FUNNY COW

Funny Cow (2017) on IMDb
Director Adrian Shergold; stars Maxine Peake, Stephen Graham, Paddy Considine, Alun Armstrong, Diane Morgan, Lindsay Coulson, Hebe Beardsal, Bobby Knut, John Bishop. Cert 15. 102 mins.

The central theme of Funny Cow is the empowerment of women and the film is a bleak reminder of why the #metoo movement was needed 50 years ago.

Informally, in working class communities, especially in Northern England, the term ‘cow’ refers to an unpleasant or disliked woman. This is a term generally used by women towards their own gender, as in ‘she’s a jealous cow’ or ‘that one is a real miserable cow’. It is a derogatory term whose use is intended to demean the target of the insult and it is telling that throughout Adrian Shergold’s drama Maxine Peake is constantly referred to as ‘Funny Cow’ and never by the character’s real name. Akin to the gay community adopting the insulting term ‘queer’ to define their sexuality Funny Cow also adopts her nom de plume and owns, rather than being insulted by, this degrading term. Even so, she is aware of the indignity the term implies, evident when Lenny, a fellow comedian, introduces her as a Funny Cow. She hesitates before acknowledging ‘Aye, I’m a funny cow!’ She accepts being degraded and dejected without question and it is this accepted inequality that drives the narrative and gives this film real substance and depth.

Women may have received the vote decades before and been active during the war years a mere 15 years earlier but by the 1960’s their status was that of a second-class citizen. Married women were viewed as the property of their husband while those who were able to escape the confines of matrimony discovered their status in the workplace far lower than their male counterparts. Sexually women were fair game to appeal to the sexual gratification of men. When she has the courage to ask to perform stand-up on stage Funny Cow is told that the only way she will be watched is if she sings scantily dressed or performs striptease. The idea of a female comedian is an anathema to a predominantly male audience. At home she is married to a violent man whom she finds difficult to leave, a parallel with her own mother unable to leave her abusive father. Divorce was not easy for working class women. My mother once told me she had petitioned for divorce in the early 1960’s, refused by a magistrate who told her to go home and get on with it. The experience deterred her from petitioning again, leaving her trapped in a turbulent marriage for a further 15 years.

Peake’s anti-heroine is heartbreakingly brilliant and gives a faultless performance of a woman struggling to perform stand-up comedy in a male dominated society. Tony Pitts screenplay juxtaposes pathos and humour brilliantly and Peake delivers the comedy like a seasoned professional. I did wonder if John Bishop, who has a cameo part, gave Peake some off-screen tips. While surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast that includes Stephen Graham, Alun Armstrong, Paddy Considine and Diane Morgan the screen belongs to Peake who lives up to her reputation as one of our finest actors. Mention must be given to Lindsay Coulson as FC’s mother who, towards the end of the movie, gives a heartbreaking scene of the devastating realisation of an unfulfilled life.

Director Adrian Shergold binds the non-linear narrative together using flashbacks to explain FC’s motivation and, along with cinematographer Tony Slater Ling captures perfectly the gritty depiction of backstreet cobbles and the grim reality of working class life ‘up North’. FC is eventually rescued by Angus, a wealthy bookshop owner, who introduces her to a different life but one that again confines her and is unsatisfactory.

FC’s ultimate destiny is to discover the truth within herself, to find that life can be complete without a man and that a woman is able to be independent and free. This is a wonderful film that has much to say on many different levels and a testament to strong, independent women everywhere.

Initially seeing Maxine Peake’s image on the poster for the film I assumed this was a new stage play and am certain that Tony Pitts script will eventually find life on the stage.

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A QUIET PLACE

A Quiet Place (2018) on IMDb
Director John Krasinski; stars Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe. Cert 15. 90 mins.

Director Krasinski almost turned this movie down, saying he didn’t do horror. It’s a pity he didn’t.

Some kind of catastrophe has forced a family to exist in silence to avoid detection by creatures that hunt by sound. The plot has more holes than Emmental cheese and so much is left unanswered. Are the family existing alone on the planet or are those in authority bunkered down in safety? Where did the creatures come from and if they can be shot and killed then where is the army? Ultimately discovering how they can simply be neutralised is pretty ludicrous.

