The Salesman

Stunningly realised from the opening moments to the final frame, The Salesman is a thoroughly engrossing and perfectly performed work from one of the most gifted directors working today. A mesmerising psychological and moral drama about guilt and the pursuit of vengeance from Iranian film maker Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman is the latest in a series of very impressive films to emerge from Iran in recent years. Whether it is the subversive work of Jafar Panahi (Offside, Tehran Taxi) or Farhadi’s two previous productions – the Academy Award-winning A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013) – or the recent Daughter from Reza Mirkarimi, there has been an influx of films that not only deliver compelling narratives, but also offer considerable insight into the vitality of life in contemporary Iran.

The Salesman poster

The film opens with a shot of a double bed before the camera pulls back to reveal that the bed is, in fact, part of a set on a theatre stage. From here we cut to the frantic evacuation of a crumbling apartment building where we meet Emad and Rena Etasami, the married couple at the centre of the drama that unfolds. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a high school teacher and both he and Rena (Taraneh Alidoosti) are part of an amateur theatre company performing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with Emad in the lead role as Willie Loman. Now homeless, the couple are offered accommodation by a member of the acting troupe and the apartment seems perfect – well as good as you could possibly expect under the circumstances – until one night the apartment’s buzzer sounds and Rena, thinking it is Emad, buzzes him in and returns to her shower, only to be attacked by an intruder.  We never witness the attack, nor do we have any knowledge about who is responsible until much later in the film.


Emad sets out to find the culprit who, in his hasty retreat, has left behind some significant clues, not the least of which are the keys to the car that remains parked outside. Frustrated by Rena’s refusal to involve the police and plagued by his guilt at being unable to protect his wife, Emad begins to unravel in his relentless pursuit of the attacker, all the while trying to juggle his teaching responsibilities and his rehearsal and performance schedule at the theatre. As Emad’s obsession grows, his relationship with those around him – his neighbours, fellow actors, his students and even his wife – deteriorates. The primal vindictiveness that possesses him is a far cry from the compassionate Emad we meet in the opening moments of the film as he helps a neighbour’s disabled son out of the crumbling building. His hip, sophisticated, easy-going nature has long since disappeared by the time he – and we – learns who is responsible. It is a subtle yet supremely powerful performance from Hosseini as a guy so fixated on his mission that he seems prepared to sacrifice everything he holds dear and, when he finally realises what he stands to lose, it may well be too late.

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There is nothing particularly ethno-specific about the story or the course of events as the narrative could have been set anywhere in the world without any real changes necessary, but there are a couple of fleeting moments that remind us of the government scrutiny that operates in Iran. At one point, one of Emad’s cast members raises concerns about whether they will need to make changes to the play should the censor turn up for the opening night show, while another scene sees Emad informed that the text he had chosen for his students was deemed inappropriate. Neither of these is given any great emphasis by Farhadi, who also wrote the screenplay, and it could be argued that the latter is hardly any different to the debates around the appropriateness of particular texts that seem to emerge quite regularly in western educational discourse. The performances across the board are exceptional, with Alidoosti imbuing Rana with an underlying decency despite the state of disorientation in which she finds herself. Even the supporting players deliver fine performances and there is one in the latter stages that is so effective it will leave you questioning whether you should feel pity or anger for the character. Full of moral ambiguities and constructed with precision by Farhadi, cinematographer Hossein Jafarian and editor Hayedah Safiyari, The Salesman is an exemplary example of a film in which style and substance are delivered in equal measure.

Kong: Skull Island


To save you some time – both in needing to read the rest of this review and seeing the movie – let me say straight up that there is very little to recommend the latest take on the King Kong mythology, yet another big screen incarnation of a character who first appeared some 80 years ago. A cynical, poorly executed piece of cinematic codswallop, Kong: Skull Island lacks originality and is devoid of any characters we might care enough about to remain interested in their plight. You want Kong to kill them all and you just wish he would do it quickly so that you can get the hell out of the cinema. Not only is this film a monumental waste of money (although it if makes a shitload at the box office, the studio won’t see it that way) because the $180 million budget could have been put to much better use funding 100 good movies. It’s not just that this Kong story has been done so many times before – a group arrive on Skull Island, are confronted by Kong and a variety of other creatures and have to fight for survival – it’s the fact that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has so blatantly ripped off Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War masterpiece Apocalypse Now that makes the whole piece so galling.

