Category Archives: Reviews

Film Review: I Lost My Body

A hand wanders around a terrifying city, dodging train wheels and rodents, hiding in the shadows, and struggling to find its way somewhere, but each touch has the potential to bring out a tender memory, of a life before, of connections and love, and the things that make life as confusing a mess as the tangled city the limb is crossing. This is I Lost My Body. It’s animated, it’s beautiful and it is very, very French.

One of those films that Netflix gives a limited release to in the cinema before locking it onto its platform, I Lost My Body is, to be shockingly pretentious for a moment, what racist composer and musical demigod Richard Wagner might have called a gesamtkunstwerk. It makes full use of every artistic form available to it to create an impact. The animation is panicky and raw when it needs to be, tender and monochrome at times, and soft and autumnal when thoughts overtake words. All without being obvious that it’s done so. Similarly, the soundtrack, by French multi-instrumentalist Dan Levy, is integral to the mood and impact. At times it reminded me of Vangelis and Blade Runner, at other times, yes, it was Wagner and Parsifal. And, like a radio play, the soundscape of the city, of nature, of possible violence, and the silence that follows, is central.

It is something of a shock to realise that this is writer/director Jérémy Clapin’s first full length film, such is its confidence. What could be an overly complex, or at least ridiculous, idea, is handled with ease. I Lost My Body may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is very much mine and it is highly recommended.

Film Review: The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch

The original title, and the title of the source novel, on which this Swiss film is based might give a bit too much away: Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey Into the Arms of Shiska. Where, shiska, for those of us on a non-Jewish persuasion means woman of a non-Jewish persuasion. So, it’s a film about a young man from a devout Jewish family who starts to think that maybe, rather than be lined up via numerous shidduchs (here translated as a meeting to determine an arranged marriage rather than the marriage itself) with girls who, like him, are dutifully following a religious code, he might prefer to stare at the toches (work it out) of the rather attractive young woman with whom he has shared a moment in a lecture and who is now riding in front of him as they go for a drink.

That young woman is Laura, played by Noémie Schmidt, and it is an initially chaste fascination with her and what she represents, that begins young Wolkenbruch’s (Joel Basman) journey. If that sounds a bit “well the women are only there to move the plot along for our hero” then be reassured that every character aside from Wolkenbruch is only there to move the plot along for our hero. So it’s just as well that the snapshot scenes, swift plot and rotating band of exaggerated background characters works so well.

This film is properly funny in parts. I obviously can’t vouch for how on-the-nose its depiction of Jewish life in Zurich is and I’m not entirely sure that yoga practicing Jews in Israel are like *that* at all but it does not remotely matter. It’s like Bill Forsyth has rocked up and decided to do a contemporary take in Switzerland straight after wrapping Local Hero. Everyone is fundamentally decent even they are acting in direct opposition to each other.

Plus, and I can’t stress how important this is, it is over and done in around 90 minutes. No ponderous digressions, no scenes that you can’t work out why they’re there. Just brisk, energetic storytelling. You’ll even learn a bit of Yiddish.

Film Review: All Is True

In 1613, the Globe Theatre burned to the ground. A cannon being used as a prop on the stage caused the fire. The play being performed was Henry VIII and its primary author, one William Shakespeare, seems to have not written another word between this incident and his death in 1616. This film imagines, based on known details about the Bard and his family, what those final years were like and takes, as its title, the alternative given to Henry VIII: All Is True.

For people like me who know literally nothing about William Shakespeare the person All Is True is eye-opening. I’ve spent a good chunk of time since watching it tracking down the assorted knowledge, slender though it is by reason of time, we do have, and enjoying working out which bits of the film have any basis in fact and which are supposition from the brains trust of Ben Elton and Kenneth Branagh.

I think it’s fair to conclude that it’s as true as any of Shakespeare’s histories. There was a man called William Shakespeare. His son Hamnet did indeed die young. His daughters married and begat in history as they do on screen. Anne was his wife. They lived in Stratford. There was a court case. The piece of furniture really was bequeathed. That sort of thing. As for the motivations, the personalities, the tensions … well, this is all created.

All Is True is elegiac. How much it moves you will depend on what you bring. I found that I could admire it far more than be moved by it. The cast all give strong performances. The central foursome of Branagh, Judi Dench (Mary), Kathryn Wilder (Judith Shakespeare), and Lydia Wilson (Susanna, Will and Mary’s first daughter) work terrifically well. The cameo by Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton will be shown as long as acting schools exist. And the cinematography, all England in autumn, fits the piece perfectly. Stratford looks suitably dirty underfoot.

But where a Shakespeare play has bite and subtext, here we have only surface and cliche. I know the puritans were hypocrites, I know women could not contribute to society however much they wanted, I know that people then (and idiots now) believe that Shakespeare could not have written his plays because he wasn’t educated enough. All Is True can’t find a way to bring these issues out without having a character say it out loud. All too often it feels we’re  watching a polite debate between old friends. And, damningly, whenever a plot threatens to break out, it is doused quickly enough and we’re back to nice views and calm words. It is rational where what is needed is passion.

