Death is the Bond – The Death of Louis XIV and A Man Called Ove

The Death of Louis XIV – 1 STAR

DEATH is the theme that bonds films The Death of Louis XIV and A Man Called Ove. Both are worth watching although their approaches to the issue of death are diametrically opposed.

The Death of Louis XIV lives up to its title as it tracks the last days of Louis XIV, a King who reigned in France for 72 years and died just four days before his 77th birthday. He was often referred to as the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) although he loved nothing more than a good old war and a spot of hunting.

Written and directed by Albert Serra, it draws a superb performance from John-Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses) as the bewigged King (and what a wig it is) who takes to his bed at the Palace of Versailles as gangrene takes grip of his body.

Leaud is utterly convincing, jesting initially with his doctors but soon calling out for water in the middle of the night (water that must be delivered in a crystal glass) and refusing to eat more than a mouthful of food as he grapples with his terrible illness that creeps up his left leg and beyond, turning it a stomach churning black.

There is one moment when the camera focuses on the King’s creased face. It shows his left cheek switching ever so slightly. It is a remarkable piece of cinematography – as well as acting from Leaud. His frailty is never more exposed.

In the half light of his bedroom, the King is surrounded by a phalanx of fawning physicians and crackpots who do their best to arrest the disease’s advance. But they are more incompetent than accomplished, often more interested in scoring points against each other than helping the ailing King.

At the centre of it all is Guy Crescent-Fagon, the King’s head physician who quite rightly on this evidence lost his position after the King’s death. He is joined by a posse of doctors from the Sorbonne and a Marseilles based quack who believes the answer to combating the King’s illness lies in copious amounts of bull’s sperm. His arrest follows shortly afterwards as the sperm fails to do its magic.

It is all rather intense but captivating at the same time. There is a sublime moment when the future Louis XV, a mere five years old and the King’s great-grandson, visits him and is told to be a ‘peaceful’ ruler. The hypocrisy of it all. There is also the horror of watching an autopsy being performed on the King and various body parts extracted from inside his chest – miles of black pudding like intestine, his heart and spleen. Thank goodness, the lobotomy was postponed for another day.

At one hour 55 minutes, The Death of Louis XIV is a little too long (if you know what I mean) for my liking.  But it is worth persevering for Leaud’s fine performance alone.

A Man Called Ove – 

5 STARS

A Man Called Ove is based on the successful  2012 novel of the same title (Fredrik Backman). It stars Ross Lasgaard (a Kurt Wallender in a previous life) as the curmudgeonly Ove who spends most of his spare time when not at work haranguing his fellow residents for a multitude of offences – dropping cigarette butts and leaving bicycles unattended. He even despises the local moggie.

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When he loses his long standing job, Ove decides to fulfil a promise that he made to himself when he lost his wife – to take his own life so that he can be with her again.

A series of botched suicides follow – moments I did not enjoy one iota (hideous) but which are used as triggers to give the viewer an insight into his past life. So we are filled in about the death of his parents, his social awkwardness, his love of Saabs (inherited from his father),  how he first met his wife Sonja and how ill fortune impacts on her not once but twice.

The arrival of disorganised and pregnant neighbour Parvenah (a delightful Bahars Pars) is the catalyst for change. Ove is pulled out of his insular world. He child sits, agrees to teach Iranian Parvenah how to drive and even takes in the cat he previously would shoo away. He also makes his peace with those he had previously fallen out with – as well as agrees to allow the manager of a local shop (a gay muslim) to stay with him.

What starts as a slightly awkward film ends up being something of a Swedish gem (hats off to director Hannes Holm).  Heart-warming, life affirming and an advert for inclusiveness over insularity.

I will leave you to guess whether rejuvenated Ove gets his wish in the end to be reunited with his beloved Sonja (a sparkling, joyous Ida Engvoll – Nobody Owns Me).

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read: Land of Mine – Outshines Dunkirk in Matters of War

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – Staggeringly Wonderful (Theatre Review)

Frames of Beauty: A Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas Collaboration

 THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV – 3/5

Director: Albert Serra

Louis XIV: John-Pierre Leaud

A MAN CALLED OVE – 3.5/5

Director: Hannes Holm

Ove: Ross Lasgaard

Parvenah: Bahars Pars

Sonja: Ida Engvoll

Land of Mine – Outshines Dunkirk in Matters of War

Dunkirk – 3/5 – 1 STAR

ALTHOUGH Dunkirk is winning all the summer cinematic plaudits, Land of Mine is more than its equal.

Both films have the Second World War as their theme. But while Dunkirk looks at an event that is a key part of British war time history – the evacuation of troops from the beaches at Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo – Land of Mine covers a less known subject. It is based on the clearing of mines laid by the German army along the Danish coast by German prisoners of war. They are German lambs to the slaughter – and lambs they were with many being no more than boys.

The films could not be more different. Dunkirk makes for a stunning visual experience as Spitfires and Stukas slug it out over the Channel, boats are routinely sunk (by German torpedoes) and soldiers (sitting ducks) are strafed awaiting their evacuation. An armada of private boats come to the rescue with Mr Dawson (Sir Mark Rylance) and his pleasure boat to the fore.

The film is littered with cinematic talent – Tom Hardy (Farrier, a brave Spitfire pilot), Sir Kenneth Branagh (a fictional Commander Bolton but based on the very real pier master James Campbell Clouston) and Cillian Murphy (a traumatised soldier rescued from the sea by Mr Dawson). Even Harry Styles (One Direction) makes his acting debut as Alex, a soldier who eventually (and with a lot of luck along the way) gets rescued by Mr Dawson. An accomplished debut – and not one musical note sung in anger.

