Certain Women

When you have three of the best female actors working today in your film, it makes sense to have them on-screen together as much as possible, right? Not if you are Kelly Reichardt. A darling of independent American film, Reichardt has never been one to follow a particular formula and with Certain Women she has secured the services of Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams without having any of them interact on screen. Instead, the film is segmented into three separate stories and although there is a character crossover between two of them, the stories are linked primarily by geography. All three stories are set in small-town Montana and each of the women are intelligent yet filled with disappointment about the state of their lives, each quietly suffering and enduring the emptiness that each day brings. Despite the undeniable talent of the Dern/Stewart/Williams triumvirate – each of whom is every bit as good as we might expect – it is Lily Gladstone who is perhaps the standout in an understated yet undeniably powerful performance opposite Stewart. There is an extraordinary stillness in Reichardt’s imagery that articulates the mundane lives of the women whilst emphasising the beauty of this part of the world.

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The first segment features Dern as Laura, a lawyer who returns to her office following a lunchtime dalliance to be met by Fuller (Mad Men’s Jared Harris), a client who refuses to accept that he has lost a compensation claim and demands that Laura continue to fight his case. Exploring the lack of respect that female professionals endure – perhaps in small towns more than elsewhere – it is only when a male attorney endorses Laura’s assessment of the case that Fuller is willing to accept his fate, a realisation which triggers a stand-off that Laura ultimately has to resolve because the local policemen have no interest in putting their lives on the line. From what we learn of Laura, she lives alone and is seemingly prepared to put up with the quasi-friendship she has developed with Fuller simply for the human interaction it provides.

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In the next story, Gina (Michelle Williams) is a wife and mother with plans afoot to build a house on a picturesque site in the Montana countryside. Her relationship with her husband Ryan (James LeGros) seems stilted and fuelled by the flames of familiarity more than anything else and there is no doubt her project is about trying to find a place of happiness. Television veteran Rene Auberjonois (Boston Legal and Madam Secretary among many others) appears as a somewhat muddled old man from whom Gina wants to secure a pile of limestone blocks that have been sitting unused in his front yard for decades. Despite being married with a teenage daughter, Gina cuts a lonely figure within the family unit, seemingly a third wheel to the bond between father and daughter. Most content when alone in the bush, it is obvious that the new house is more about providing an escape for her than anything else and it is another fine turn from Williams, who has worked with Reichardt twice before on Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff.

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The third segment is a heartbreaking commentary on the challenges and pitfalls facing those trying to escape the daily drudgery of their lives. Gladstone is Jamie, a young woman responsible for the care of animals on a ranch, her days spent alone engaged in the monotonous repetition that her responsibilities necessarily demand. When she stumbles into a night class being taught by EIizabeth (Kristen Stewart), she is immediately captivated by the out-of-towner and a friendship ensues, a connection that Jamie craves, but for Elizabeth is merely a friendship of convenience given that she knows nobody else in the town. The sense of loss that Goldstone articulates without words is remarkable, her eyes alone conveying an array of emotions – embarrassment, sadness, confusion – much more than words ever could.

Reichardt, who also edited as well as writing and directing, holds many scenes for a few moments beyond the cessation of the action, enabling the audience time to ponder on the sub-text that permeates each scene and she uses the extraordinary quiet and stillness of the landscape in an emotionally powerful manner. These are intelligent women whose lives are filled with disappointment and despair, each enduring the emptiness of each new day with a sense of resignation, a feeling of isolation even if they aren’t truly alone. The cinematography is exquisite and the acting is expert from all concerned, with Goldstone perhaps upstaging her more famous co-stars. There is no conventional beginning-middle-end narrative arc in these vignettes – which were adapted from a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy – but it matters little that we have been dropped into these lives with no back story because every character feels as though they are normal people and it’s this relatability that makes Certain Women so effective.