All Is True is, then, an interesting curio. It has more than enough about it to justify a watch, and for that watching to be rewarding. But it doesn’t quite hit the heights you feel it’s close to achieving. To better understand Shakespeare, it’s probably best to go back to his plays. I understand that these days it’s even possible to get a cannon on stage without burning the theatre down.

On Netflix: The Rain

Well, what do you say? Some day a rain’s going to come? I’ve heard that one before. But this rain has been infected with a virus that can kill in the most painful way imaginable almost straight away. Well, that is a new one. And it’s the reality that Simone and Rasmus are going to have to face now that their shifty dad has stationed them in a secure bunker and left them alone for five years. When they went in the world was finding out that rain showers were deadly whereas after half a decade off grid, who knows what’s out there? Shall we go and find out?

If you’re even vaguely familiar with post-apocalyptic worlds then you’ll pretty much know what to expect. The colour palette of our bleak future environment is all washed out bluish hues. Some have turned to religion, others are eking out subsistence levels of farming, cities have been abandoned by all but the feral, and militias have a habit of popping up to threaten any serenity you might have. You’ll also still need to avoid the rain, most water, some trees, and anyone who has ever worked for Apollon. There will, however, be time for you to develop a doe-eyed attraction to the nearest presentable member of the opposite sex although this may cause problems for you later.

Alba August is Simone and hers is probably the strongest performance in the ensemble, not least because her motivation is explicable and her character has possibly the fewest odd changes of mood whose only purpose seems to be to drive the plot. Rasmus, initially just an annoying and somewhat wet younger brother but whose role and purpose expands, is played by Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen who manages to keep just the right side of being flat out annoying. Amongst the rest, I particularly enjoyed Lukas Løkken as Patrick, again, probably because he gets to take a character whose emotional line is clear and run with it.

There are times when it feels like the show has taken too much on. The far reaching global conspiracy can feel like a massive distraction from the day to day of just needing to survive, and then there is the need to create and maintain a believable world where people have managed to survive because they had an umbrella at the right time. But, despite all that, I haven’t been remotely tempted to stop watching. The Rain is good stuff. It treads a fine line but always seems to bring everything together decently.

We’re now two series in with a third (and final) season commissioned for release next year. That feels right. And I’ll be waiting, if only for one last piteous “Rasmus!” from Simone as her brother, yet again, does something that he really shouldn’t ought to have done …

Film Review: Burning

It’s all about forgetting that there isn’t a tangerine. Or maybe it’s about a cat that needs to be fed but isn’t in the room. Then again, Burning is also literally about setting fire to things to watch the flames. Or falling down a well and looking up at the sky. But it’s also about the little hungers that affect our lives versus the big hunger in our search for meaning. Ultimately, it’s the film of a confused young man, Jongsu, who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, a beguiling young woman, Haemi, whose motives and purpose are never clear, and Ben, who is trying to convince the world he’s deep and unknowable when, as we see him, he’s just a wealthy prick with too much spare time.

Ah-in Yoo is Jongsu. He is, as he tells the few who ask, writing a story, but he’s also got to go back to what passes for the family farm as his mother has long since left and his dad’s just got arrested. He is stopped outside a store one day by Haemi (Jong-seo Jun) who he does not remember at all but who appears to have very clear memories of their childhood together. Jongsu and Haemi begin a relationship. Sort of. But that all gets a bit complicated when Haemi returns from a holiday with Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben’s interest in the world around him is best described as intensely vague and he fluctuates between boredom and humour. All the while what Jongsu thinks he understands about the world and his relationship with Haemi becomes less and less clear.

There is so much going on here that I doubt even a second watch will help me truly understand Burning. But, unlike so many world cinema examples, this is put together so well and with so much intelligence that that’s not a problem. Adapting from a Haruki Murakami short story, Lee Chang-dong (writer, director, producer) has created something that defies any sort of categorisation but that is rewarding for anyone prepared to put in a little effort.  It helps that it’s beautifully shot with the both the city and the country becoming part of the experience. I also liked the way in which the key object could change in the frame without anything obviously happening like a shift in camera focus.

Burning has been almost universally praised and so I’m not exactly going out on a limb by adding my voice to that. But it really is good and a reminder of how smart and compelling independent cinema is capable of being.

Film Review: Fast and Furious – Hobbs and Shaw

In Leon, Gary Oldman, in the role of Stansfield, the corrupt cop about to bomb and gunfire a building and all of its inhabitants in pursuit of his victory, observes that he loves these calm little moments before the storm. They remind him of Beethoven. Stansfield would have hated Fast and Furious – Hobbs and Shaw. There are no calm moments. The crescendo has permanently crescended. There is loud, louder and louder still. It’s tremendous fun. I want more.

