Film Review : Columbus

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Director: Kogonada

12A | 1h 44min | Drama | 5 October 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

I actually caught director Kogonada’s debut feature (he being the same Kogonada well-known to many a film student for his video essays for Criterion) over a year ago at the old Music Box Theatre in Chicago while on vacation. Vacation means taking a break from review writing surely, so my summing up of it will be pretty brief; Kogonada has really crafted an understated and quietly satisfying meditation on how places and constructs - in this case the unique architecture found in the town of Columbus, Indiana (a place I had never even heard of) - can exert a profound and even healing effect on us… if we take the time to look. I like how the director gives the spaces he takes his camera to (take a bow, DP Elisha Christian) time to breathe on screen: this isn't some rushed travelogue. Watching this film, adjusting to its rhythms and letting your eyes find the contours of its interiors and your ears adjust to their acoustics, is like easing down a kind of soothing balm. Stars John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson as two Columbus residents (he’s back temporarily from Korea to sort out his father’s affairs, she’s a soon-to-be college student if she can hold her mother together long enough to feel safe to leave her) who meet by chance and embark on an impromptu architectural tour, make for a curious but affecting double act here, as the time they spend in Columbus helps clear out the debris from their minds and let them start to focus on where their passions should lie. Be prepared to come out of this googling travels costs to Indiana.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: A Star is Born

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Director: Bradley Cooper

15 | 2h 15min | Drama , Music , Romance | 3 October 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

A star vehicle is reborn in Bradley Cooper’s hugely enjoyable, shamelessly melodramatic, and technically swish take on the decades-old film story. Each generation looks like it will get its own version of A Star Is Born; a seemingly timeless romance/tragedy where the plot sees a young female singer and actress rise far above the fading male star who gives her that first big break. In the 1930s William Wellman directed Janet Gaynor as the young actress on the way up who falls for alcoholic fading idol Fredric March. Judy Garland and James Mason made for a memorable 1954 version under George Cukor’s helmsmanship, whereas Barbra Streisand famously failed to get Elvis to star opposite her in Frank Pierson’s 70s remake (Kris Kristofferson landed the part of the rock star fading out tragically after guiding her to stardom). This time however we have four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper taking the role of the male rock star headed downhill opposite multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated music and style icon Lady Gaga playing the young female singer taking an all-or-nothing crack at stardom and professional fulfilment. It turns out to be a winning combination in terms of chemistry and that all-important sense of authenticity, and this helps the film glide over some second half flaws

Cooper took this project over from Clint Eastwood and made it his passion project, learning to sing and play whilst also taking a co-writing credit. His enthusiasm for this material shows, though his greener co-star turns out to be more than comfortable with the camera up close. Bringing the story up to date for the era where Youtube views signal your trajectory and fame comes and goes fast, Cooper makes the male lead this time not an actor but a famous yet increasingly out-of-touch country rock musician named Jackson Maine. With messy long locks and projecting the easy swagger of a Southerner who still has some of that essential boozy charm that helped supplement his raw talent, Cooper also gives Jackson a striking drawl that evokes the unmistakable voice of Sam Elliott. In fact, Elliot (very much this film’s MVP, owning some of the more poignant moments) was sought out to join the cast by Cooper and plays Jackson’s much older half brother Bobby, who also serves as his manager and, in a nice meta touch, we will see call his wayward brother out on appropriating his vocal timbre and singing style. Jackson first appears in this film not on stage however, but slumped sozzled in the back of a limo cruising the locale of his latest gig for a late night watering hole, a result, we soon learn, of an increasingly destructive alcohol addiction supplemented with snorting various crushed pills. He picks a drag bar, simply because it is open.

