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Film Review: Journey’s End

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 29 Jan 2018

RC Sherriff’s 1928 play Journey’s End, which depicts a group of soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, has been adapted in various forms over the years, although my first experience of the story was this latest version, directed by Saul Dibb, who most recently made Suite Française. Show the rest of this post…

It features an impressive British cast playing a company of soldiers whose turn it is to man a trench in northern France in the final stretches of the war. Companies of soldiers have been required to take it in turns manning the position for six days at a time, each praying that a rumoured German offensive isn’t launched while it’s their turn. The drama, which takes place almost entirely within the trench and its officers quarters, is laden with the weight of what may or may not be coming for these men.

Sam Claflin stars as Captain Stanhope, a respected soldier whose mental faculties have been damaged by his time on the frontlines, and lack of leave. His second in command is Osborne (Paul Bettany), an affable and welcoming veteran upon whom stewardship of the outfit’s youngest and newest member, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), will fall.

The film is divided into sections, each depicting one day of the six that these soldiers are to endure in the cold squalor of the trench, waiting for an attack that may or may not come. Trains creak ominously over rails somewhere in the distance, likely delivering German reinforcements, and occasional pockets of gunfire/artillery in the distance set the tone.

The brief action scenes are shot in a purposefully removed way, implying rather than showing what is taking place

It’s a claustrophobic setting and the anticipation of the attack lends the film a brooding quality that I found worked rather well, heightened at times by the subtly foreboding score. At times I felt the film lacked a bit of detail on everyday life in the trenches, because the vast majority of it is set in the comparatively cosy officers’ quarters, where food and drink is regularly available courtesy of Toby Jones’ comic-relief cook Mason, whose ingredients are regularly called into question.

But Dibb’s film shows enough of life outside that we know what we’re dealing with, and lets the drama unfold in an unfussy way that relies on dialogue in place of action. The brief action scenes that are shown are shot in a purposefully removed way, implying rather than showing what is taking place, with the camera focusing on the reactions of the soldiers and the violence expressed primarily through the sound effects. It’s a technique that generally works, although it does diminish the impact of those scenes a little. One event in particular lacks the profundity it might have had if it was shown.

The scenes in the trench work because the cast is likeable and on good form. Claflin and Butterfield are effective, respectively, as the broken captain and the young boy eager to contribute, even if the depiction of the Stanhope character is perhaps a little too reliant on facial tics to portray inner turmoil. But Claflin does a good job overall, and gets a nicely observed speech about “sticking at it” that emerges as a key piece of dialogue, delivered well. He is nicely offset by a lovely performance from Paul Bettany as a man whose exterior warmth and avuncular qualities perhaps belie an unseen darkness inside.

For all the film’s quality acting and careful setup, I found it lacked the emotional payoff I was expecting and wanting from filmmaking of this calibre, though that isn’t to say there aren’t moments of well-observed pathos in there. Ev en if Journey’s End will perhaps not be remembered as a classic of the genre, it is nevertheless a well made war film that with good performances that is worth checking out.


Film Review: Early Man

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Sam Bathe on 25 Jan 2018

When a meteor crash lands on earth, besides wiping out the vast majority of life, it leaves a ginormous crater and a gang of cavemen bemused by what they just saw. Approaching the meteor’s little core, one of the cavemen picks it up, but still hot to the touch, so he quickly drops it and inadvertently kicks it into the path of another caveman. He kicks it on, then on to another, and before you know it, they’ve invented football. Bizarrely, the centre piece of Aardman’s latest feature, Early Man. Show the rest of this post…

Fast forward a few thousand years, Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe live a simple life in the crater. Catching rabbits by day and sleeping under the stars by night, before they know it their utopia is abruptly ended by the wrecking balls of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a power-hungry leader from the next town over. Nooth destroys the tribe’s homes and lays claim to the land, wanting to mine every inch of the creator for ore.

While the rest of the tribe gets away, Dug finds himself trapped inside one of Nooth’s transport pods, and when he finally gets away, he discovers that the world has moved on outside the crater. With the Bronze Age well under way, food stalls sit one way, and sword-smiths the other.


So far, so good, but it’s here where Early Man takes a strange turn. When horns start to blaze and the entire city charts a course for the town amphitheatre, it turns out this Bronze Age civilisation is obsessed with… football.

While everyone is piling into the stadium, Dug escapes the town guards by sneaking into the stadium changing quarters, but putting on the only disguise he can find (a goalkeeper’s outfit), he’s quickly forced in line with the home team and walked out onto the pitch.