 

Good Time

Make no mistake, the Robert Pattinson in Good Time is nothing like the Robert Pattinson we have seen on screen before, and that is a very good thing. Cast aside what you think about Pattinson from the body of work he has produced thus far and be prepared to discover just what he is capable of when given the right material. That is not to say that Pattinson’s character here is in any way likeable, but his performance is very impressive in a role that is far removed from anything he has done previously. As deluded deadbeat Connie Nikas, Pattinson takes on a character whose moral compass is off the dial, seemingly unable to comprehend the depths of his own ineptitude in his bid to stay ahead of the authorities and rescue his brother from police custody. Directed by siblings Ben and Joshua Safdie, whose previous release Heaven Knows What secured plenty of critical love and a few awards as well, Good Time is anything but for the various characters who become ensnared in Connie’s chaos. The plot is bonkers, but a throbbing score by Daniel Lopatin and a strong, charismatic turn from Pattinson combine to keep you invested even though you know there is much about what transpires that doesn’t make much sense.

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We first meet Connie when he ‘rescues’ his intellectually-impaired brother Nick – played by Ben Safdie – from a counselling session, ostensibly so that Ben can accompany him on a bank robbery that seems to run smoothly enough but ultimately proves the catalyst for everything that follows. When Nick is snatched up by the police, Connie’s focus switches to securing sufficient money for bail, only to learn that Nick has been hospitalised after being assaulted in prison. From here, things spiral out of control as Connie bounces from one setback to the next with an ineptitude, and complete lack of self-awareness, that is hilarious at times and somewhat horrifying at others. When Connie’s attempt to heist Nick from the hospital goes awry, he subsequently finds himself embroiled in somebody else’s misdeeds, teaming up with a recently released prisoner and a teenage girl in his increasing desperation.

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In an all-too-brief performance, Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is funny/sad as Corey, a delusional girlfriend of Connie’s on whom he – somewhat ambitiously perhaps given how beholden she is to her mother’s purse strings – pins his hopes of providing the bail money to free Nick, only to find she is far more fixated on a holiday he has promised her than she is in securing Nick’s release. Newcomer Taliah Webster is a real find as Crystal, a 16-year-old with a seen-it-all unflappability who finds herself in Connie’s orbit when he holes up in her grandma’s house overnight. Webster’s moments with Pattinson are some of the films warmest and most unsettling but, having encouraged the audience to become emotionally invested in Crystal’s plight, the Safdie boys don’t seem to know how to bring her arc to a satisfying conclusion and she simply disappears from the plot. Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips, Eye in the Sky) also pops up as a security guard, featuring in a scene that plays out more comically than perhaps intended, while Buddy Duress – who has worked with the Safdies previously in Heaven Knows What – plays the hapless parolee who finds himself being dragged along for the ride.

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The film is brimming with a mad energy and Pattinson is almost unrecognisable, both in appearance and in the quality of his performance as Connie. Even though he manages to defeat the odds on more than one occasion, there is never a moment when you think that it will end well. With street lamps and neon lighting the way, cinematographer Sean Price Williams creates a vivid, almost hallucinatory feel to proceedings, while Lopatin’s score – which won the Soundtrack Award at Cannes and includes a collaboration with Iggy Pop – elevates this sombre, downbeat movie into something quite thrilling despite the inevitabilities that await the various players.

Festival Photos

The recent Teneriffe Festival and Currie Street Music Crawl produced of plenty of free live music performances, showcasing a diverse collection of talented local artists. Featured over the two weekends were the likes of Screamfeeder, Sahara Beck, Waxx, Tia Gostelow and plenty more.

Photos from both events have been added to the gallery.

It Comes at Night

A tense post-apocalyptic thriller starring Australia’s Joel Edgerton, It Comes at Night is a creepy, claustrophobic descent into (justifiable) paranoia in the wake of a plague-like outbreak that has seemingly decimated the human population and remains uncontained. This is a story about a family teetering on the edge of a collapsed civilisation in which distrust, desperation and determination are the cornerstones of their survival. Written and directed by Trey Edward Schults, whose only previous feature is the award-winning Krisha, this is a gruelling, unsettling survival drama in which the merest oversight or lack of adherence to the strict rules and routines (always travel in pairs, never go out at night) can have catastrophic consequences for patriarch Paul (Edgerton) and his family.