Dunkirk is classic Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento and Interstellar). It is three films in one, each with an individual timeline within the framework of the evacuation. It is what Imax is made for. It’s like a ride on the Blackpool Big Dipper and I am sure Nolan will receive a hatful of awards as a result. Rightly so.

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But it is not without fault. The film cuts between the three themes which can jar (others argue it helps drive the film’s momentum).

Also, although the viewer feels as if they are right there in Farrier’s cockpit as he engages in a string of dog fights over the Channel, it is difficult to build empathy with any of the characters (Styles’ Alex included). The film does not give us that opportunity. We are not allowed to get inside any of the characters with maybe the exception of Rylance’s Dawson, the stand-out performance of the film.

It also feels as if the horror of war is underplayed. Yes, we see troops strafed on the pier and the beaches but there is little bloody aftermath to remind us that war is horrific.

Land of Mine – 5 STARS

In contrast, Land of Mine pans out like a horror movie as it follows a unit of young German prisoners of war given the task in 1945 of clearing the thousands of mines left by their army to prevent an Allied invasion from the sea.

They are overseen by Sargent Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) who we see in the opening sequences of the film viscously assault a prisoner of war in a long line of marching prisoners who has the temerity to be carrying a Danish flag. He is beaten black and blue. It is a moment more visceral than anything that Dunkirk has to offer.

The 12 youngsters are billeted in a shed next to a farm lived in by a mother and daughter. With little training behind them, no food on offer and Rasmussen constantly snarling at them, the twelve spend most of their time lying on their fronts painstakingly removing the detonators from mines they find buried in the sand.

There are no mine detectors to assist them. Just sticks which they prod into the sand to find the mines, a helmet (about as protective as a condom with a hole in it) and their wits. Life and a high probability of death or awful maiming.

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It all makes for harrowing viewing (I turned away on many an occasion fearing the worst) as the unit’s numbers are whittled down in devastating fashion. One maiming will stick in my mind for a long time to come. More bloody, more realistic than anything Nolan’s sanitised Dunkirk has to offer.

Yet Land of Mine is more than a gruesome watch. Slowly, we see Rasmussen shake off his demons (a result of his own war time experience) and build a relationship with the boys under his command. He plays football with them and steals food so they do not starve (much to the anger of his superior, a vile Captain Ebbe Jensen – Mikel Boe Folsgaard – who seeks retribution).

We also see some of the boys’ characters emerge, especially Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann) who against the odds builds a bond with Rasmussen – as well as a wooden contraption designed to ensure both mines do not go undetected and the boys get a little more protection.

There are setbacks along the way, most notably one involving Rasmussen’s devoted collie and the other based around the mother’s daughter, but ultimately the Sargent shows that he is nothing but a honourable and compassionate man.

Land of Mine, directed by Martin Zandvliet, is an important addition to the library of war cinema. It sheds light on a war time story that few people outside Denmark are aware of.

Would we today allow prisoners of war to be used in this way? Of course not. It is as despicable as the fate that awaited Japanese prisoners of war, as lovers of David Lean’s 1957 classic The Bridge Over The River Kwai know all too well.

Patriotic though I am and as much as I was enthralled by Hardy’s piloting skills and Rylance’s quiet command of the Moonstone, I would choose Land of Mine over Dunkirk every time. War cannot be dumbed down. Land of Mine shows it as it really was, bloody warts and all.

 Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – Staggeringly Wonderful (Theatre Review)

Frames of Beauty: A Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas Collaboration

Hair-Raising Australian Horror – Hounds of Love (Film Review)

LAND OF MINE – 5/5

Director: Martin Zandvliet

Sargent Carl Rasmussen: Roland Moller

Captain Ebbe Jensen: Mikel Folsgaard

Sebastian Schumann: Louis Hofmann

DUNKIRK – 3/5

Director: Christopher Nolan

Farrier: Tom Hardy

Mr Dawson: Sir Christopher Rylance

Commander Bolton: Sir Kenneth Branagh

Alex: Harry Styles

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – Staggeringly Wonderful (Theatre Review)

5 STARS

THERE can be few more commanding and dynamic performances in the West End than that currently being delivered by Audra McDonald.

From the moment she weaves (staggers) on to the stage at Wyndham’s Theatre, she captivates and enthrals the audience as Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

It is a gut-wrenching, heart breaking performance that will leave you breathless and marvel at the talent that pours from every pore of McDonald. Acting that won her a Tony Award on Broadway in 2014 and surely will win her more trophies and accolades in the months ahead.

She plays a tipsy (drugged up) Holiday as if she herself  has been drinking back stage. She staggers and swaggers her way through the 90 minutes, delivering an array of Holiday hits with aplomb while recalling chunks of the singer’s tragic life story. It is as if Holiday, who died from heart and liver failure at the tender age of 44, has been reincarnated for the evening. Breath-taking. Extraordinary. Unmissable.

The play is written by Lanie Robertson and is based on a tale told to him by a friend who saw Holiday perform in a dive in North Philadelphia some three months before her death. She drank her way through the performance, introducing her pet Chihuahua Pepi to an audience of just seven, before staggering off.

Robertson uses this recollection as a vehicle for McDonald to reel off a string of Holiday hits – opening with I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone, pinnacling with a spellbinding rendition of protest song Strange Fruit and ending with Deep Song. She also sings Baby Doll by Bessie Smith, someone Holiday  worshipped and whose voice she first heard as a teenager while in a brothel where her mother worked as a prostitute.

