Reviews

The Lighthouse (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A late-nineteenth century ghost story set in a lighthouse in New England. A weathered keeper and his freshly imported assistant divide the duties, with young Winslow (Robert Pattinson) taking the more gruelling and physically demanding jobs, whilst Wake (Willem Dafoe) looks after the light itself, guarding it with almost religious fervour. Stuck with only each other, as a storm prevents them from leaving, what begins as minor grievances will grow into cut-throat resentments as the isolation tares at their sanity.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

There is a mythic energy expressed though stark and sometimes surreal imagery as well as ornate language straight from the writings of Melville and Milton. These two masculine figures, young and old, are left to stew in a steaming froth of bitterness and paranoia, bubbling out into Shakespearian soliloquies with biblical wrath. Dafoe delights in the extremes of his character, filled with both humour and fury. Pattinson’s anger will spill out also, squirming under the regime of the man who controls his pay.

Shot in black and white, through lenses a century old, the square aspect ratio is tall enough to capture the phallic lighthouse in all its glory, and creating mountains of Pattinson and Defoe’s faces: hairy, crusty and carved with age. With the image boxed in, the claustrophobia is transferred straight to the audience and you can almost smell the salt and damp.

This is no ordinary film, it is a fever dream of symbolism and dark poetry, of seagulls and sirens. It is both artistic and crass, exhibiting all manner of bodily fluids as the two keepers drunkenly spiral into madness. Cowritten and directed by Robbert Eggers, whose debut The Witch had a similar affection for period detail and dialogue, The Lighthouse is another plunge into the same waters, only deeper and darker with less to hold on to.

Jojo Rabbit (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A coming of age story set in the waning years of rule in Nazi Germany, Jojo Rabbit follows young Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) and the relationships with his rebellious mother, the young Jewish girl hiding in the attic and his invisible friend and motivating confidant, Adolf Hitler.

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There are certainly moments of darkness in the film, the true horror of the situation can’t help but push through the playfully subversive tone, but for the most part it plays as a cross between Moonrise Kingdom and Drop Dead Fred. The comedy is constant, propelled with flare by writer director Taika Watiti himself as Jojo’s goofily imagined version of Hitler, offering encouragement when he has no-one else.

Living at home with his mother (Scarlett Johansson), Johannes wants to belong to something and so becomes a fervant fanboy of the Nazi party – Hitler and swastikas adorn his wall like band posters. A member of a Nazi youth camp, headed by a literally and figuratively resigned Captain Klenzendorf (excellently played by Sam Rockwell), here he will learn how to hunt Jews and use explosives. That is until an accident has him thrown out, reduced to a position that has him spending more time at home where he makes the ideology shattering discovery that his mother is hiding the enemy (Thomasin McKenzie).

Led by his ardent but naive enthusiasm, Jojo knows that he can’t risk endangering his mother, and so decides to interrogate the intruder and learn all that he can about the Jews, how they have tails and sleep upside down like bats.

Although there is a deep and truthful resonance with how Nazi propaganda dehumanised Jewish people, the film cleverly refocusses this mythology to be spouted by a prepubescent boy, mocking the absurdity of it all and usurping the power of these historical villains.

Waititi is continuing a precedent set by Charlie Chaplin almost a century ago when making The Great Dictator, stating that “Hitler must be laughed at”.

A Hidden Life (2020)

Written for RAF News December 2019

Terence Malick returns to the subject of the Second World War, this time using his philosophically meandering style to focus on one man’s resistance in a small mountain town in Austria.

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Malick’s films have become rather divisive since his foray into the more heady and artistic beginning with Tree of Life at the start of the decade. Using a combination of grand sweeping shots of stunning landscapes, and macro observations of intimate detail, he creates a poetic lament on lofty subjects such as the nature of existence, usually through the lens of Christian morality.

