pretensions of the pompous being pricked. Is there anyone more pompous than the self-conscious exhibitionism of the literary collector? You know the sort – the kind who talk about how witty and true “dear Noël and Dorothy” were, and will pay a fortune in order to prominently display (show off) typewritten and signed epistles from their literary heroes, eager to be touching just a hint of the greatness of others. It’s a market failed writer Lee Israel managed to find herself immersed in – the difference being Israel was turning out brilliantly written pastiches, with forged signatures, that she was selling on to dealers.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is a bad-tempered, difficult personality with a chip on her shoulder and a horror at the idea of letting anyone get too close to her. Struggling to make ends meet, she stumbles across some letters from Fanny Brice. Trying to sell them, she finds they sell for a lot more if she uses the blank space at the bottom of the letter to add a witty, more personal PS. From there she starts writing whole correspondences from scratch, covering authors as varied as Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway, her dedicated research producing letters that feel real and genuine. She’s aided and abetted by her sole friend, a drunken, seedy British homosexual Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who mixes genuine warmth and friendship with casual lies and betrayals. But how long can this criminal enterprise last?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an entertaining, well made part caper, part comedy, part sad little tragedy of a lonely woman struggling against the world. Lee Israel is blunt, rude, aggressive and speaks her mind and steadfastly refuses to live the kind of life required to get ahead in the literary world. She’s barely tolerated by her agent, and almost impossible to make friends with. Saying that, McCarthy’s trick is to make her far more of a Victor Meldrew character, railing against the petty rudeness and snobbery of the world, rather than an outright bully. It’s notable that the people she is most rude to are all cruel to her first.

All this helps you to invest in Israel, and feel sorry for a frightened, lonely woman who won’t let anyone into her life apart from her cat and feels only bitterness and frustration at where her career has taken her. Sure she may be difficult and even irritating to know personally, but Marielle Heller’s well-made film invests her with a great deal of empathy. Heller’s direction is shrewd, gentle and manages to turn a difficult woman into someone we end up feeling sorry for.

It also helps that this is a really warm, rather touching, relationship film that covers two best friends – and that it might well feature career best performances from the Oscar-nominated pair Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. McCarthy (looking like a frumpy Annette Badland) is exceptional as Israel, vulnerable but defiant who makes more trouble for herself than she needs. Heller introduces a fictionalised semi-romantic interest from one of her literary dealers, a sensitive, kind would-be writer Anna (played well by Dolly Wells). It’s a relationship that shows Israel’s emotional frostiness, her instinctive defensiveness towards any personal interest – as well as hints of her guilt for essentially defrauding this woman. McCarthy’s performance – often caustically funny – is also deeply affecting for its fragility and desperation, too socially awkward to build relationships.

It also sparks brilliantly well off Grant’s superb performance as transient semi con-man Jack Hock. Grant channels elements of Withnail in the character’s bohemian alcoholism, but Jack is far more complicated than that. A wonderful contrast with Israel, Hock is immediately able to form bonds with people, patient, kind, gentle, an amusing raconteur and a man who takes pride in dressing up. Grant’s performance is humane, sensitive but also deeply funny with a long streak of selfishness and self-destructive compulsion. The relationship between these two is the heart of the film, an entertaining and endearing odd couple, with Hock getting closer than anyone to thawing Israel’s defences. Grant’s not only wildly funny, but also deeply moving – often in smaller moments, where he gently comforts Israel or (later) asks for forgiveness.

The warmth between the two friends is what makes the film work above anything else. It’s the heart of the movie – and the film is perhaps reliant on the excellence of the two actors and their chemistry. The story around them is, at times, rather slight and generally the film itself is so gentle to verge on being a little forgettable – but you never lose your focus because it has more than enough wit and those two brilliant lead performances to keep it going. Career best work in a well made film, makes this film more than worth catching.

Their Finest (2016)

Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy do their bit for the war effort by making movies in Their Finest

Director: Lone Scherfig

Cast: Gemma Arterton (Catrin Cole), Sam Claflin (Tom Buckley), Bill Nighy (Ambrose Hilliard), Jack Huston (Ellis Cole), Helen McCrory (Sophie Smith), Eddie Marsan (Sammy Smith), Jack Lacy (Carl Lundbeck), Rachael Stirling (Phyl Moore), Richard E Grant (Roger Swain), Paul Ritter (Raymond Parfitt), Henry Goodman (Gabriel Baker), Jeremy Irons (Secretary of War)

During World War Two, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to write dialogue for propaganda films – to be specific “the slop” (the women’s dialogue). She pitches the semi-true story of two young women who take a boat to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers, and is hired to work with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) to write a screenplay. Among the cast of this film is Ambrose Hillaird (Bill Nighy), an ageing matinee idol having trouble accepting his days of playing young heroes are behind him. Together they overcome initial difficulties to create a film that moves the nation.