But winningly Robertson also uses the dive’s setting for McDonald to take us through Holiday’s tumultuous life – a life that explains why she turned to the bottle and drugs and ultimately self-destructed (for Holiday, read Edith Piaf, Whitney Houston, George Michael, Amy Whitehouse et al). It makes you angry and mad as her life story unfurls.

Mother Sadie was a teenager when she gave birth to Holiday and brought her up on her own (Holiday’s father Clarence Holiday was a jazz musician).

Holiday was raped at the age of 10, was introduced to opium by her first husband James Monroe (she was already a borderline alcoholic at that stage) and jailed for possession of narcotics in the late 1940s. She made her final appearance in New York in late May 1959, dying less than two months later.

The show also highlights the racism that Holiday faced throughout her life – for example being refused the use of a hotel bathroom because of her colour, a moment that meant she had to urinate on the floor and over the shoes of a waitress.

McDonald is unquestionably the star of this show. She puts her heart and soul into every moment and song – and leaves the audience exhausted and exhilarated. How she will keep going until 9 September I do not know. An exemplary voice. Close your eyes and you will think you are listening to a Holiday record. Maybe you could argue that you would wish to hear ‘Holiday’ without the slurring but that is to miss the point of the musical (a phalanx of Holiday CDs are available on Amazon for those who like Holiday pure).

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Yet McDonald is helped by great support. On stage by Shelton Becton  who plays Jimmy Powers, a pianist who Holiday flirts with throughout. Without saying more than a dozen words, Jimmy tries to coax Holiday through her performance despite the creeping effect on her of the cocktail of booze and drugs that she is absorbing. It is an understated role that Becton delivers expertly. He also leads the band (Frankie Tontoh on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass) with a quiet effectiveness.

The musical is also imaginatively staged with members of the audience on stage to give the feel of a dive. It allows McDonald to (amusingly) interact with them although the proliferation of jeans and suits hardly perpetuates the feel of a 1950’s Philadelphian dive.

Last but not least, Tilly is impeccably behaved as Pepi the Chihuahua who is fleetingly brought on stage by McDonald’s Holiday after flouncing off to mainline some heroin.

Tickets for this show do not come cheap, especially if you want to sit around a table on stage and be on parade (I can’t think of anything worse to do while watching live theatre).

But if you can grab one (Time Out occasionally do special deals for those like me who are happy to sit up in the Gods), you will not be disappointed.

McDonald is a sensation, a fact I am sure Holiday would acknowledge if she were in a position to judge.

For info on LadyDay and the Wyndham’s Theatre

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Lady Day – 5/5

Director: Lonny Price

Billie Holiday: Audra McDonald

Jimmy Powers: Shelton Becton

Pepi: Tilly

Frames of Beauty: A Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas Collaboration

DIRECTOR Olivier Assayas seldom hides his admiration for Kristen Stewart.

This was evident at a fascinating Curzon Q&A earlier this year in London. At the event he introduced Personal Shopper – his second project with Stewart following 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria – by stating it was as much her film as his own. As more words of admiration followed it was clear both actor and director had benefited from their collaborations.

For Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas gave Stewart a chance to act with a freedom that Hollywood studios, finely-oiled and profit-focused beasts, tend to discourage. After working alongside the majestic Juliette Binoche in Clouds, Stewart had both the grounding and confidence to deliver a wonderful solo performance in Personal Shopper.

Equally, Stewart’s humanity and vulnerability as an actress made her ideal for Assayas to embrace issues of artistic legitimacy and, later, the supernatural.

With the release of Personal Shopper on DVD and Blu Ray, it seems an ideal time to examine their collaborations in finer detail (through the use of selected images) and assess what we can learn from the mesmerising way Assayas photographs Stewart.

Isolation

IN both films, Stewart’s characters – Valentine (Clouds of Sils Maria) and Maureen (Personal Shopper) are faced with feelings of isolation.

KS WALK

For Valentine, these emotions are rooted in her inability to connect with Maria (Binoche) on a creative level. The above image comes after Valentine – cutting a more frayed figure than earlier in the film – finds her thoughts shot down once again by her finicky boss.

This disconnect between the two is made clear with Valentine sitting tense and frustrated while Maria sleeps in the background. It is a fascinating image which underlines Maria’s obliviousness to her assistant’s state of mind.

Similar moments are placed by Assayas at points in the film to reinforce Valentine’s growing disillusionment – something we are left to ponder unlike Maria, who is wrapped up in her own  insecurities and stubborn outlook.

In Personal Shopper, Assayas makes Maureen’s isolation visible  in moments of transport. Most eye-catching are the shots of her drifting through the Parisian streets on her scooter.

Assayas’ image of alienation in a blurry foreign city is brilliantly supported by Stewart’s acting which, even in these short moments, communicates her character’s troubling inner-turmoil.

Close-ups

CLOSE-UPS can be a powerful and illuminating cinematic tool.

We see this early on in Personal Shopper when the camera fixates on Maureen’s face as she tries on her boss’s boots.

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The scene is subtly and enchantingly acted by Stewart, who shows a self-assurance that contrasts with her nervousness waiting for her twin brother Lewis to ‘arrive’ in the house. With forbidden boots on, she looks a transformed figure: is this what she craves to be?

Tellingly, it is a similar look  – one exuding seductiveness  and sensuality – we will see later when she tries on the sparkling dress.

The frame also reminds me us a close-up of Valentine at the start of Clouds of Sils Maria. Here, Stewart’s face takes up the frame giving a sense of honesty, relatability and closeness to the character.

trAIN SCENE

The feelings provoked by this close-up are more significant given the distance Valentine is from Maria in this train scene. Perhaps Assayas is visually foregrounding Maria’s inaccessible nature to highlight the conflict with Valentine’s openness.