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First, we need a reason to visit the island. In both the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s not-so-inspired 2005 remake, the landing party is a film crew seeking an exotic location, whilst in the 1976 version it is an exploration for petroleum that is the lure of Skull Island. This time around, the pretext is a geological survey of the island that brings a motley bunch comprising some of Hollywood’s biggest names and it is almost impossible to fathom why (other than the lure of big bucks) any of them would want to be a part of this schlock. To see the likes of Brie Larson here (as photographer Mason Weaver) is actually quite distressing because this supremely talented actress doesn’t deserve such an indignity in the wake of her incredible performances in Short Term 12 and Room. Likewise, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L. Jackson are forever going to be asking themselves how the heck they got involved in something that is so reprehensibly redundant. At least, Jackson, Goodman and Reilly seem to realise the mess they have got themselves into and don’t seem to be taking any of it very seriously, which only makes the earnestness of Hiddleston and Larson all the more hard to swallow given the dreadful dialogue they are burdened with.


Set in 1973 as the Vietnam War is winding down, Jackson is the leader of a military squadron charged with escorting the expedition party to the island. There is nothing remotely subtle in Vogt-Roberts’ copying of one of the greatest war films ever made, from the formation of the helicopters sweeping over the jungle, to the flames erupting from the seismic charges being dropped on the island (to determine if the ground is hollow), to the emergence of Reilly’s Marlow, an air force pilot who crashed on the island 27 years earlier who is an amalgam of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz and Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist from Apocalypse Now and who, like Kurtz, is living as a figure of reverence amongst the natives.  From the music to the use of colour, to the setting and the story parallels, so much has been ripped directly from Coppola’s classic that the lack of originality here is staggering. Heck, even Hiddleston’s character shares a surname with Joseph Conrad, the author who penned Heart of Darkness, the novel from which Coppola adapted his film, but all of that could be forgiven if Vogt-Roberts had used it as the inspiration for something worthwhile.

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The script written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly is truly dire –“Mason Weaver is a woman” – and there are moments that defy logic, such as the helicopters being plucked out of the sky by Kong when the carnage and death could have easily been avoided by simply flying higher. Furthermore, the timeline makes no sense because in both the original 1933 film and Jackson’s remake (also set in the 1930’s), Kong is taken from the island, yet here we are some 40+ years later and Kong is still there. At least put something together that make sense in the context of it coming after the first story. This is dumb filmmaking on a grand scale and whilst there may have been a genuine intention to pay homage to Apocalypse Now, the result is an insipid, uninspired mess. To be fair, Vogt-Roberts isn’t the first filmmaker to underwhelm in their efforts to bring Kong back to life on the big screen, but Kong: Skull Island is best avoided at all costs.

T2: Trainspotting

It is a great credit to Danny Boyle that T2: Trainspotting looks and feels like a logical extension to the film that precedes it. Sequels are often too far removed from the events of the original to be seen as anything more than just another story set in the same place and featuring the same characters with no logical connection to the existing narrative, or they have been so clumsily set-up by the first film that they come across as cynical attempts to cash in on the popularity of the predecessor. This is different because everything that takes place feels real with regard to their circumstances and their relationships with each other. The fact that Doyle has reunited the original cast and the actors have aged to the same point as their characters makes the whole piece remarkably authentic. Picking up the story 20 years after the events of the first film, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh to face the friends from whom he stole  £12 000. When we meet Simon/Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremmer) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) again, each is pretty much where we would expect them to be given what we know about their personalities and proclivities.