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The film opens with an introduction to the dangers being faced by the family – which also comprises Paul’s wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenaged son Calvin (Kelvin Harrison Jnr) – when Paul executes his infected father-in-law and burns his body in a shallow grave in order to avoid any further spread of the virus. Their remote woodland home-cum-prison is boarded up and the only access is via a locked door at the end of a narrow corridor. The lack of light within the labyrinthine layout of the house creates an atmosphere of foreboding; lamps and torches flickering in the gloom and offering the merest morsels of illumination. The world outside the house looks normal enough and the fact that the threat is an invisible one leaves you questioning whether any remotely odd behaviours – such as Calvin’s vivid dreams – are more than just a consequence of the horrors he has witnessed. After a stranger tries to break into the house, Paul is forced to consider joining forces with Will (Christopher Abbott), offering shelter to him, his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew, in exchange for the valuable resources they can provide, such as food and livestock.

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Intentionally or otherwise, It Comes at Night has elements that seem to draw from great films that have come before it, such as George Romero’s Night of Living Dead, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and John Boorman’s Deliverance. This carefully constructed world is one of isolation, suspicion and an ever-present threat and tensions build in the house when it appears as though the various precautions in place have been breached, putting everybody at risk. Unlike, say, 10 Cloverfield Lane, the narrative tension is not based on whether or not the threat is real but whether or not it can be stopped and, with no back story that explains the origins of the contagion or how it is transmitted, we don’t know if keeping it at bay is even possible. Heck, even the family have no idea where this virus came from or how much of civilisation remains.

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Combined with an unsettling score from composer Brian McOmber, Karen Murphy’s production design creates an atmosphere of distorted menace that makes for uncomfortable viewing. Edgerton and Ejogo make a believable couple trying to cope as best they can given the circumstances in which they find themselves, while Abbott and Keough are also very effective as a couple who may, or may not, pose a threat to the sanctity and security that Paul has created for his family. However, 22-year-old newcomer Harrison Jr is quite remarkable as Calvin, a young man having to cope with coming of age in the most oppressive circumstances. This is a bleak story about ordinary people trying to survive in extraordinary circumstances, and it is somehow both poignant and alarming as they are forced to take drastic measures to ensure their safety. The cast perform brilliantly, both individually and collectively and, with a constant unease lurking beneath the surface of every action and interaction, It Comes at Night keeps you interested in the plight of our protagonists and makes for a riveting experience.

Baby Driver

The opening moments of Baby Driver – a bank heist followed by an elaborately staged car chase sequence – sets the scene for what is to follow and introduces us to the particular skill set of the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young man with a tragic past who is beholden to crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey, in perhaps his hammiest performance ever). Written and directed by Edgar Wright, Baby Driver is light on plot but packed with action and over-the-top, clichéd characters, yet remains an enjoyable enough experience for most of its running time. Whilst it certainly isn’t the comedic enterprise for which Wright (Hot Fuzz) is best known, everybody involved seems to be having a lot of fun and there seems little expectation that anybody should take any of it too seriously. The action sequences are plentiful and very impressive, without ever resorting to the sheer nonsense that renders the Fast and Furious films beyond redemption in their utter ridiculousness.

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Many of the traditional action tropes are on display here, but it is the music that Wright wants us to believe sets this apart from other films, and the tunes certainly do bring an extra dimension to proceedings. Cursed with tinnitus following a childhood accident, Baby is never without earphones inserted in a bid to drown out the constant humming in his ears and it is his iPod playlist – featuring the likes of Queen, Young MC, The Damned and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – that drives the action. Spencer is one of several music artists (including hip-hop stars Big Boi and Killer Mike) who appear on screen for the merest of moments, while Sky Ferreira and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea take on much more significant roles. When the moment arrives that Baby has satisfied his debt with Doc, it will come as no surprise to anybody who has seen this scenario play out umpteen times on screen before that he finds himself unable to make a clean break. Throw a deaf, wheelchair-bound foster father (C.J. Jones) and a love interest (Lily James) into the mix and Baby is plunged into several spots of bother with both police and his criminal cohorts in hot pursuit. Amongst the collection of crims recruited by Doc to undertake the meticulously planned robberies are Bats (Jamie Foxx), Griff (Jon Bernthal), Eddie (Flea) and the loved-up Bonnie-and-Clyde duo Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), all of whom possess personalities that situate them on a spectrum that runs from somewhat unstable to dangerously deranged.