Laughable from start to finish and another good reason I usually avoid horror movies like the plague (no pun intended)!

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THE SHAPE OF WATER

The Shape of Water (2017) on IMDb
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro: stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones. 123 mins. Cert 15.

And the Oscar for Best Film goes to…WHAT? Having now seen The Shape Of Water I find it unbelievable that Oscar voters could be so swayed by all the underserved hype over this movie. Guillermo Del Toro proved his worth as a visionary director with his originality of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage, so found it so hard to understand how he could now make such a trite, shallow and boring movie as this. With the current conversations over gun crime in the US I am a little uncomfortable in using an analogy of gun use here – but shoot a sub-machine gun at the screen and you will not see as many holes as there are in the movie.

As to the narrative, watch the trailer above as that’s it. There are no plot twists and everything is explained in Giles opening line of dialogue: ‘the last days of a fair prince’s reign…The princess without voice…And the monster, who tried to destroy it all’ – a few seconds thought and you can match the characters and know exactly where the movie is headed. It is all so predictable.

Even in fairy tales there has to be cause and effect and yet here everything is accepted at face value. No one is shocked after Elisa has sex with the creature and there is no mention of any possible pregnancy. When the monster is rescued from the lab why put him in the bathtub, he could easily have been deposited straight into the sea. Giles also shows no emotion whatsoever after the creature kills his cat! The creature leaves a blood trail when escaping the apartment before breaking into the cinema. Did no one see him wander into the street? He then appears standing in the middle of the cinema watching a movie. Where are the patrons, the projectionist or the ushers?

Del Toro’s acclaim as a master story teller has been severely dented with this bland, weak, superficial movie. I will think twice before heading to see his next movie.

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THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

The Greatest Showman (2017) on IMDb
Director: Michael Gracey; stars Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Zac Ephron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya. 105 mins. Cert. PG

Trivial musical based on the life of P.T. Barnum, the founder of the Bailey and Barnum Circus may be shallow and flimsy but at heart is highly entertaining. One of those rare movies that has audiences returning for repeat viewings and has now capitalised on the popularity of the soundtrack with sing-a-long screenings.

Hugh ‘Wolverine’ Jackman dispenses with his razor claws and here warbles the vocal chords along with Rebecca Ferguson and Zac Ephron. Musical numbers provide an opportunity for plenty of show-stopping choreography that bodes well for an eventual stage version. Style over substance it may be but is an enjoyable two hours.

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THE MERCY

The Mercy (2018) on IMDb
Directed by James Marsh; stars Rachel Weisz, Colin Firth, Mark Gatiss, David Thewlis, Andrew Buchan, Genevieve Gaunt, Ken Stott, Jonathan Bailey. 105 mins. Cert 12A

Drama based on actual events when amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst attempted the first solo circumnavigation of the globe without stopping. Several month into the journey Donald realises the futility of his voyage and constructs an elaborate deception.

Solid central performances from Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz as Donald and Clare Crowhurst capture the gravitas of the drama that contrasts to the sensationalism created by hack journalist Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis). Character actors Mark Gatiss, Andrew Buchan, Genevieve Gaunt, Ken Stott and Jonathan Bailey breathe some life into this interesting drama but fail to keep the narrative afloat.

The problem with James Marsh’ direction and Scott Z Burns script is that both fail to energise the movie. Lengthy sequences of Crowhurst at sea offer little in the way of explanation for his actions. The director and writer provide little information as to the mechanics of the central deception that leave the audience as much adrift as Crowhurst. This could have been explained by Crowhurst talking his plans through with himself to enlighten the viewer rather than simply provide on-screen titles informing of his location – for someone like myself not too hot on geography this meant little!

Donald’s eventual set-down in Argentina is clumsily handled. The narrative gained little with the inclusion of this scene which only left me wondering why? There is one redeeming feature in Eric Gautier’s wonderful cinematography that perfectly situates Teignmouth in the sixties as well as capturing the vast expanse of the ocean.