Reflections

ONE fascinating visual aspect of Personal Shopper is Assayas’ use of mirrors and reflections.

Their presence certainly plays into the film’s investigation of our relationship with the invisible. As far back as the Romans, there have been ties made between the supernatural and mirrors (in cinema think of ominous horrors such as Clive Barker’s The Candyman and Mike Flanagan’s Oculus).

So the inclusion of mirrors could be part of the same probing by Assayas which also led him to feature the art work of Helmut Klimt.

As part of this link, reflections and the act of seeing ‘double’ are reminders that Maureen was once a twin. For Maureen there will always be a part of her missing with the loss of Lewis, a painful truth that keeps her in Paris and leads her on this turbulent inner-journey.

Assayas’ use of mirrors also works as a commentary on the fashion industry. In the captivating image below, Maureen daringly takes a photo of herself in her boss’s dress. The fashion industry, which Maureen is a part of as a personal shopper, is image-obsessed and in this frame we can see her being enticed by the empowerment and confidence this can bring.

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Ultimately, mirrors and reflections have a revealing quality which Assayas captures strikingly. With them, we almost have a 360 view of Maureen with nothing unseen or hidden. Visually, Maureen’s true nature is on show as she begins to explore an untouched, devilish part of her inner-being.

In these frames, Personal Shopper’s themes of the supernatural, technology and image are melded together. It is the type of imagery that makes Assayas such an interesting and thoughtful director.

Not only that, but Assayas also has one of the finest performers in the world to populate his frame.

The Assayas and Stewart axis is one of beauty. Let us hope there is more to come. Cinema will be the better for it.

Personal Shopper is now available on DVD and Blu Ray. Click here to buy from Amazon. 

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read: Kristen Stewart’s Solo Masterclass – Personal Shopper (DVD Review)

Kristen Stewart: Back from the Twilight

Personal Shopper Q&A with Director Olivier Assayas

Hair-Raising Australian Horror – Hounds of Love (Film Review)

5 STARS

Hounds of Love is out in cinemas on July 28

HOT on the trail of Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Julia Ducournau (Raw), Ben Young is the latest talent to cut his directorial teeth in fine fashion with an inventive and hair-raising horror film.

His debut feature, Hounds of Love, is set to the backdrop of a sweaty (not snowy) Christmas in 1987 Perth, Australia.

Schoolgirl Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is taking her parents’ separation hard and, after a row with her mother (Susie Porter), sneaks out of the house late at night to attend a party.

Dolled up and alone, Vicki makes prime prey for psychopathic couple, Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry), who trawl the suburban streets in search of vulnerable teens.

As the title suggests, these are savage predators. They lure Vicki to their home (and part-time dungeon) before sadistically chaining her to the bed. Bloodied tissues and bent coat hangers littered on the floor act as chilling indicators of what may be in store for the teen.

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As signs of friction between Evelyn and John begin to show, Vicki is left in a desperate – and unlikely – race against time to escape her captors’ clutches.

Young has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to hold the viewers interest and, when necessary, crank up the seat-gripping tension. Perhaps the most effective of these is a snail-paced crawling camera paired with slow motion.

The film opens on this note, as we see lingering, sexualised close-ups of schoolgirls playing netball (later on we will see close-ups of Vicki’s terrified and tortured eyes). Young then reveals we are watching through the creepy voyeurist eyes of the psychopathic couple laying in wait.

It’s an unsettling sequence which sets the tone for the cold-blooded action still to come.

When we move into the horror house, Young utilises the tight layout and open doors to show there’s no room to hide. We are often left watching Vicki from one room to another, just out of our reach, only adding to the hopelessness of her situation.

This layout also allows the camera to slowly drift around, at times stretching out the suspense to great effect.

All of this tension is underlined by Dan Luscombe’s eerie and pulsing 80’s synth score. Likewise, the soothing sounds of Cat Stevens’ Lady D’Arbanville and The Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin cannot escape the disturbing context given to them.

With a captivating central performance from Booth that delves into issues of cyclical abuse, Hounds of Love has depth beyond its surface scares.

For that, Young deserves acclaim alongside Peele and Ducournau. Hounds of Love is a brilliant showcase of the horror genre. Clever and impactful.

One for the hounds of cinema to dig their claws into – and feel sated.

 

Thank you for reading. Please like, comment and share!

Also read: Q&A with Raw director Julia Ducournau  

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James recommends: Chronicle (2012)

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Hounds of Love – 4/5

Dire and Scre: Ben Young

Cast: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Susie Porter, Damien de Montemas, Harrison Gilbertson

Music: Dan Luscombe

Cinematography: Michael McDermott

The Midwife (Sage Femme) – A Delightful Amuse Bouche of a Film

5 STARS

THE Midwife is a delightful hors d’ouevre of a film. It is both gentle and amusing although some will argue that it lacks a certain gravitas. More amuse bouche but appetising all the same.

Directed by Martin Provost (Violette, Seraphine), it features Catherine Frot (Marguerite, Haute Cuisine) as a calm professional midwife whose somewhat mundane life is suddenly turned upside down by the arrival of the mistress of her late father, a sassy (and still sexy) Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour, Indochine, Standing Tall. et al).

Midwife Claire Breton, a single mother, is calmness personified and runs her life with military like precision. A non-drinker, she cycles to work where she works the night shift. When she is not working or sleeping, she quietly tends to her allotment alongside the River Seine. She is more interested in vegetables than men. Work, no play.