Their Finest is a gently amiable piece of film-making, totally predictable but still rather entertaining for all that. You won’t exactly be gripped or compelled by it, but you certainly won’t feel cheated out of your time watching it. It doesn’t have much in the way of originality about it – and you can see most of its jokes and events coming a mile off – but it’s still got a certain charm and warmth about it. And it’s crammed full of some very fun “film-within-a-film” scenes, both seeing the film the team create and the work (and backstage politics) that go into making it. There are also some neat gags (and wry comments) about the casual sexism of the day – and the film (without dwelling on the issue) makes a number of heartwarming moments out of its lead character succeeding against the odds on her own merits.

It also has a couple of fine performances, not least from an engaging and bright Gemma Arterton, who brings a great deal of quiet depth and dignity to Catrin. Catrin has a sweet lack of self-confidence about her – a gentle doubt, that she must learn to overcome over the film. She makes an affecting and empathetic lead. It also helps that she has a great screwball comedy chemistry with Sam Claflin. Claflin’s part is far more conventional – the gruff man with the heart of gold – but he nails the part’s humanity and its comic grumpiness.

The film’s main weapon of entertainment is Bill Nighy, in a part almost certainly written for him so well does it match his strengths. Hilliard is just the sort of vain, pompous, arrogant preener that Nighy can play in his sleep – a man who needs to be flattered and praised into doing anything, who assumes when he first reads the script he’s being offered the role of the young hero not the drunk uncle. What Nighy does so well with parts like this, though, is bring them depth and pathos. Hilliard may be an egotist, but he’s gently comforting in tragedy and has a profound sadness and insecurity behind him about where his career and life is going. So, while he brings a lot of the film’s comedy, he’s also a large part of its heart, elements that emerge increasingly as the film progresses.

The sequences that follow the making of the film are very funny. Jack Lacy is wonderfully sweet and genuine as an actual war-hero, an American serving in the RAF, parachuted in by the Ministry of War to send a propaganda message to the USA. Lacy’s Carl is well-meaning and loves films (not least his hero worship of Hilliard) but a hopeless actor, who can’t help smiling at the camera after every line. It’s a neat indication of the film’s well-judged tone that he is never a butt: the crew work hard to improve him, he’s eager to learn, he’s completely lovely – and when a character does complain about the extra work he is causing, Henry Goodman’s Alexander Korda-ish producer simply states “he has done things none of us would be brave enough to do”.

Because there is a harder realism about this film. It doesn’t shy away from the dangers and brutality of war – there are bombings and people die. Some deaths are characters we know, others are on the edges of the story. “I’m a bit emotional today. My landlady was killed last night” one character states. Each of our lead characters encounters a dead body, or knows someone who has been killed. There is a genuine danger of obliteration or invasion just on the edges of the comedy. It’s a neat balance that the film keeps, between pathos and light comedy.

The film-within-a-film, The Nancy Starling, is a brilliant pastiche of 1940s British war films, instantly recognisable and affectionately amusing. But it’s also, when we finally see parts of the film, rather moving. It has a real emotional force to it – the film-makers achieve the difficult balance of giving us a pastiche we can chuckle at it, but also a pastiche that feels like it would genuinely move the people watching it in the film. 

Their Finest’s main problem might be that partly because it’s so quietly unassuming and gentle, it is almost completely bogged down in predictability. Most of the character arcs can be seen coming a pile off – my wife and I were able to practically write the scenes ourselves as they happened. There is very little original here. Even the stories of actors’ pretensions and film-making disasters have a breezy air of familiarity about them – the sort of stuff we’ve seen in films about film-making hundreds of times before. In fact, what’s striking is that a film so predictable and familiar remains entertaining and endearing – which is surely some sort of testament to the acting and direction.