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DOWNSIZING

Downsizing (2017) on IMDb
Directed by Alexander Payne; stars Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Rolf Lassgard, Udo Kier. 135 mins. Cert 15.

The ‘hook’ in movies is the idea or premise that generates interest and puts bums on seats. In Alexander Payne’s Downsizing this hook, as expertly relayed in the trailer (above), is that scientists have developed a method to downsize (ie. shrink) humans from their normal size to 12cm high. Justification for this is given as depletion of the worlds resources aligned with a growing world population that will eventually overcome the planet. The plan is that over a 300 year period the whole of the world’s population will be downsized reducing the consumption of resources and freeing up much needed space.

The added benefit, as relayed to Paul and Audrey (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), is that in a downsized world their $100,000 equity equates to $12 million enabling them to live in their dream doll-sized house. The spoiler in the trailer lets slip that while Paul goes through with being downsized his wife, Audrey, gets cold feet at the last minute. This is what generates audience curiosity. Will they live together as mini-man and full-size wife and what problems will they face or will Paul be left alone in a miniaturised world? Spoiler alert: as it turns out Paul takes up residence in their palatial doll’s house only to find the isolation too much so moves to a smaller apartment. Cue noisy upstairs neighbour hosting loud drug fuelled parties. At this point, much like an intoxicated Paul, the movie heads down the toilet. Up pop miniaturised Vietnamese anarchists, an underclass of downsized humans existing on the fringe of the metropolis and the founder of the program proclaiming the end of humanity as we know it. I have to say much of this passed me by as I nodded off several times due to boredom. I was awake long enough to note that when Paul engages with the original group at their small village in Norway, both the downsized humans and surrounding scenery: mountains, fjord and vegetation all strangely appear to be normal size. Perhaps, like the audience, the director had by now lost faith in this disengaging, boring movie.

Damon wanders aimlessly about, possibly trying to make sense of the script and the narrative. Hong Chau’s high pitched screeching is constantly annoying and her character an embarrassing stereotype. The remaining characters are both uninspired and quite frankly forgettable. One word sums up this mess of a movie: awful!

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THE POST

The Post (2017) on IMDb
Directed by Steven Spielberg; stars Meryl Street, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods. 116 mins. Cert 12A

As a regular cinema-goer I like to be surprised. Prior to seeing a movie I rarely watch or read reviews or take time to study pre-release material. My expectations of plot and narrative, unless its a topic or issue I am already aware of, are gleaned from the preview trailer usually viewed at the cinema. My surprise at the end of The Post was the credit ‘Directed by Steven Spielberg’. My enduring view of Spielberg, which I have mentioned before, is that his films are normally exasperatingly long-drawn out. I have only ever managed to force myself through the first half-hour of War Horse before falling asleep with boredom! That said I have to admit that the director is now far more focused. Of his more recent movies I thoroughly enjoyed Lincoln and found Bridge of Spies thrilling. So it is with The Post which engages from the first scene and doesn’t let go. The director maintains the focus and pace of the movie throughout its two-hour running time aided, in no small measure, by two actors who could well be regarded the king and queen of Hollywood, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

Streep’s is annoyingly good and by that I don’t mean to criticise her performance which is flawless. Her character, Kay Graham, is a socialite who, on the death of her husband, has inherited control of the influential Washington Post. Graham is unprepared for the male dominated world of the boardroom and even less so for the ambitious cut and thrust of those around her. Viewed by her Board as incompetent and weak (just realised the comparison to Prime Minister Theresa May) Kay has to safeguard the future of her father’s legacy which she holds dear. In the middle of a stock market launch to raise much needed capital the Post’s rival, The New York Times, begins publishing leaked Government documents proving the public was lied to for thirty years over the Vietnam War. The Times is served with an injunction to stop publication which draws The Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, to track down the remaining documents and convince Mrs Graham to publish. Kay is face with a dilemma that will draw the wrath of President Nixon and the White House.