A Hidden Life fits perfectly into this mould, observing Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) with his family, the simple pleasures of harvesting crops and playing with his children. This mountain life will soon be disrupted by the growing Nazi invasion as it demands support and allegiance – requiring everyone in town to contribute toward the cause and swear an oath to Adolph Hitler.

Franz’s act of defiance will set him on course for execution, and so he must consider the morality of his actions, weighing the impact on his conscience against the consequences to his family. A question is being asked of the audience, not so subtly mind, of what it means to believe in something and to stand up for it at whatever cost.

The slow pace and long shots ground the characters, so that without dialogue you feel as though you understand the complex emotions. The reflective nature of the film works to have you contemplate the ideas that are being presented, but this pretty much instructed almost instructed by the whispered narration of characters thoughts, another Malick staple, that could be distractingly heavy handed if it weren’t the only element breaking the repetition.

There are moments of observed beauty and connection, but within a much longer and perhaps intentionally simple film, with a 3 hour running time, the point is somehow both lost and overstated.

Honey Boy (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2019

Loving affection overshadows the abusive relationship between a child actor and his father.

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Written by Shia LaBeouf as a ‘therapy project’, Honey Boy is set around the point in his life when he was the star of a Disney show, captured here as 12 year old Otis (Noah Jupe). Achieving success that would soon bloom into a film career the film focusses instead on the damage of these formative years, jumping back and forward through time to reveal the beginnings of what would later be diagnosed as PTSD.

Opening with a dizzingly assembled montage tracking the successes and exploits of Otis in his 20s (Lucas Hedges), the line is blurred between the person on and off screen. It appears that LaBeouf aims to explain his tabloid notoriety of being drunk and disorderly (arrested for such behaviour as late as July 2017 when shooting recent release Peanut Butter Falcon). The point of both trauma and inspiration appears to be Otis’ father James Lort, a hardened rodeo clown with a a chip from AA and a permanently blocked nose from cocaine abuse, played with phenomenal depth by LeBeouf himself. James is a performer who never made it, belittling his son’s achievements whilst being completely dependant on them, pocketing the per diem and leaving Otis to steal food from the catering on set.

Acting as his son’s vicious cheerleader, there is a fascinating dual quality at play. Young Otis represents the vulnerable and rage-filled child who desperately wants his father’s love, trying and failing to hold his hand in public. Constantly confronted by his failures, LeBeouf, that same little boy grown up, captures the shameful but dedicated part of the father, closing the gap of understanding by putting himself in the role. Our awareness of the actor and the material adds such complexity that the catharsis is palpable.

The chemistry between Jupe and LaBeouf is incredible, at once reviled and idolised, theirs is a complicated relationship that requires much empathy. Filled with comedy and darkness, more often than not holding one within the other. It reminds of last years Ladybird, and perhaps it’s director Alma Har’el that lends a tenderness that creeps in and takes over.

Lying and Stealing (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2019

Beautiful people Ivan and Elyse combine their charm and guile in a con job that aims to get them both out of trouble.

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Symmetrically handsome art thief Ivan (Theo James, Divergent Series) owes mob boss Dimitri (Fred Melamed) for the debt of his deceased father. Apparently only two jobs away from his freedom, things seem too good to be true until a local murder and the appearance of the FBI parked outside his apartment.

Added to this, Ivan’s bi-polar brother (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) with the same genetic sticky fingers moves in from rehab, and there’s the addition of wily bombshell Elyse (Emily Ratajkowski), an actress disgraced from Hollywood for rejecting the approach of a lecherous producer, trading favours and taking an interest in our mumbly monotonous hero.

Lying and Stealing does not wait around, it’s a quick 100 minutes that establishes its stakes early on, telegraphs the good guys and the bad, and lets you enjoy the heisty action in shot snappy scenes. It doesn’t set up the method of the job, or lean on tension whilst its playing out, you’re simply dropped into the moment to enjoy the satisfaction of someone stealthily applying their craft and using gadgets without detection.