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As Debora, the object of Baby’s desire, Lily James is a luminous presence. Despite being burdened with a role that is under-written, James soars as a waitress with visions of “heading west on 20 in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have”. Beyond that, she remains a mystery and, whilst she obviously sees something in Baby, we never get a back story for her that might help understand the connection. After all, he is not particularly charming and Elgort is very one-dimensional in his characterisation, which is perhaps intended to appear as stoicism in the face of the myriad adversities he has endured, but ends up as bland and aloof to the point where you are questioning whether it is Elgort’s lack of range as a performer that might be the problem as it is not the first time that the 23-year-old has been outshone by his female co-stars (The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent). Certainly, Baby’s music is the most interesting thing about him while Debora, on the other hand, is an intriguing mix of innocence and breathy sensuality; with her blonde ringlets and southern accent, she is sexy without ever being sexualised.

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The editing from Jonathan Amos and Australia’s Paul Matchliss, both of whom have worked with Wright before, has created a masterful synchronicity between the driving and the music and this synergy of music and movement is the most accomplished element of the film. There is no doubt that Wright is paying homage to 1970’s films such as Walter Hill’s The Driver and, despite the fact that a lot of what we see here has been done before, there is an energy and a sense of reverence that make it an enjoyable romp in which the various stunt drivers are the real stars.

The King’s Choice

Whilst the title suggests some new reality dating show for royals, The King’s Choice is actually a powerful, and somewhat parochial, look at the events leading up to the German occupation of Norway during World War 2. The movie bears some similarities with The Promise in that it explores a particular series of events that haven’t been explored much previously in film, if at all. The events of the film take place over the course of a few days as Norway finds itself under attack from Germany and it ultimately becomes the story of two upstanding men trying desperately to avoid a military conflict between the two countries. One of these is King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen), while the other is Curt Brauer (Karl Marcovics), the German envoy to Norway who is desperate to negotiate a diplomatic solution, despite myriad obstructions from individuals on both sides.

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A Danish prince elected as King of Norway in 1905 following the dissolution of their union with Sweden, Haakon is devout in his commitment to the best interests of the Norwegian people but, until this point, has served primarily as a figurehead with no influence in the day-to-day political machinations of the country. However, some 25 years later with German troupes gathering en masse in Norway and the parliament overthrown in a coup d’état that saw the installation of a pro-Nazi puppet government led by Vidkun Quisling, the King finds himself as the person on who Norway’s fate solely rests. A meeting is arranged between Haakon and Brauer in a bid to reach a compromise that could end the conflict before it really begins, but would require Haakon to endorse the Quisling government. As the history books attest, Haakon’s commitment to the people of Norway and refusal to sanction a government that was not democratically elected, resulted in the lack of any agreement between the two countries, leading to the German occupation of Norway until 1945.

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Director Erik Poppe paints Haakon as a benevolent monarch who possesses a strong love for his country and his family and it is the fate of both that weighs on his mind in trying to determine the right course of action. However, it is Brauer who perhaps leaves the biggest impression as a German diplomat who is clearly not supportive of the Nazi agenda (although he could never say this) and is desperate to prevent any kind of military conflict, ultimately receiving instructions direct from Hitler himself that only Haakon’s support of the Quisling government will bring any semblance of peace (albeit with Germany assuming control of the country). It is impossible not to admire both Haakon and Brauer, the former for his unwillingness to compromise the sovereignty of his country despite the potential consequences, and the latter for his efforts in trying to broker a deal that might prevent any significant bloodshed. It is perhaps not surprising that whilst Haakon remained as King until his death in 1957 and is widely regarded as one of the greatest Norwegians of the 20th century, Brauer was recalled by Hitler, ushered into service as a soldier and ultimately spent nine years as a prisoner-of-war in the Soviet Union.