But this ordered state of affairs is disrupted by Deneuve’s Beatrice Sobolevski. She is a force of nature who has more vices than virtues – the antithesis of Claire. She loves her men, cigarettes, wine and red meat – preferably all at the same time. She also enjoys gambling even if she does not have the means to fund it.

Claire is initially hostile but slowly and surely Beatrice wins her over. The connection is made stronger by the fact that Beatrice has a brain tumour which must be operated on, resulting in Claire asserting her authority over her father’s former lover. She helps nurse Beatrice while not missing any opportunity to enforce her moral code on her former nemesis.

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As the relationship builds, Claire mellows, helped by the arrival of the perky and self-assured Paul Baron (Olivier Gourmet) in the adjoining allotment. Although she initially resists his offer of potatoes, the free spirited truck driver is nothing but persistent. Frolicking ensues – in Claire’s shed. Gentle to begin with, a little more robust (and amusing to observe) as time goes on.

The remaining part of the film’s jigsaw is Claire’s son Simon (Quentin Dolmaire), an accomplished swimmer like his grandfather was. He is having serious doubts about continuing with his training to become a doctor (not helped by the fact that his girlfriend is pregnant).

Claire keeps Beatrice well away from him but as the ice maiden of a midwife melts she lets down her guard. When Simon and Beatrice meet, the occasion is a magic moment as their love of a man now departed from this world bonds them.

Apart from the relationships between midwife, drop out son, truck driver and mistress, there is a sub-plot – the imminent closure of Claire’s maternity unit. It is a department she has devoted her life to, as evidenced when a young mother gives birth and informs her she was delivered by Claire 28 years previously.

Will she move to the new sparkling hospital with all the latest medical gizmos? Or is it time to reassess?

The film is littered with stellar performances. As expected, Frot and Deneuve deliver in garden spades. Frot is all frowns and worry lines while Deneuve exudes a combination of mischief and sex.

Yet it is Gourmet (Central Station, Le Fils) who surprisingly sparkles the most. His Baron – a male version of Beatrice – is all smiles, cheek and naughtiness who likes a tipple (and a rumble and tumble in Claire’s shed). A winning performance.

As a story, The Midwife is somewhat contrived. But if you want cheering up and would like to see a triumvirate of cinematic talent in one sitting, this is a film for you. Yes, lightweight. But nourishing all the same.

See it now – or wait for it to come out on DVD and consume with a glass of Viognier at your side.

One final thought: what actually happened to Beatrice at the end? Maybe only the River Seine knows. Or maybe not.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read: The Bravehearts of Raqqa – City of Ghosts (Film Review)

Kristen Stewart’s Solo Masterclass – Personal Shopper (DVD Review)

Utterly Beguiled: The Tale Of Two Films

Chest-Pounding Action – War For The Planet Of The Apes (Film Review)

The Midwife – 4/5

Martin Provost: Director

Catherine Deneuve: Beatrice Sobolevski

Catherine Frot: Claire Breton

Olivier Gourmet: Paul Baron

Quentin Dolmaire: Simon

The Bravehearts of Raqqa – City of Ghosts (Film Review)

5 STARS

CITY OF Ghosts is an extraordinary documentary that should be watched by anyone alarmed by the rise – and continued threat – of Isis. In other words, by everyone.

Directed by Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, 2015), it centres on the good people of Raqqa in Syria as they rally against the Bashar al-Assad regime in response to the Arab Spring of late 2010.

Initially overjoyed by the prospect of a people’s uprising across the Middle East – and in particular against Assad – their rejoicing is soon quelled as the regime’s troops fire indiscriminately on protesters.

Worse is to follow as amid the chaos Isis and its army of jihadists take control of Raqqa and impose a regime even more hideous than Assad’s.

The documentary focuses on the work of a group called ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’, a small band of extremely brave people determined to shine a light on the horror that unfolds as Isis tightens its grip on the city situated close to the Euphrates (a shot of a heron standing against the backdrop of the river acts as a poignant counterpoint to the unfolding horror).

Having fled to Germany or Turkey, these individuals use social media – and informants within Raqqa (braver than brave) – to tell the world the truth about what is happening to the City they love. Not just about the regular beheadings, crucifixions and executions (issues that Heineman does not shirk from showing) but the food and water shortages that make surviving in the City a living hell – and make a mockery of Isis’s claim (perpetuated by social media propaganda) that life in Raqqa is all honey and no sting.

The group do this in constant fear of their lives. They are issued with regular death threats and pictures are posted on the internet indicating that Isis knows where their ‘safe houses’ are located.  Protection from the German police is declined.

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Harrowingly, the documentary shows one of RBSS’s founders – Hamoud-al-Mousa – sitting in a barren apartment somewhere in Germany and watching a video of his father’s execution at the hands of Isis. An execution designed to strike fear into Hamoud and every member of RBSS.

Hamoud’s response is extraordinary. ‘I watch the video a lot. It gives me strength,’ he says. His brother Ahmad Mohammed was also murdered at the hands of Isis as were other RBSS members – including Ibrahim Abdul Qader and Al-Moutaz Bellah Ibrahim – and Naji Jerf, a Syrian journalist who inspired RBSS members to carry on with their work. And carry on they do to this day.

The documentary is at its best when it shows a Raqqa citizen defiantly spray-painting a wall at night – ‘death to Isis’. There is also a video recording of a masked informant within Raqqa updating RBSS on what is going on within the City. Such reports trigger an annoyed Isis into ripping down the City’s satellites in an attempt to stifle any independent news coming out of the City.