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Simon is running a pub he inherited from his aunt with a blackmail business on the side, Begbie is in jail and Spud continues to battle a heroin addiction that has destroyed his relationship with his family. Seemingly back to confront the demons of his past, Renton’s attempt to make amends by offering Simon his share of the stolen money triggers a tirade of indignation from Simon, but their shared history – explored via a series of flashbacks of them as children and footage from the first film – is too hard to resist and soon enough the pair find themselves concocting another money-making scheme; converting the unused upper floor of the pub into a brothel, a gesture Simon is hoping will secure the favour of his business partner Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Having finagled his way out of prison, Begbie is bristling with rage even before he learns that Renton is back in town and whilst some may see this characterisation as being somewhat over-the-top, you need to hark back to the original film to remember that this is a guy with a moral compass that is broken beyond repair, his only joy coming from inflicting harm on others, whether that be stealing from them, engaging in random acts of extreme violence or, as is the case with his wife and son, subjecting them to verbal abuse. If anything, it is when Boyle and scriptwriter John Hodge (who adapted the screenplay somewhat loosely from Irvine Welsh’s novel Porno), give Begbie a skerrick of humanity with an emotional goodbye to his son that seems out of character; too much so to deliver the effective emotional punch that was perhaps intended.

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Boyle draws upon the stylistic tics and visual flourishes of the first film, a style that was much-copied in British crime capers in the years that followed, but nothing that happens here is quite as rapid-fire or extraordinarily unique as the first instalment, but it does deliver the same combination of humour and despair, this time via an examination of middle-age angst, disillusionment and male friendship. One of the few disappointments this time around is the under-use of Kelly McDonald, whose performance as 15-year-old seductress Diane in the first movie launched her career. Shoehorned into the story here as a lawyer whose assistance is sought when Simon’s blackmail scheme goes awry, McDonald’s time on screen is far too short and one can’t help but feel there is still much between her and Renton that subsequently remained unresolved.

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Whilst not as energetic as the first film, which is due to the passage of time and the aging of the characters who are, after all, in their mid-40’s. It still packs a punch though and Doyle uses the sorry state of Simon’s pub (lack of customers, crumbling exterior, surrounding buildings levelled) as a not-too-subtle visual lament on the impact of gentrification. In its exploration of friendship and regret, T2: Trainspotting is swathed in pessimism and there is no real sense that the future is likely to offer anything particularly promising to any of them, but you just can’t help but feel as though the friendship between  Mark, Spud and Sick Boy will endure through all manner of double-crossings and deceptions, just as long as they can avoid the wrath of Begbie.


Jeff Nichols first appeared on the independent film landscape in 2007 with the well received Shotgun Stories, a family drama set in rural Arkansas starring Michael Shannon and made for just $250 000. He garnered further critical notice with his subsequent films – Take Shelter (2001) and Mud (2012) – before securing studio backing for his 2016 foray into sci-fi with Midnight Special, his most ambitious film to date. In all of his previous films, Nichols served as both writer and director and that is the case once again with Loving, although this is both his first screenplay adapted from another source and his first film drawn from real events. Impressed by his ‘intuitive depictions of Southern men and women’ in Mud, producers Colin Firth, Ged Doherty and Nancy Buirski sought out Nichols to take the helm of the project. It was  only after watching Buirski’s documentary The Loving Story that Nichols agreed to draft a screenplay before ultimately deciding to sign on as director as well, despite concerns that the ‘quiet’ film he wanted to make might not be what people want to see. Quiet is a good word to describe the subtle, low-key approach Nichols has taken in telling a story about two people whose unwavering love for one another had a very significant impact on thousands of Americans. Whilst most movies that tell stories from the Civil Rights-era are typically laden with protest marches and rousing speeches, Nichols is much more understated in his approach to the subject of racism and injustice in 1950’s Virginia.

Loving Poster

Australia’s Joel Edgerton plays Richard Loving, a quiet, hard working white man whose marriage to African-American woman Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) results in them being harassed, jailed and victimised in Virginia because of laws in that state that make inter-racial marriage illegal. Their devotion to each other is palpable and their relationship exudes a naturalness and unwavering strength that stands in stark contrast to the impossible situation in which they find themselves. When the film begins, Mildred is already pregnant and, having purchased a parcel of land not far from where Mildred has spent her entire life, Richard pops the question and whisks her away to Washington to be married. They know that their marriage is forbidden in their home state but, never really expecting to encounter any problems given that their relationship has never been a secret, they return home to begin their married life. However, when the authorities are tipped off about the marriage (we are never explicitly told who reports them, but Richard’s mother seems the most likely culprit), the couple are carted off to jail.