I confess that I have seen, before this film, precisely zero minutes of any Fast and Furious film. I haven’t even caught a few seconds by accident on the TV. I literally know nothing about the story, the cinematic universe or, shamingly, who’s even starred in it. And, were it not for the insistence of my son who needs a chaperone when he goes to the cinema, that’s the way it would have stayed. Assuming Hobbs and Shaw is reflective of the gazillion other films of the F&F series then I probably should correct that because I enjoyed this a lot.

Forget the plot. Seriously, forget it. There’s a MacGuffin that needs to be retrieved and some characters need to overcome their differences in order to work together. A few family issues need to be resolved as well. And that’s about it. This is all done with as little reference of the main Fast and Furious series as possible. Some conversation points were lost on me but they didn’t matter. This is a stand alone film of set piece action, superb one-liners and genuine laugh out loud moments.

That it works owes a huge amount to the acting quartet leading the show. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are obviously having far too much fun pretending to hate each other, and then getting in as many knob gags as possible; Idris Elba plays Brixton Lore, who is some cyber-enhanced bad guy determined to bring about the next stage in human evolution and he plays it well (because he can’t play things badly); and Vanessa Kirby follows up Mission Impossible with a kicking ass role as Statham’s sister.

Toasters become deadly weapons, helicopters are held in place by the Rock’s muscles, Maclarens races across London, motorbikes break apart under lorries only to reassemble on the other side, Eddie Marsan lets rip with a flame thrower, Ryan Reynolds cracks some decent (but uncredited lines), people hurl down the side of buildings whilst other folk leap through glass, and still everything is legitimately a 12A rating.

Only in the very final section – set, improbably but who cares about that, in Samoa – does the film start to feel long. It clocks in, as most everything does now, at over two hours. There’s nothing wrong with this bit at all – although as it lacks the personal fights and scopes out to a more widescreen defence of an assault it’s simply not as inventively fun as the earlier segments – but I wouldn’t blame anyone for checking their watch and the time of the next train home by this point. They’d miss out on some good credits sequences if they left, mind.

So, belatedly, I’m interested in this world. I may not dive into Fast and Furious itself but I’ll be all in for a sequel to this. I doubt it’ll remind me too much of Beethoven. Maybe Carl Orff.

On Netflix: Undercover

Welcome to Limburg and its joyously gauche holiday parks with unwritten rules about tenancy, good neighbourliness, and when is the best time to hold a barbecue. Oh, and home to Europe’s biggest producers of ecstasy and other pills and, in Undercover at least, the manor of one Ferry Bouman, a jolly fellow who unwinds at his camping park whilst running a few drug illicit factories and murdering anyone who gets in his way. Will the nasty man get his comeuppance? Or will the forces of law and order bicker so much amongst themselves that he sails into the Aruban sunset and is never seen again? Well …

Claiming to be based on true events but also very clear that absolutely everything you are watching is fictional, Undercover is a strange beast. An enjoyable one but still strange. As if it doesn’t quite have the confidence that is audience will go with it if it properly embraces the quirky fun of its setting and so must still persist with the genre tropes.

Thus our lead agent – as the police decide to go undercover to entrap Bouman – is Bob Lemmens. Who is middle aged and rugged. And has a family but he can’t devote enough time to them. And just when it looks like he’s sorted that, a call comes in from work and … I can’t even. I presume there were just blank pages in the script that said “you’ll know what to do”. Bob (who goes undercover as ‘Peter’) is joined by Kim (who goes by Anouk) who’s entire character in the early stages seems to be set up as “likes sex”. Which is fine. But not exactly deep. Mirroring these two are Ferry’s wife Danielle and his henchman, the trusted John, the idiot Jurgen and a few others.

So there’s a lot of ‘functional’ stuff. But Undercover is still well worth watching and, when it clicks, often surprisingly funny.

The world of the ‘camping’ – holiday park isn’t a proper translation and campsite certainly isn’t – is very sharply observed and offers a lot of opportunity for both detached and involved people watching. There’s a lot of pleasure in how speakers of different languages come across – there are first language French, German, English and Italians, besides our Dutch speaking guides – and in the occasional cultural misunderstanding. Plus, when it gets going, some of the specific character interactions and mini-arcs are engrossing. I particularly enjoyed Elise Schaap getting everything possible out of the role of Danielle and the way the poor, blameless, town of St Malo has never looked so totally uninviting.

In my ideal world, this ten episode series would have had a few less scenes of possible drug deals and a few more fleshing out some of the relationships and stories in the background. But this isn’t an ideal world and what we have here is a more-than-decent Belgie-Nederland-noir. A second series has already been commissioned which has the option of picking up exactly the same characters again or maybe finding another ‘true’ story to be entirely fictional about. As long as they make sure not to sublet any of the chalets, it’ll all be fine.