In amongst all the scratchy phone calls, posting of video material smuggled out of Raqqa and endless smoking in soulless rooms, there is the occasional lighter moment. Playful snowball fights (in Germany), joyous dancing and emotional airport reunions. Set against this, they take part in a counter-rally against German Nationalists calling for immigrants to leave. Nationalists who are unable to distinguish between the likes of RBSS and those terrorists who drove a truck through a Berlin Christmas market in late 2016, killing a dozen people.

RBSS’s work has been widely acclaimed as the documentary acknowledges. It shows RBSS member Abdalaziz Alhamza graciously – and modestly – receiving the International  Press Freedom Award in 2015 from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. Wrapped in a Syrian flag, he receives the accolade before a room of individuals dressed in black ties and flowing gowns. A far cry from the horrors of Raqqa.

Heineman has come up trumps (no pun intended) with this documentary. But the real heroes of this must-see piece of work are the citizen journalists of  RBSS (past and present) who to this day continue to ‘fight’  for Raqqa’s freedom.

A freedom that maybe they will soon win as Isis comes under attack in Raqqa from the Syrian army and other forces loyal to Assad. Or maybe not. One tyranny replaced by another. Evil replaced by evil.

Watch this documentary. If you are on twitter, I urge you to follow @Raqqa_SL

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Also read: Kristen Stewart’s Solo Masterclass – Personal Shopper (DVD Review)

Utterly Beguiled: The Tale Of Two Films

Lost In Headphones: Many A Movie Moment

Kristen Stewart’s Solo Masterclass – Personal Shopper (DVD Review)

5 STARS

FOLLOWING the critical success of 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, it was inevitable that acclaimed director Olivier Assayas and actress sensation Kristen Stewart would reunite at some stage.

They have for Personal Shopper, a classy film (now released on DVD) that unexpectedly tackles our perception of the supernatural.

The outcome is an intelligent, absorbing and genre-defining story. Stewart, without Juliette Binoche (Maria Enders in Clouds of Sils Maria) as her foil, takes up almost every frame. She responds with a sublime solo lead performance which lends humanity and credibility to Assayas’ divergent exploration of the invisible.

Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper working for an aloof celebrity – Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten) –  in Paris. Despite feeling disillusioned by her  job, she remains tied to the city by the hope her recently deceased twin brother will make contact from the afterlife. Tellingly, Maureen cuts an alienated figure drifting through blurry, Parisian streets on her scooter.

Already on-edge, a series of anonymous text messages deepens Maureen’s personal turmoil which soon threatens to bleed into her professional life. Is it her brother Lewis somehow sending the texts or is it a more sinister figure? Just as importantly, what is their motive?

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Despite the film opening with a view of  a spooky-looking gated house, Personal Shopper does not follow the path of morality-based American horror. Instead, Assayas takes a meditative approach which contemplates our relationship with the supernatural through the arts and technology.

At one point, Maureen rides the train and –  with headphones on – watches YouTube videos about 20th Century Swedish abstract artist Hilma af Klint. It is surprisingly engrossing to watch, but also speaks perfectly to the film’s non-binary investigation of the invisible.

As well as the supernatural, Personal Shopper is about Maureen’s personal and inner-looking journey. Although wishing to connect with her deceased brother, she is also forced to confront deeper, hidden emotions within herself. With this, elements of psychological study creep in which are not too far from Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) starring Natalie Portman.

Maureen’s introspective questioning intensifies when the mysterious text messages begin. These are moments when the film could lose its audience, but Stewart helps hold and – impressively – heighten the intrigue.

Even sitting on a train reacting to texts, she has an electric and highly engaging on-screen presence. But Assayas also appreciates her enthralling physical acting in more open spaces through long tracking sequences.

In keeping with the film’s use of drained colours, Maureen is often seen in baggy sweaters and little makeup. This works to heighten the allure when she is around Kyra’s sparkling and expensive dresses.

The film’s most brilliant scene arrives as Maureen daringly tries on one of Kyra’s outfits. She does this while Assayas devilishly plays Marlene Dietrich’s twinkly sounding tune Das Hobellied. Unbeknown to most non-German speaking audiences, the song – which would not feel out of place in a Disney animation – is all about death. Fittingly so, Maureen’s aura transfoms, Cinderella-like, from one of vulnerability to sensual strength. With powerful acting and directing on show, it amounts to pitch perfect mise en scene.

Assayas deserves credit for getting the most out of Stewart’s qualities. In some ways, it reminds me of the way Hitchcock used James Stewart’s everyday accessibility to explore darker themes in films such as Vertigo and Rear Window.

Kristen Stewart has a sincere relatability and magnetism. It worked effortlessly to counter Maria Enders’ stubborn pride in Clouds of Sils Maria (expertly played by Binoche). And now gives Assayas the opportunity to delve into  the easily derided subject of the supernatural in Personal Shopper.

Personal Shopper is one of the best films in recent years. Stewart’s performance, comprising a mix of emotional complexity, nuance and weight, is on a par with Amy Adams in Arrival and Portman in Black Swan. Captivating cinema.

Bravo Stewart and Assayas. We can only hope you work together again so that we can celebrate a triple success.

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Also read: Kristen Stewart: Back from the Twilight

Personal Shopper Q&A with Director Olivier Assayas

Utterly Beguiled: The Tale Of Two Films

Lost In Headphones: Many A Movie Moment

Utterly Beguiled: The Tale Of Two Films

SOFIA Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled, begins with a young girl (Amy) singing as she picks mushrooms in the woods. Although it may seem insignificant, her voice marks an important shift in perspective compared to Don Siegel’s 1971 version of the story.