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Given a suspended sentence on the proviso that they leave the state and do not return for 25 years, Richard and Mildred take up residence with relatives in Washington. However, a life in the inner-city is not what Mildred wants for her children (of whom there are three in quick succession) and when she writes a letter to Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy seeking his assistance, her case is taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union. Nichols avoids dramatic set-pieces; a few shots of the hostile expressions on faces when they see the couple together is all that is needed to articulate the disdain that (white) members of the community have for Richard and Mildred’s union. Even the courtroom scenes are very subdued as their lawyers take the case to the Supreme Court knowing that, justice aside, a win will win give their careers a significant boost. The outcome becomes a landmark in the battle to end bigotry and is a triumph for the resilience and quiet determination of the couple.


Whilst Edgerton is terrific as the taciturn, but devoted Richard, Negga is the heart of the film; the Ethiopia-born Irish actress imbues Mildred with integrity, grace, loyalty and emotional generosity in a wonderfully eloquent yet understated performance. Shannon pops up in a small role as a photo-journalist from Life magazine, while Marton Csokas is given little to work with as Sheriff Brooks, a one-dimensional construct who presents as a clichéd bigot. The production design seems authentic and the hustle and bustle of life in the city is presented, somewhat simplistically, as dangerous in contrast to the freedom and safety of the life in the country for which Mildred yearns, which is a little ironic given how they are treated in Virginia. Nichols is one of the finest filmmakers working in Hollywood today and whilst Loving isn’t his best film (which isn’t necessarily a criticism given his body of work thus far), it is to his credit that he makes no attempt to cajole his audience into accepting a particular point-of-view. He doesn’t tell you what you should think and, perhaps more importantly, he never allows the political and broader social implications of the case to overwhelm a very personal story in which love does, ultimately, conquer all.


Praised for its ‘indie aesthetic’ and hailed by some as ‘groundbreaking‘, and by others as an ‘awards contender’, the third stand-alone Wolverine movie and tenth overall in the X-Men franchise has sparked considerable buzz amongst critics and commentators since its release, with declarations that Logan is a ‘new breed of comic book movie’ or the film that ‘changes the face of superhero movies forever’, whatever that means. The film is intensely bleak and extremely violent, although the fact that the violence is inflicted by a guy with blades that emerge from under his skin renders these moments somewhat cartoonish – just like when Wile E Coyote gets crushed by an anvil or endures some other violent indignity at the hands of Road Runner. It is the fantastical elements of superhero movies that allow them to get away with levels of death and bloodshed that would ordinarily draw the ire of those who see themselves as the gatekeepers of public safety and morality. So, in that regard, Logan is like every other superhero movie, even if director James Mangold might like us to believe that what happens here somehow transcends genre conventions. Yes, it is different and has many impressive elements, but it still requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to truly embrace what transpires.

Logan poster

Although many of his X-Men brethren have embraced their mutations over the course of the film franchise, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has never been comfortable in his Wolverine skin and when we first encounter him in this chapter it is 2029 and our erstwhile hero is passed out on the back seat of the limousine he drives for a living; drunk, apathetic, angry, and filled with self-loathing. Woken by a gang who, unaware of his presence inside the car, are attempting to steal his wheels, Logan takes a few bullets in the subsequent confrontation before summarily despatching several of them with a swipe of his admantium claws. From here, we follow Logan as he returns ‘home’ to a compound where Doctor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) – who is apparently a danger to himself and others – is being housed in a disused water tank under the supervision of Caliban, a sun-shy albino mutant played wonderfully well by Stephen Merchant.

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When a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) enters their periphery, it is obvious that she shares a particular skill set with Logan and it isn’t long before the two of them, with Xavier along for the ride, are on the run from a group of mercenaries determined to capture Laura and return her to the facility from which she escaped. From this point it becomes a road movie as Logan, Laura and Xavier attempt to stay one step ahead of the bad guys led by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). Myriad action sequences (fights, car chases) ensue in their attempt to provide Laura with passage to a safe haven, otherwise known as Canada. A stopover at a farm house along the way adds little other than to give Eric La Salle (TV’s ER and Under the Dome) a rare big screen outing as a farmer under threat from a colossal agribusiness that has taken control of the water supply. Mangold has made some terrific films (Heavy, Cop Land, Walk the Line) and he does a good job here in trying to make Logan something more relatable; the virtual eradication of all X-Men and Laura’s bid to reach Canada is certainly relevant today given the political state of play in the USA at the moment. Given the fact that the film was made before Trump was elected, it’s almost as though Mangold and fellow screenwriters Scott Frank and Michael Green knew what was coming.