Some way into the film the directorial style comes out of nowhere and it feels like its suddenly appealing to an older audience in both its language and violence. Largely though, it plays as a crime caper with the twists straightened and the style ironed out. It doesn’t get bogged down in the usual double-crosses and plays pretty straight for the most part.

The story is simple and the template shows itself in the details (the big bad known as ‘The Greek’), but there is something to be said for not trying to be too clever and having your grasp exceed your reach.

It could have been more complex or humorous, but it wasn’t, and that’s fine.

The King (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Shakespeare’s Henriad plays become a modernised historical epic but pared down to a few characters and fewer battles. The King appears more as a toothless morality play about the compromise that comes with power and the inevitability of war.

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Timothée Chalamet is Prince Hal, the wayward son of King Henry, a drunken Lothario albeit with perfect curls. His reluctance to fight his father’s war loses him favour and the crown. But when his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is unable to keep peace within the country it seems rebellious young Hal might just be what England needs, as a series of events lead him to become King Henry V.

A self-proclaimed pacifist, the new King resists trivial provocations from France but with council in his ear speaking of politics and ‘the mood of the people’, he finds himself drawn in. Co-written and directed by David Michôd, you might expect harsh and unflinching violence, what with his debut Animal Factory. The King bides its time however, and for the most part consists of Henry trying to avoid battle, deliberating with his advisor (Sean Harris) and the Archbishop (Andrew Havill). When violence eventually creeps into the film, and war is waged against France, it appears at various stages to mark the compromise of Henry’s stance, it’s graphic depiction marking each lost foothold with gruesome impact.

This aspect of the film appears original, but serves only to highlight the larger parts of the film which are all too familiar and dramatically played out. The Battle of Agintcour interestingly begins messy and unclear, suffocating under the weight of clattering armour down in the mud, until King Henry’s right hand man Sir John Falstaff stands and takes off his helmet so we can follow along.

Joel Edgerton, who shares a writing credit, is Falstaff: bulky and burly with a Yorkshire affectation – one that stands up against Chalamet’s impressive but sometimes waining English and Robert Pattinson’s double-barrelled French accent, as the almost moustache twirling Dauphin.

It is entertaining at times, original in moments, but for the most part The King is just flat with some interesting performances thrown on top.

By the Grace of God (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Based on true accounts and a scandal that is currently going to trial, Francois Ozon’s dramatisation looks at a group of child-abuse victims who band together as adults to speak out against their abuser and the system that allowed him to act with impunity: The Catholic Church.

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The film begins with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a devout Christian family man who is moved to action when he sees that the priest who abused him as a young boy is back in Lyon working with children. Bringing back traumatic memories, he becomes determined to prevent Father Preynat (Bernard Verley) from doing further damage and to make the church a safe and morally responsible place for children such as his own.

The first third of the film sticks closely to the shared correspondence between Alex and different figureheads from the church, formally written and delivered as voice-overs to shots of him with his family and Preynat with his congregation. This measured approach only gets so far before being met with closed doors, and so a disconsolate Alex files an official complaint which becomes the flap of the butterfly’s wing that leads to a previous case being reopened.

François had a similar experience to Alexandre but his confrontational approach is far different. Continuing a police investigation and gaining the interest of the press, he forms a support group that becomes an open forum for victims, eventually receiving an overwhelming number of similar child-abuse testimonies of kids 30 years ago. From here the group put a case together against the Priest and now renowned Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), who kept the cases from being reported to civil authorities.

There is a definite reminder of recent Oscar winner Spotlight, but By The Grace focusses on the victims as opposed to the journalists reporting the story. And rather than maintain a sorrowful and sympathetic tone, it allows the characters to be normalised: they have flaws and a sense of humour like anyone else. It doesn’t impact their deserved empathy, it makes them feel more real.

The length of time spent with each character could lessen the immediate impact, but Ozon has made a bold film that gives insight to the varied long-term affects of abuse.