It is here that Jackson encounters - and swiftly takes under his wing - waitress and struggling singer Ally (Gaga), who proceeds to deliver a zestful late-night take on La Vie en Rose as her drag friends cheer on. Gaga is unsurprisingly no slouch at making this kind of stuff pop off the screen, and Cooper’s and her chemistry is winning and believable. Though the film speeds along much faster than the near three-hour Cukor version, the build-up to Ally’s breakout success is peppered with time for the smaller emotional beats where we see her and Jackson connect; whether it is the pair reminiscing and singing accapella on the pavement outside a 7-Eleven way past midnight during their meet-cute (which is lit and shot so its neon signage and colourful shelves seem like a vibrant foreshadowing of the stadiums Ally will soon be packing out), or Jackson tenderly peeling off Ally’s fake eyebrows in her dressing room. Things reach a well-handled crescendo when Jackson takes things to the next level by dragging Ally on stage to join him at a gig in Arizona weeks later, wanting her to perform the same song he heard her tentatively trial out on him. This ear worm of a number - “Shallow”- is one clear standout song from a roster of tracks that never sink below ‘decent’, and in this sequence the evocative and immersive cinematography, rich production design, and Cooper’s commitment to the technical details of the live music experience (he shot many of the live acts in front of a real audience, even taking his production to Coachella) all align. The icing on the cake is seeing Gaga as Ally slowly shake off that nervousness and own the mic…and the stage. The two go on tour as a duet act and start a passionate relationship in parallel, though Ally senses right away Jackson has plenty of demons.

Of course, planets don’t stay in alignment, and the second act sees Jackson’s alcoholism, tinnitus and drug addiction accelerate his decline, whilst Ally fits largely comfortably into her role as the face of fame 2.0 in the Instagram era.  Here the film stumbles a little, largely because it starts to feel hurried (there are scenes which feel oddly truncated) and the 21st century backdrop isn’t exploited in any novel way. Jackson remains, like the James Mason character, a character ruined by addictions, so a chance to maybe explore a darker side of male success inflated by patriarchy and toxic masculinity - hot topics today - is missed. Jackson is basically a nice guy who isn’t really jealous of Ally’s success, his addictions just make him seem that way, though Cooper nods towards the career-risking and emotionally hurtful behaviour of Mason’s troubled actor with a similar awards ceremony drunken disaster scene that might have you watching through your fingers. I was a tad ambiguous also about the arc of Ally’s success; she goes in a more pop and R’nB oriented direction after British agent Rez (Rafi Gavron) offers her a standalone contract separate from Jackson, but the stereotypically slimy nature of this impresario gives the impression Ally has sold out, a strange shift in the film’s, until that point, equal balance of sympathies. That being said, this direction may simply have been a way of connecting Ally back to the real-life image of the woman playing her. And Gaga, though playing a character who admittedly gets her start thanks to male generosity and arguably even sacrifice, keeps Ally a self-aware and passionate figure, albeit a tragic one who can’t escape the wheel of fame that brushes out the old to replace it with the new. Sometimes stars are crossed and not entwined.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review : The Wife

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Director: Björn Runge

15 | 1h 40min | Drama | 28 September 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

If you aren’t already a Glenn Close fan, this new release should thoroughly convert you. Close is an acting titan in this hugely enjoyable and timely (even though the story is set in the 90s, #metoo and #timesup form an inevitable backdrop) dark comedy from director Björn Runge, which is based on the bestselling book by Meg Wolitze. Close plays Joan Castleman, the 60-something wife of celebrated American fiction author Joe (the great Jonathan Pryce, making it two acting legends in one package here), with whom she has shared forty years of her life. When the film opens, Joe is hit by the news he has won the Nobel prize for literature, a case for joint celebration. A party for friends and family in their fashionable domicile swiftly follows, and Joe and Joan present the image of a settled, comfortable unit, one in which Joan - who took on the housewife and mother role while Joe’s career soared - has been more than happy to make secondary her own talent, dreams and ambitions. Joe trots out the well-worn line; ‘she’s my rock’ to all who can hear as the champagne flows, and the two are soon whisked off to Sweden for the long build up to the awards ceremony. But is all well in Joan’s mind, as she reaches her sixth decade having not notched up the same opportunities and recognition afforded to the man in her life?

Close is supremely watchable - a compelling mix of graceful poise offset by the merest hint of uncertainty, to be increasingly replaced by trembling rage - as the eve of Joe’s Nobel Prize for Literature presentation grows near, and she is unable to avoid the exposing of long-buried secrets and resentments. Watching Joe project his infuriating air of false modesty as he eats up the plaudits of the literature world seems to trigger something inside Joan; both a flood of memories of a past where the patriarchy of the 1950s educational establishment and Joe’s own expectations of the sex roles stifled her budding literary career, and an uncontrollable desire to finally confront Joe about the real sources of his inspiration and success, a reality that has been replaced by a convenient fiction that he has started to really believe. Joe, never played as the outright villain by Pryce, projects the charisma that you can imagine would seduce a woman like Joan, but nevertheless has a concealed streak of boorishness and casual sexism within him that only grows more exposed the longer the pre-ceremony glad-handing goes on. “My wife doesn’t write” is but one of Joe’s many facetious comments, made in a throwaway fashion to a rapt group of admirers whilst loosened up by free booze, that serves as an ice pick into Joan’s soul. Joe’s eyes wander to the attractive photographer assigned to follow them around too, a further humiliation that we sense Joan has had to endure before. 