Siegel’s film, which was released just 44 days before Coppola was born, opens on an overtly masculine note.  Black and white stills of the Civil War are set to the pounding sounds of a military drum and, soon after, the harsher noises of clanking machinery and gunfire. When we then fade to the young girl picking mushrooms – Coppola’s film opening – it is, instead, a male voice singing a folk song: ‘The Dove She is a Pretty Bird’.

Coppola’s shedding of Siegel’s  blusterous opening in favour of a feminine tone-setter, is just the start of many deviations she makes – not just from Siegel’s work, but Thomas P Cullen’s 1966 novel. They work quite splendidly.

Even still, the core of Cullen’s narrative remains intact. Set in 1864 Virginia, The Beguiled tells the story of a Christian all-girls school which gives shelter to a severely injured (and  runaway) Union solider named Corporal McBurney, played by Colin Farrell. He is discovered by Amy, played delightfully by Oona Laurence.

The girls live in constant fear as the Civil War rages in the distance –  evidenced by the constant sound of cannon and blooms of dark smoke. As confederate supporters, an injured solider of the Union spells nothing but trouble. Should they hand him over or look after McBurney while his leg heals? They opt for the latter although ultimately it does not work out in the best interests of McBurney or for that matter his injured leg.

With his rugged good looks and flirtatious Irish charm, the enemy solider immediately becomes a figure of temptation for the virginal Southern Belles and their teachers. Among them is establishment owner Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), who is tasked with keeping her students in line while she battles with her own sexual urges and frustrations.

It is a role Kidman plays with incredible control, revealing momentary slips in her character’s otherwise poised and rehearsed demeanour. The moment when she is snubbed by McBurney outside his bedroom door is one to treasure.

Her assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is  a vulnerable figure, one moment hopeful, the next desperate. Then there is flirty 18-year-old student Alicia (played faultlessly by Elle Fanning), who has given up on her French lessons and seems enthralled by the challenge of seducing an older man.

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Feelings of jealousy and mistrust quickly shroud the house like the mist and mossy oaks outside as the women quietly vie for McBurney’s attention and affection. The result is a dangerous, domesticated civil war fought with lustful passing glances rather than the heavy-artillery cannons that can be heard booming in the distance.

It is in these moments – where Coppola’s camera cuts between all the telling looks – that the film excels. Best of all is a scene when the women gather upstairs to sing for McBurney. Without a word being said, a combination of feelings, longing, suspicion and envy are displayed by no more than an exchange of glances and micro-expressions.

With these interactions, Coppola leaves us to unpick the subtle psychological jousting at play – a game enhanced by Coppola’s hazy, dreamlike aesthetic of trapped sunlight and glowing candles.

All this is very different to Siegel’s version of the film. Under sweat-dripping sunlight there is no space shadowy delicacy. Instead, voiceovers and flashbacks forcefully clarify any slight ambiguities. This approach falls in line with the heavy handed symbolism lifted straight from the novel – for example,  the injured crow tied to the house that cannot fly away.

Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of  McBurney is also more clear-cut than Farrell’s. Although Eastwood, who would work with Spiegel on Dirty Harry in the same year, is immobile for most of the film, he still retains his macho-posturing and even finds time for a fist-fight.

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In contrast, Farrell’s McBurney for the most part cuts a sly figure who revels in the task of emotionally manipulating the women that fawn over him. In turn, he woos Miss Matha and Edwina while basking in Alicia’s lustful attention. He even has Amy eating out of his hand although he does not go as far as to kiss the 12-year-old like Eastwood’s McBurney.

One character controversially omitted from Coppola’s film is African-American slave Hallie (played by Mae Mercer in the 1971 version). The conversations that Eastwood’s McBurney and Hallie have about the ‘freedom’ of soldiers and slaves are perhaps the most engaging part of Siegel’s film. Coppola clearly felt she did not have sufficient space to accommodate Hallie and the traumas and issues that swirled around her.

Coppola’s version of The Beguiled is one of tight focus, engrossing atmosphere and delightful acting. I suggest you watch her version before Siegel’s because it spells out the goings on within the house in clearer terms.

The different perspectives on Cullen’s story act as reminder of why we need a diversity of voices in cinema. If Siegel film’s is the equivalent of a nose-grabbing aftershave, then Coppola’s is more akin to a seductive perfume.  Paco Rabanne versus Chanel Number 5.

On this occasion, it is Coppola’s Chanel Number 5 that I find more beguiling.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

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Lost In Headphones: Many A Movie Moment

HEADPHONES play a big role in my life.

They give me the freedom to listen to music and podcasts in public without disturbing others. They allow me, at any time, to escape boredom, silence or unwanted interaction. Sometimes, more pressingly, they distract my mind from creeping feelings of insecurity and upset.

In many ways, headphones have become my comfort blanket. I am wearing them as I write this, and will probably wear them tonight as I go to sleep. But I am not alone. In Edgar Wright’s recent exhilaratingly fun film Baby Driver, our protagonist, Baby (Ansel Elgort), also has a dependency on headphones.

His need, which is founded upon a severe case of tinnitus, means he craves a constant flow of music to drown out a piercing ringing sound. If the music stops, the painful ringing returns along with haunting memories of the crash which caused his condition.

As we see in the playful opening credit sequence of Baby Driver, headphones give Baby the freedom to escape these problems and enjoy his music on the move. He can dance around the streets as carefree and goofily as Kevin Bacon in Footloose.

There is a similar scene in Guardians of the Galaxy when we first meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as an adult. Peter’s headphones blast Redbone’s Come and Get Your Love as he dances through a cave kicking around pesky womp rats.