Their Finest is perfect for what it is: an entertaining, weekend-afternoon film that will pop a gentle smile on your face. There is nothing particularly deep or memorable about it beyond that. It has some fine performances, some good jokes and it will make you laugh. But will you remember much about it within a few hours? Probably not. Is it a film that you can imagine revisiting to discover new gems in it? Again probably not. Is it a film that will entertain you on a Sunday afternoon? Absolutely.

The Iron Lady (2011)

Meryl Streep impersonates the Iron Lady to excellent effect in this otherwise bland and forgettable, compromised mess of a picture

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Cast: Meryl Streep (Margaret Thatcher), Jim Broadbent (Denis Thatcher), Olivia Colman (Carol Thatcher), Roger Allam (Gordon Reece), Nicholas Farrell (Airey Neave), Iain Glen (Alfred Roberts), Richard E. Grant (Michael Heseltine), Anthony Head (Sir Geoffrey Howe), Harry Lloyd (Young Denis Thatcher), Michael Pennington (Michael Foot), Alexandra Roach (Young Margaret Thatcher), John Sessions (Edward Heath)

In British politics has there been a figure as controversial as Margaret Thatcher? A domineering Prime Minister who reshaped the country (for better or worse depending on who you speak to), crafting a legacy in the UK’s politics, economy and society that we will continue to feel for the foreseeable future, she’s possibly one of the most important figures in our history. It’s a life rich for a proper biographical treatment; instead, it gets this film.

The film’s framing device is focused on the ageing Thatcher (Meryl Streep), now dealing with onset dementia and having detailed conversations with her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). Cared for by her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), she reflects on her political career and the sacrifices she made personally to achieve these. Woven in and out of this are Thatcher’s increasingly disjointed memories of her political career.

The most surprising thing about this film is how little it actually wants to engage with Thatcherism itself. Perhaps aware that (certainly in the UK) Thatcher remains an incredibly divisive figure, the film’s focus is actually her own struggles with grief and approaching dementia. Her career as PM is relegated to a series of flashbacks and short scenes, which fill probably little more than 20-30 minutes of the runtime, shot and spliced together as a mixture of deliberately subjective memories and fevered half-dreams. Can you imagine a film about Thatcher where Arthur Scargill and the miners’ strike doesn’t merit a mention? You don’t need to: thanks to The Iron Lady it now exists. 

Perhaps Thatcher’s politics were considered to “unlikeable” – certainly, one imagines, by its writer and director – to be something to craft a film around, so it was thought better to brush them gently under the table. Instead the focus is to make Thatcher as sympathetic as possible to a viewer who didn’t share her politics, by concentrating on her struggles against sexism in the 1950s and her struggles with age late on. Why not accept what Thatcher stood for and make a film (for better or worse) about that? Perhaps more material on her actual achievements in office were shot and cut (the film does have a very short run time and underuses its ace supporting cast), but the whole film feels fatally compromised – which is more than a little ironic since it is about a woman famous for her lack of compromise.

In fact it’s rather hard to escape the view that Roger Ebert put forward: “few people were neutral in their feelings about [Thatcher], except the makers of this picture”. It’s a film with no real interest in either politics or history, the two things that defined Thatcher’s entire life. And as if to flag up the mediocre nature of the material they’ve chosen, it’s then interspersed with too-brief cuts to more interesting episodes from Thatcher’s life than those we are watching. Only when the older Thatcher hosts a dinner party and launches into a blistering sudden condemnation of Al-Qaeda and support of military action against terrorism (followed by her casual disregard of a hero-worshipping acolyte) do we ever get a sense of finding out something about her, or of seeing her personality brought to life.

The film’s saving grace is of course Meryl Streep’s terrific impersonation of Thatcher. I call it impersonation as the film so strenuously avoids delving into the events and opinions that shaped Thatcher that Streep gets very little opportunity to really develop a character we can understand, or to present an insight into her. Her performance as the older Thatcher – losing control of her mannerisms, deteriorating over the course of the film – is impressive in its technical accomplishment, but that’s largely what it remains. As the film doesn’t allow us to really know Thatcher, and doesn’t work with what defines her, it largely fails to move us when we see her weak and alone. So for all the accomplishment of Streep’s work, I couldn’t say this was a truly great performance – certainly of no comparison to, say, Day-Lewis as Lincoln or Robert Hardy as Churchill. I’d even say Andrea Riseborough’s performance in TV’s The Long Walk to Finchley told us more about the sort of person Thatcher was than Streep does here.