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The biggest disappointment is when it follows the lead of other superhero movies by adding something that is probably meant to deliver a wow moment, but ultimately just seems gimmicky. In this instance it is the emergence of a Wolverine clone that results in Logan fighting a younger, fitter version of himself. Jackman is fine, delivering an unself-conscious performance as the ageing warrior whose mortality is fast reaching its use-by date, while young Keen makes a remarkably assured big screen debut. Stewart’s Xavier brings a levity to much of what happens, while Richard E. Grant is under-utilised as Doctor Rice, the man responsible for the creation of Laura and a bunch of other young mutants who have also fled to Canada, thereby ensuring that the franchise can live on indefinitely. Lensed with flair by British cinematographer John Mathieson, Logan is certainly one of the better superhero/comic book movies of recent times, spoiled only by occasional clever-dick moments and a corny final gesture from Laura.

Hidden Figures

Whilst Hollywood might be running out of fictional ideas for new movies, Hidden Figures serves as a reminder that there are still an untold number of real life stories that can serve as inspiration for filmmakers. It can certainly be a challenge to make movies about the significant people and events from history that are both entertaining and informative, but director Theodore Melfi has achieved that here. Melfi never understates the importance of what takes place and the role of the three women at the centre of the story, but he also makes the film appealing to a mainstream audience by injecting a large serving of humour that never undermines the significance of their achievement. Adapted by Melfi and Allison Schroeder from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who played a critical role in NASA’s successful launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.


Set in 1961 when African-Americans were still subjected to policies and practices that kept them segregated from the white population in work, education, business and access to public services and facilities, Hidden Figures is an upbeat, but perhaps not entirely accurate, look at the efforts of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) in overcoming prejudice and discrimination to secure the same opportunities afforded to other employees in the space agency. Johnson is a gifted mathematician who ultimately assumes responsibility for calculating Glenn’s launch trajectory while Vaughan serves as the supervisor (without the benefit of any official designation as such or the salary to go with it) of a group of female mathematicians referred to as ‘coloured computers’. Jackson is one of these ‘computers’ with aspirations of becoming an engineer, a feat that will require her being accepted into classes at the local all-white school.


Whilst this feels like a watered-down history lesson at times, there is an undeniable resonance in this story, which serves as a reminder of the absurdity of racial segregation, even if there isn’t a lot time spent exploring the broader difficulties these women and their families faced within the community, other than Vaughan being admonished at the public library for daring to seek a book from within the ‘white’ section. Many of the characters are clichéd – Jim Parsons as the one-dimensional racist white engineer, Kirsten Dunst as the one-dimensional racist white personnel supervisor – and it is Kevin Costner who emerges as the most likeable of the supporting players.  As leader of the Space Task Group, the team responsible for the calculations required to ensure the safe lift-off, orbit and return to earth of the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule with Glenn (Glen Powell) on board, Costner’s Al Harrison is a somewhat hapless middle-man under immense pressure to get America into space as quickly as possible. Harrison seems out of his depth but, to his credit, demonstrates great faith in Johnson’s calculations, inviting her to attend meetings and elaborate to the higher-ups, much to the chagrin of Parsons’ snippety Paul Stafford.


Throw in a romance between Katherine and National Guardsman Jim Johnson (Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali) and you have all the ingredients for the family-friendly fare that Melphi so obviously intended this to be. What lifts the film above the cheap sentimentality are the spirited performances of the three leads, all of whom weave a perfect blend of humour and tenacity in their portrayals. Of course, Henson and Spencer come to this with an extensive body of quality work behind them in both film and television, while Monae follows up her screen debut in Moonlight, in which she starred alongside Ali, with another impressive performance. Yes, Hidden Figures is somewhat light-hearted (it was very hard to take Chad Radwell from Scream Queens seriously as John Glenn) and does only scratch the surface of the social and political touchpoints that it attempts to cover, but if people leave the cinema with a little more awareness of the barriers that America’s black population faced as recently as 50 years ago, and the significant contribution they have made to the advancement of America’s national interests, that can only be a good thing.