Waiting for the tension to boil over, for Joan to call Joe on his bullshit, and for the real influence Joan had on his work to be fully revealed and the recognition of its value demanded, is both a source of great tension and a huge amount of dark fun. The chance to see Close and Pryce tussling with each other is more than worth the price of admission. 


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Skate Kitchen

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Director: Crystal Moselle 

15 | 1h 46min | Drama | 28 September 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆


The last film I saw from writer/director Crystal Moselle was the beguiling documentary The Wolfpack, which involved her immersing herself in the lives of a tightly knit, unusual family unit. Skate Kitchen, her immensely likeable new film, is built on a similar approach of hugging tight to a complex group and capturing the rhythms and flows. The titular Skate Kitchen are a skater girl crew from New York famed for their Instagram-broadcast exploits, loved as much for their sisterhood and their fearless carving out of territory in typically male-dominated spaces as for their skate tricks. Moselle spent months immersed in the lives of the girls and working closely with them, shaping a semi-fictional tale of camaraderie out of the time and recruiting the crew to play thinly-veiled versions of themselves. Needles to say, this close-to-the-streets approach offers plenty of that magic air of authenticity, both in the dynamics between the girls  as they roll from skate park to house party and back, and the skating tricks on display, some of them VERY painful to watch (you will wince when you learn was it means to suffer a ‘credit card’).

Moselle early on establishes a nice editing rhythm; switching from flowing alongside the girls on their skateboards (fine work by DP Shabier Kirchner) as they race around various back alleys and unseen spaces in the Big Apple, and then jumping us into bedrooms or onto rooftop hangout spaces where the girls chill and switch between talking shit, empathising, and teasing out confessions. Skating, drugs, genital preferences, menstruation; there is a frankness and authentic air to the chatter. There is a newcomer to the crew though, whose cautious feeling out of her space in the group and her own sense of identity gives the film its main story spine. Real-life Skate Kitchen member Rachelle Vinburg does a decent job as the introverted 18-year-old skateboarder Camille, who hails from Long Island and a household with a conservative-minded single mother. Vinburg gives Camille the right not-yet-moulded feel of a teen still figuring out what she likes and doesn’t like, and how open she can be in declaring her tastes to a group of girls she doesn’t know well yet. After a hair-raising injury, Camille promises her mother she’ll hang up her board, but the pull to skate with the Skate Kitchen remains too strong, and more drama kicks up later on when Camille befriends a boy from a rival group of skaters, who also was dating one of the Skate Kitchen crew. 


I much preferred just watching the girls do tricks and shoot the shit than these two plot arcs, which feel pat and forced onto a film which doesn’t need them. But for the most part, Moselle sticks to the good stuff: magic hour kickflips and an atmosphere of solidarity and ‘come as you are’ that has made the Skate Kitchen so appealing to young women worldwide. There is an ear worm of a soundtrack too, which will probably have you on the SkateKitchen Spotify playlist long after the film is over.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Climax

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Director: Gaspar Noé.

France 2018. 95 mins. 21 September 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆

A case of spiked sangria makes things get very, very crazy for a Paris-based dance troupe locked away in their studio, in wild child director Gaspar Noé’s throbbing, hypnotic, but sometimes frustrating style exercise.  Set in just one location, a young dance troupe led by Sofia Boutella’s lithe Selva are seen rehearsing for an upcoming American tour in a dingy school assembly hall before being allowed to ease into the snack trolley and punch bowl off to one side, but even before the wacky wine starts causing things to go VERY off kilter, Noé is giving us quite the technical showpiece; with extended takes allowing the agile cast to bust out some mesmerising choreographed dance routines. A pulsating, near-deafening score of the finest EDM beats combined with gliding steadicam shots that seem to ignore no possible angle of view creates quite the bewitching effect on the viewer, although I found most of the dialogue sequences in between the moments of dance sublimity kind of interminable: consisting mostly of men talking shit about women and women complaining about said shit talk. Perhaps the inanity is the point: maybe people should just shut up and dance if they’ve got nothing to say.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.