Despite most of the rest of the cast being under-used though, there are some good performances. Jim Broadbent is very good as Denis Thatcher, although again his performance is partly a ghostly collection of mannerisms and excellent complementary acting. However the chemistry between he and Streep is magnificent and accounts for many of the film’s finest moments. Olivia Colman does sterling work under a bizarre fake nose as a no-nonsense Carol Thatcher. From the all-star cast of British actors, Roger Allam stands out as image-consultant Gordon Reece and Nicholas Farrell is superbly calm, cool and authoritative as Airey Neave. Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd are excellent impersonating younger Thatchers.

The Iron Lady could have been a marvellous, in-depth study of the politics of the 1980s, and a brilliant deconstruction and discussion of an era that still shapes our views of Britain today. However, it wavers instead into turning a woman defined by her public role and views into a domestic character, and brings no insight to the telling of it. By running scared of Thatcher’s politics altogether, it creates a film which makes it hard to tell why we should be making a fuss about her at all – making it neither interesting to those who know who Thatcher is, nor likely to spark interest in those who have never heard of her.

Logan (2017)

One looks at the past, the other their potential future in bleak superhero thriller Logan

Director: James Mangold

Cast: Hugh Jackman (Logan), Patrick Stewart (Charles Xavier), Boyd Holbrook (Donald Pierce), Stephen Merchant (Caliban), Richard E. Grant (Dr Zander Rice), Dafne Keen (Laura), Eriq La Salle (Will Munson), Elisa Neal (Kathryn Munsun), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Gabriela Lopez)

What were you doing 17 years ago? Personally, I was still at school: but Hugh Jackman was being parachuted into X-Men to take on the role of Wolverine after Dougray Scott’s shooting schedule on Mission Impossible 2 forced him to drop out. Since then he has appeared in eight films as the clawed superhero, some good, some shockingly bad – and this is his swansong. Taking a paycut, Jackman wanted to make the Wolverine “you’ve seen in the comics”: did he succeed?

The year is 2029 and mutants are nearly extinct. Logan (Hugh Jackman) lives in Mexico on an abandoned farm, caring for former X-Men leader Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now suffering dementia and brain seizures with lethal effects on those around him. When young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) arrives needing their help, Logan and Charles find themselves (reluctantly in Logan’s case) on one last adventure, travelling to reunite Laura with other new-born mutants – with a band of lethal mercenaries on their tail. Naturally a string of bodies follows in their wake.

Firstly I think its fair warning to say this is a bone-crunchingly, head-skeweringly, blood-spurtingly violent film. It’s easily more violent than every other X-Men film put together quadrupled. It’s also littered with strong swearing. To be honest, I’m surprised it’s not an 18 certificate – lord knows what strings they had to pull. Mangold’s intention is to show us what battle would actually be like if you were fighting with impossibly sharp knives for hands: limbs are hacked off, chests ripped to pieces, heads are punctured, bits of brain litter the floor. 

There is no romanticism of any of this violence – and the film needs to show it, as its primary theme is the impact a life full of this sort of extreme slaughter would have. Even Logan, his regenerative powers severely decayed, stumbles and limps through the action, often totally outmatched by those he fights – even a gang of car thieves get the jump on him in the opening scene. In fact, that scene serves to establish the mood of the film very quickly: Logan is slow and out of shape and eventually has to resort to extreme and brutal violence to desperately end the fight as quickly as possible. 

The action in the film is impressively filmed but never triumphalist in execution, and the overriding emotion is pain and sorrow. In many ways, it’s a bleak and depressing film, with precious little hope (it does find some peace and optimism in the final frames, but it’s almost the first time this happens). It has a huge body count, and many of the deaths hit home as both deserving and undeserving suffer. In this world there are no good decisions – whatever Logan decides to do, people around him suffer: and it’s the truth of this throughout his life that has led to such pain behind his eyes. The film’s comparatively small scale compared to previous films in the franchise helps keep the focus intimate and personal.

Its setting of course brings Westerns to mind, but also in its sense of the grim passing of an age. Emotionally, both Logan and Charles are exhausted and struggling under impossible burdens of guilt and sorrow., it’s a nihilist Western, a homage to especially perhaps to Shane and The Searchers. Mangold’s direction seizes these contrasts and infuses every frame of the film with visual and stylistic homages to this iconic American genre: even the inclusion of X-Men comic books “in-universe” gives the heroes the feeling of being, Wyatt Earp style, living legends, struggling to carry that burden.