As Guardian progresses, we learn that Peter’s Walkman has deeper emotional weight – like Baby, it is attached to memories of his mother. So it is no surprise Peter gets protective when a prison guard puts on his headphones and starts listening. For Peter, this represents an invasion of his privacy.

Later on, we see the opposite side of this as Peter opens up to Gamora about his mother. It leads to Peter trusting her to wear his headphones and listen to Elvin Bishop’s melodic tune Fooled Around and Fell in Love – an intimate moment between the two which nearly ends with a kiss.

Headphones also act to spark a romance in Garden State. Enthusiastic and engaging, Sam (Natalie Portman) attempts to spark a conversation with a zoned-out and evasive Andrew (Zach Braff) in a hospital waiting room. The conversation is rather one-sided until Sam offers her oversized headphones (any wearer would be engulfed in sound) to Andrew, saying: ‘You gotta hear this song. It’ll change your life.’

It does and, as Andrew is awakened by the sounds of The Shins, the camera cuts to Sam’s bright and smiley face. This moment of clarity, brought to him through headphones, puts Andrew back on a path to reconnect with the world and find love.

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Speaking of sharing, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Gretta (Keira Knightley) wander the New York streets together at night wearing a headphone splitter in John Carney’s Begin Again. With songs like Frank Sinatra’s Luck Be a Lady Tonight and Stevie Wonder’s For Once in my Life, it is an irresistibly romantic scene (even though the two share a love for music, not each other) which demonstrates the power of music to transform a setting and its mood.

At one point, Dan and Gretta enter a nightclub to dance to their own music. This leaves the two out of sync with the frantic moves of their fellow clubbers. It is a moment mirroring 1980’s French film La Boum (The Party/Ready for Love), in which schoolgirl Vic (Sophie Marceau) deals with the struggles of moving to a new school and having a turbulent home life.

At the big party, Mathieu (Alexandre Sterling) –  Vic’s love interest – sneaks behind her and puts his headphones over her ears. Upon hearing the soothing sounds of Richard Sanderson’s Reality, she immediately turns around and embraces him. The two continue to slow dance in direct contrast to the up-tempo movement surrounding them. With her troubles at home, headphones provide a moment of comfort and control for Vic.

There is no splitter on hand in underappreciated Mexican film Güeros. Instead, the characters huddle around one set of headphones to catch the sound of enigmatic rock singer Epigmenio Cruz.

Interestingly, the audience is excluded from hearing the music. The silence we are left with fuels the mystery behind Cruz and forces us to focus on the characters’ wonder-filled facial expressions.

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Headphones can also signal internal turmoil. Take Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. At work, he plays jovial tunes such as Katrina and the Wave’s Walking on Sunshine and Chris De Burgh’s Lady In Red. Yet no amount of cheerful music can cover sick thoughts we know run through his monstrous mind.

In Joseph Ruben’s horror flick Step Father (1987), Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) puts on big blood red headphones to mask the sounds of her mother and Jerry – whom she suspects of being a murderer – having sex upstairs. In this way, headphones can be a way to pull the plug on the world outside.

But just as headphones can be used to block out they can be used to listen in. Stasi officer Gerd (Ulrich Muhe) is hired to do this in thriller The Lives of Others as he spies on suspected Communist traitor and playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch).  Likewise, surveillance police officers are rarely without headphones in Hong Kong crime thriller series Overheard.

The isolation that headphones provide can give space for creative thinking. In 8 Mile, headphones allow B-Rabbit (Eminem) to write raps on the bus. As he does so, the camera cuts back and forth between Marshall scribbling away and the decayed streets of Detroit which help fuel his lyrics.

In the more sanitary setting of Pitch Perfect 2, Beca (Anna Kendrick) dons Beats headphones to work on new music and arrangements. The Beats are a sign of her extra responsibilities and, perhaps, an individual and burgeoning talent that goes beyond the Bellas.

Fellow music lover Rob (John Cusack) talks about the influencing capability of music in the opening scene of High Fidelity. The big headphones he wears and the spinning vinyl record are immediate indicators that Rob is connected to his music

The liberating effect of headphones can sometimes result in comical moments. In Demolition, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), like Baby, unleashes some extravagant dance moves on his commute to work. When he arrives at the investment bank, his aura has seemingly changed so much that an employee does not recognise him at first.

Both Vivian (Julia Roberts), in Pretty Woman, and Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), in About a Boy, get caught singing aloud with their headphones on. Tellingly, neither gets particularly embarrassed by these amusing situations.

In Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) lays on his rug (which really ties the room together) relaxing to the sounds of a 1987 Venice Beach ten pin bowling play-off. He opens his eyes to Maude (Julianne Moore) and two goons standing over him, one of which knocks him out with a punch.

An elaborate and brilliantly choreographed dream sequence ensues that involves bowling – the sounds of which were playing on his headphones when he got knocked out – and Bob Dylan’s Man In Me which is playing when he wakes up. In some ways, this iconic sequence is grounded in the Dude’s use of headphones.

Even in 1963’s Charade, headphones could help set up a joke. As Reggie (Audrey Hepburn) is in the midst of translating a meeting for political leaders, she gets distracted by a kiss from Peter (Cary Grant). The room of politicians, all reliant on Reggie’s words through their headphones, turn around simultaneously to see what is happening.

As seen in Spike Jonze’s Her, we may all soon be wearing wireless headphones. More freedom or more detachment?

Headphones. Big in my life – and a musical tool used in many a film to brilliant effect.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Can you name another iconic moment in film involving headphones? Comment below

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Personal Shopper Q&A with Director Olivier Assayas