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Whilst much of the movie is centred on the political argy bargy, we also see the human consequence that is inevitable when countries flex their military muscle, following the plight of Fredrik Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti), a young soldier who finds himself on the front line. Politically and militarily neutral prior to the German’s arriving, it is not surprising that the Norwegian military struggle to hold their own against the Nazi insurgency and it goes without saying that Seeberg finds himself in the thick of the action. The film serves as a disarming portrait of a king with a rare common touch. In the first 15 minutes, we see him chatting with his grandson’s toy pig and engaged in a game of hide and seek, and his man of the people status is further cemented by an exchange with Seeberg. Handheld camera combined with a propulsive score captures the tension of the situation in which the royal family find themselves as they are forced to flee north from Oslo. The performances – from Christensen and Marcovics especially – are universally strong, while the period production design is nicely done and serves to further enhance the authenticity of the piece. Despite a running time in excess of two hours, The King’s Choice never labors and emerges as an enthralling examination of a highly ethical man.

The King’s Choice screens as part of the Scandinavian Film Festival at Palace Cinemas from July 20 to August 6.

The House

Will Ferrell is a funny person and he has delivered some great comedic turns in movies such as The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers. Likewise, Amy Poehler has proven herself to be a particularly witty presence in movies (Baby Mama) and on television (Parks and Recreation), yet somehow neither of them are able to breathe any life into the stultifying so-called comedy that is The House, a movie that emerges as nothing more than a tedious waste of time. Helmed by first-time director Andrew Cohen (who co-wrote the screenplay with Brendan O’Brien), The House fails to generate any laughs in its entire running time and given the fact that Cohen and O’Brien also wrote Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and both of the Bad Neighbours films, perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the actors can only be as good as the material allows and, in this instance, Ferrell and Poehler have been let down by a script that reeks of desperation in its bid to pry laughs from a scenario that actually seems prime fodder for fun, but somehow misses the mark at every opportunity.

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Poehler and Ferrell play Kate and Scott Johansen, proud parents to university-bound daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins), but when a town-sponsored scholarship falls through, Kate and Scott find themselves looking for ways to raise the required funds. The thought of downsizing in light of Alex’s departure for college and selling their very large house to raise the money never seems to occur to them, so a montage ensues as the couple seek, unsuccessfully, to source the money by other means. Next comes the obligatory trip to Las Vegas during which they are on the cusp of winning all they need until clichés abound and it all falls apart in an instant. Subsequently, when their recently-separated gambling addict pal Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) suggests they team up to establish an illegal casino in his home, they are initially wary, but in the interests of narrative expediency, they change their mind quick smart and the scene is set for what was no doubt intended to be a series of hilarious scenarios.

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As the scale of their operation grows, the situations in which our intrepid trio find themselves become more over-the-top and they soon come under increasing suspicion from the local policeman (Rob Huebel) and corrupt councilman (Nick Kroll). Unfortunately, pretty much every scene falls flat and even a big-name cameo in the final act fails to enliven proceedings. Presenting middle-age suburbanites behaving badly seems to be the newest trend in Hollywood (Bad Moms, Bad Neighbours etc) but there is a distinct lack of subtlety in these stories as the desire to push each scenario to the extreme overwhelms any potential to deliver something that is both amusing and insightful. The Ferrell-starring Everything Must Go (in which he delivers a fine performance) is a great example of the way in which humour can be mined from the tribulations of contemporary life.

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It is hard to imagine that even fans of Ferrell, Poehler and the rest of the cast, which includes Allison Tolman – who is terrific in the first season of the Fargo television series – would be satisfied with what they have been presented here. It is just not funny, and spectacularly so, which does lead to questions about why Ferrell and Poehler would sign on in the first place. However, at least they knew what they were getting themselves into and whilst anybody who has seen the trailer (which is every bit as unfunny as the film) should also know what to expect, those who spend their hard earned on this without undertaking due diligence might find themselves in need of good wash afterwards to rid them of the stench of mediocrity to which they have been exposed for 90 torturous minutes.