As Kay Graham, Streep is both convincing and annoying. She brings to the fore a woman whose upbringing simply demanded polite conversation, manners and, most importantly, deference to a patriarchal society. Throughout her life she most likely never had to raise her voice or assert her authority. The place of ‘society’ women in 1970’s America was firmly away from business and decision making. After a formal dinner party the men are left with their cigars while Kay and the other wives retire to the drawing room. One questions Kay’s ability to manage a home and business to which she hesitatingly replies, ‘Oh well, you know!’ It is this hesitation Streep plays so well. We feel her discomfort, her inability to make decisions and just want her to drop the veneer of self-respect, good manners and politeness and get angry. Prior to a Board meeting she spends hours preparing a speech about the importance of the business and what it means to her. She practices on a fellow board member and it is an impassioned, well-written speech but when her time comes she is dumbstruck, unable even to utter a word. This is a powerful performance through which Streep manages to elicit understanding and empathy for her character.

Kay may find it hard to have her voice heard in the boardroom but her mouthpiece in the newsroom is her editor Ben Bradlee. Bradlee is Kay’s conscience, a bit like Jiminy Cricket to Pinnochio! Bradlee is able to tell her what she instinctively knows: the importance of a free press and free speech, the need for politicians and the President to be accountable and the importance of the fourth estate to be free of political manipulation. Both Kay and Bradlee have enjoyed close relationships to Presidents and politicians and it is this intertwined relationship that so threatens the impartiality of the press. As Bradlee, Tom Hanks is an actor it is impossible not to like. His screen presence is reminiscent of James Stewart who was often seen as Mr Everyman – an actor the man in the street could identify with. This is the first time Hanks and Streep have appeared together on screen and it is a great pairing.

Alongside Streep and Hanks, Spielberg assembles some familiar faces: Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife, Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad) as fellow reporter Ben Bagdikian, Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Matthew Rhys (The Americans) and Jesse Plemons.

This is a well written finely directed movie that is a timely reminder of the importance of a free press to counter the proliferation of fake news. Fake news is not a new phenomenon. During Hollywood’s heyday publicists encouraged editors to bury unsavoury stories about stars unsavoury behaviour which probably to some degree still happens – just look at the Weinstein sex scandal. During the second world war the British government, on the grounds of public morale and national security, encouraged editors to mis-report the war effort, blatantly lying to the public that the allies were deafeating the Germans when the opposite was true. Most recently it is Trump’s Presidency that has reignited the propagation of fake news aimed at shoring up a President that most people despise and whose morals and decision making are questionable.

That aside, this is an opportunity to relish how newsrooms used to operate before computers infiltrated the office. Copy is thrashed out on typewriters before being typeset by hand. Then the huge presses whirr into action producing the thousands of pages destined to be tomorrows fish and chip wrappings! A treat.

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) on IMDb
Directed by Martin McDonagh; stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Lucas Hedges, Alejandro Barrios, Peter Dinklage. 115 mins. Cert 15.

In the pantheon of movie titles Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may not be the longest but it is one of the more unusual. ‘What’s that???’ is often the response when mentioning the title. Well, don’t let the title fool you as accomplished writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) movie about a woman frustrated at her local sheriff’s inability and indifference to the rape and murder of her daughter seven months earlier is a real gem.

McDonagh assembles a stellar cast, many of whom he has worked with before, led by the assured and talented Frances McDormand as grieving mother, Mildred Hayes. Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby is her nemesis supported by racist, aggressive sidekick Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). All three have something to hide: Willoughby an illness that most of the town are aware of; Dixon, a real momma’s boy, deep seated problems with rage and sexual identity and Mildred the memory that the night her daughter died she refused her the car resulting in her fatal walk home.

After the murder Mildred had two choices; to await the outcome of the police investigation that went nowhere and then suffer in silence, waiting for answers that will never come or take action into her own hands and force the local sheriff to act. Mildred chooses the latter unaware of the effect her actions have on her young son, Robbie. She rents three billboards on the road leading to Ebbing and has each emblazoned with a slogan that points the finger of blame for the lack of police action on the town’s well-respected Sheriff. Willoughby isn’t too concerned over the billboards and attempts to placate Mildred. His deputy Officer Dixon, on the other hand, furious at Mildred’s action tries to force the billboard company to remove the signs. They refuse and, as tension mounts, events become increasingly violent.