Interestingly this is probably one of the first films that feels like a post-Trump movie. The future America it shows is grim and depressing, with big corporations ruling the roost and the little guy trodden down. The health system is a mess. The film is set partly across the border in Mexico (with brutally tight border control preventing easy passage). A large section of the plot even revolves around a desperate attempt to flee across a border before it is closed down. Of course it’s probably just part and parcel of the standard cinematic crapsack future, but right now the tone and mood of the film feels very much in sync with modern America. 

Hugh Jackman is of course front and centre in this film, and you can see straight away this project is a deeply felt one for him. Unlike any other X-Men film before, this is a character study and allows Jackman to first and foremost act. And he is terrific. With Logan’s powers failing, not only is he able to offer a very different physical performance than ever before, he also allows the character’s vulnerability, defensiveness and fear to come to the fore. Jackman explores the continual conflict in the character between his rage and isolation and his empathy and desire to be good. His protectiveness of Charles is balanced throughout by his deliberate distancing himself from Laura, as if he knows anyone whom he allows to get close will suffer. Jackman makes Logan feel old and beaten down, without losing the sense of fire under the surface.

There are in fact terrific performances throughout the film. Patrick Stewart similarly has never had a better written X-Men role in 17 years, and he makes the witty, profane, bitter but still optimistic and kindly Charles Xavier a stand-out. The interplay between him and Jackman is superb, drawing on the emotion of that years of working together on these films. Dafne Keen is a real find as Laura, convincingly feral and never less than compelling, even though she barely speaks for 2/3rd of the film – Mangold’s direction of her is perfect, drawing maximum impact from her performance. She perfectly captures the sense of being a younger version of Logan, struggling to understand the world and the impact of killing: is it any wonder Logan feels uncomfortable looking at her? Boyd Holbook is very good as a dry mercenary while Richard E Grant draws the maximum from limited screentime as a frightingly calm “mad” scientist.

While this is something very different from previous X-Men films, it’s not a perfect film. In terms of violence, I would argue it sometimes goes too far, like an excited child looking to see how far it can push us. It’s main problems are with narrative: far too many plot devices in the film are signposted like Chekov’s Guns, drawn to our attention in a forced way (often twice in case we forgot) so that most audiences could guess where events are going (there is only one real surprise in the film, and that one I defy you to really see coming). Similarly, while the film’s debt to classic Westerns is clear, to have the characters actually sit down and watch Shane seems a little too much (as well as giving a massive hint about the eventual destination this film is heading towards). Mangold’s direction is good but he lacks the profoundity of a Christopher Nolan to give these comic book happenings a shattering depth – their emotional impact comes from our familiarity with these actors in these roles over many years, not quite so much the film itself.

Saying all that, this is something strikingly different and showpieces some terrific performances. It also feels like it has something it wants to tell us about the burdens of violence on a man and how the past always eventually catches up with us.

Jackie (2016)

Jackie Kennedy patrols a White House she will soon be forced to leave behind

Director: Pablo Larrain

Cast: Natalie Portman (Jackie Kennedy), Peter Sarsgaard (Bobby Kennedy), Greta Gerwig (Nancy Tuckerman), Billy Crudup (The Journalist), John Hurt (Father Richard McSorley), Max Casella (Jack Valenti), Richard E. Grant (William Walton), John Carroll Lynch (Lyndon B. Johnson), Beth Grant (Ladybird Johnson), Caspar Phillipson (John F. Kennedy)

“Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story

And tell it strong and clear if he has not,

That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory

Called Camelot.”

Or so sang King Arthur in Alan Jay Lerner’s musical Camelot. It’s apt as it’s a musical cue Jackie returns to several times in this thought-provoking, if rather stately, film that with one eye looks to sharply critique the legend building of American political history, while with the other staring with adoration at the very legacy at its centre.

The film follows, in a slightly non-linear fashion, the period of time from Kennedy’s assassination through to his state funeral and Jackie Kennedy’s departure from the White House (although other scenes feature Jackie during the presidency, most notably her filming of A Tour of the White House in 1962, a TV special the film lovingly recreates with a mixture of existing and newly-created footage and audio). The framing device is an interview Jackie gives with an unnamed journalist, set after the events of the film, in which she alternates between frank honesty and careful legacy building – all the time stressing she will decide what is, and is not, printed.

The film is a both a careful deconstruction of legacy building and a celebration of it, with Jackie Kennedy portrayed as a contradictory figure – keen to give her husband a place in history and, at times, resentful of the impact of public interest in her life. In a neat scene, Jackie Kennedy asks the driver of her husband’s hearse if he has heard of the last two Presidential victims of assassination, William T. McKinley or James Garfield. He knows neither. When asked if he has heard of the first, Abraham Lincoln, he of course is able to name check victory in the civil war and the abolition of slavery. It’s a sharp reminder of the work she must do for her husband’s legacy, with his achievements ranking nowhere near Lincoln’s.

The films suggests throughout that the planning of the funeral was focused on giving Kennedy (and by extension Jackie and her children) a permanent place in American folk-lore. It’s why the reprise of Camelot works in the film – it’s sums up the attitudes of America an administration that has indeed lived on as a short time of hope, with Kennedy as the lost Golden Boy. The appropriateness of the song is something the film manages to both use and comment upon – and which it also manages to make feel fresh, despite the fact the “Camelot” has been a nickname for the Kennedy White House ever since the 1960s.

Simultaneously, though, it is a film that lingers with wide-eyed wonder on JFK himself, and which presents LBJ as a far more corrupted and overtly political figure compared to the reverence the film feels for his predecessor (his serial womanising is given only a brief mention by Jackie during her conversation with her priest). Kennedy (played by an actor with a remarkable physical and vocal similarity) is always a romantic figure, his motivations or his achievements very rarely questioned. He’s filmed like the very romantic hero, which the film is half encouraging us to question that he was – and I’m not sure this is deliberate.

The film is acute and quietly non-judgemental throughout the scenes covering the assassination, reaction and funeral plans. So much so, that the framing device of the journalist (Billy Crudup in a thankless part, scruffily dressed, alternately arch and adoring) seems like it belongs in another, dumber, movie – as if we needed Jackie to give voice to her feelings, to actually speak words stressing her power and determination in shaping what is printed about her husband, in order to understand it. It’s an obvious, TV-movie framing device that really adds very little.

This is largely because Natalie Portman gives such a sensational performance in the lead role. As to be expected, it is a brilliant capturing both of Kennedy’s vocal and physical mannerisms. But more than that, it is also a sharp performance of deeply confused grief and guilt over her husband’s fate, mixed with a public strength (at times bordering on furious anger) in her determination to plan a funeral she felt befitted her husband’s status. Weak as the journalist scenes are, she dominates them with her skilful portrayal of a woman split between a need for intimate confession and determination to maintain control over the story.

Portman’s performance also provides the emotional anchor to scenes that could otherwise be careful reconstructions. The assassination itself (filmed within the car) has rarely seemed so immediate – and the camera largely sticks with Portman’s stunned, terrified face throughout the long drive to the hospital. Her combination of lost alienation, bewilderment and shock equally dominates the rushed inauguration of Johnson, while scenes of her returning to the White House to finally remove her blood-stained clothing shimmer with emotional intensity. It’s a film that captures the stunned sense of alienation from reality that comes after undergoing any major, life-changing event.

The film has a ghostly, elegiac mood. Larrain uses rather murky photography effectively throughout the film. The slightly grainy focus given to the general world of the film allows sharper primary colours to stand out at key moments. The Oscar-nominated score for me was, however, far too insistent – a series of sharp notes and discordant sounds mixed with mournful refrains. It draws too much attention to itself and makes the same point too many times to be effective. I suspect its a score that might work better in isolation. Far better are the quiet and controlled shots of Jackie walking listlessly through a deserted White House, or the careful mixing of the tragic and the mundane (when selecting a positon in Arlington for her husband, she has to ask a companion to slow down as her shoes keep getting stuck in the mud).

It’s an intelligent, thought-provoking and adult piece of film-making, that carefully avoids passing judgement or making pronouncements. I can’t decide if it’s a film that can’t make up its mind about events, or if it challenges us to make up our mind for ourselves. Either way, Portman gives an extraordinary performance and is well supported by the rest of the cast, in particular John Hurt who gives a charming, witty performance as the Priest who Jackie allows herself (for a moment) to be completely honest with. A dynamic and interesting addition to JFK films, that manages to find a new angle and even some new ideas from well-worn ground.