No character is without fault. Mildred has a mouth that discharges faster than a repeating rifle and doesn’t hold back her thoughts. Asked what she would do to her daughters rapist her response is short and sharp; find him and kill him. Whether she would carry out the latter we are left to ponder and even when Mildred does embark on a similar course of action we are not sure she will carry through the act. Mildred has no restraint in facing down those she believes have let her down and has little respect for the authority of the sheriff’s department which she views as incompetent and self-serving. While we empathise with Mildred’s predicament her situation in no way excuses her cruel treatment of James (Peter Dinkage) whose attraction to Mildred results in him asking her on an ‘uncomfortable’ date.

Sheriff Willoughby may be well-liked in the town but it is his lack of authority and moral obligation that flaws his leadership. He oversees a police force that is institutionally homophobic, racist and bigoted. Willoughby takes no action over his deputy Dixon who revels in the fact that he has tortured a black man who was in police custody. Willoughby can only see the good in Dixon telling him he is a good man and could be a great cop. This is far from the truth as Dixon is a lousy cop.

Dixon’s perceived redemption in the film provides the most controversial character arc. He is introduced as an unlikeable character: a racist alcoholic who cares little about justice and more about people fearing the police. He has little compulsion during a disagreement in throwing his suspect from an upstairs window to the street below, in full view of the townsfolk. Dixon cares little about Mildred’s cause and is more concerned in getting the billboards removed. However he does eventually help Mildred track down her daughter’s murderer. This course of action asks those watching the movie to applaud the gesture of a racist and violent police officer who does little else to earn his redemption. Some have criticised the movie for providing Dixon this compensating act. However, as Willoughby earlier pointed out, Dixon has the making of a fine cop and Dixon’s actions towards the end of the movie go a little way to prove this. Many who think Dixon has no redeemable qualities as he fails to apologise or even accept his racist and aggressive behaviour miss the point. Changing attitudes is not something that happens overnight and it would be simply unbelievable were Dixon to completely change his views during the timeframe of the movie. As it is, by the end of the movie his character has softened, he appears to have dismissed his mother’s controlling influence, and this points to the fact that people can change, just not as fast as we would often like.

Writer/directors are in a league of their own when it comes to directing their own work. Having spawned their creation they are then so attached to the project that long before filming begins they have an in-depth idea of how the movie will play, the actors and the crew they want to work with and most importantly, the motivation and nuances of their characters. McDonagh’s screenplay is razor sharp, so focused that there is not a line of dialogue that fails to progress the narrative. Subtle development of character and the film’s narrative flow is comparable to Kenneth Lonnergan’s exemplary Oscar winning script of Manchester By The Sea. McDonagh’s screenplay is a worthy contender for this year’s Oscar.

Following her Golden Globe Best Actress award Frances McDormand recently received a further win at the Screen Actors Guild where Sam Rockwell picked up Best Supporting Actor. McDormand is in pole position to receive her second Oscar in March along with Martin McDonagh for best director. Without doubt Three Billboards is my favourite film of the year. Were it not for the controversy surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character I would hazard a bet on the movie being awarded Best Film of the year.

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DARKEST HOUR

Darkest Hour (2017) on IMDb
Directed by Joe Wright; stars Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West. 125 mins, Cert PG.

Winston Churchill has been portrayed over 60 times screen, more than any other British Prime Minister. Simon Ward portrayed Young Winston (1972) which depicted Churchill’s Continue reading

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ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

All the Money in the World (2017) on IMDb
Directed by Ridley Scott; stars Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Andrew Buchan, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris, Guiseppe Bonifari, Timothy Hutton. Cert 15. 132 mins.

Ridley Scott’s kidnap thriller opened in UK cinemas recently. Prior to its release Scott’s film garnered controversy for two reasons: the film starred Kevin Spacey as Getty and, Continue reading

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