Two goals down and Nooth spots something is amiss, but when Dug is discovered he makes one last play to save his home, and offers his captor a challenge: Nooth’s all-stars take on Dug’s rag-tag clan, winner gets the crater.

From there on, Early Man follows the usual sports movie tropes. Dug finds his gang and with the help of football fanatic Goona (Maisie Williams) – not allowed to play for Nooth’s side because she’s a girl – they train up for the big match.


It was a bizarre choice to make football the central element of Early Man. Once the sports story took hold, I kept thinking “and when is the real plotline going to kick in”, but that was it, there was no pivot and the films stumbles along to the big match finale.

That the beautiful game was invented at the dawn of time is a funny concept, as is the idea of the Stone Age vs. the Bronze Age on the football field, but there’s only enough plot for a quirky 15-minute short – not a 87-minute feature – and on several occasions the plot really runs out of steams.

With narrative steps are so clearly signposted along the way, Early Man is unadventurous and plays it too safe. It’s inoffensive and suitable for all the family, but it doesn’t feel inventive, and it doesn’t have the charm or wit we’ve come to expect from Nick Park.

Silly goofs raise a few chuckles but there isn’t the same sense of humour that runs through all of Aardman’s best stuff. Early Man is charming and means well, but it’s all without real personality, and the biggest laughs come from football puns that will go over the head of much of the audience.


In the voice cast, Tom Hiddleston clearly enjoyed hamming it up as villain Lord Nooth, but it’s Rob Bryden who steals the show as a carrier pigeon – yes, you read that right – and two football commentators. Richard Ayoade is ever-brilliant too, despite only reading only a handful of lines.

I’m loathe to call an Aardman picture run of the mill but unfortunately Early Man is just about that drab. Compared to Pixar’s recent masterpiece Coco, so full of life, imagination eccentricity, Early Man is middling, it’s grey vs. technicolour.

Still Early Man is not a complete disaster, and being an Aardman picture, the animation is smooth and colourful; their classic overstylised figures are still as much of a joy as when Wallace & Gromit first hit the screen. But  Early Man needs more than that, and it’s just such a surprise that nobody caught that something was missing; it’s an Aardman picture, but it doesn’t have the Aardman soul.


Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 12 Jan 2018

Between them, brothers Martin and John Michael McDonagh have a pretty impressive track record when it comes to writing and directing. Show the rest of this post…

Martin McDonagh’s most recent project was Seven Psychopaths in 2014, though he is probably still most widely known for his debut, In Bruges. His latest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, contains many of the elements we’ve come to expect from the younger McDonagh brother – primarily a dedication to carefully crafted, sometimes acerbic dialogue – crystallised into what is his best and most consistently impressive film.

Three Billboards… tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who lives in the titular town of Ebbing and is frustrated by the inability of the local authorities to bring anybody to justice for the murder of her daughter, Angela. Mildred channels her frustration into the renting of three billboards on a mostly unused stretch of road outside the town, which express her feeling in no uncertain terms. The billboards, and Mildred herself, quickly become famous among the townsfolk, and indeed the local media, bringing a number of disparate characters together.

Those characters are where Three Billboards… shines brightest. McDonagh’s films have hardly been starved for acting talent in the past, but this is certainly his most impressive cast. It’s a credit to the performances, and indeed the writing, that the vast majority of this large and talented ensemble feel like vital cogs in a well oiled machine, as opposed to being shoehorned in. At the head of everything, Frances McDormand is just wonderful, capable of evoking pathos, surprise and laughs in equal measure – much like the film as a whole. She gives Mildred exactly what the role requires: balance. We sympathise with her hugely, and are resolutely on her side, but not to the extent that she ceases to feel like a rounded, conflicted character. As the head of the local police force, Woody Harrelson is reliably great, with perhaps more of a gentle, affecting edge than we might expect from the opening scenes. Alongside him, Sam Rockwell (who was so good in Seven Psychopaths) is again on good form as disreputable cop Jason Dixon.

Three Billboards… is McDonagh’s most well-rounded, likeable piece of work

There are far too many names to mention individually, but crucially this isn’t because the film feels overstuffed. On the contrary, we want to spend more time with even the minor characters, because they’re played and written so convincingly. It inevitably means that characters like Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, so good last year in a not dissimilar role in Manchester By the Sea) and her ex-husband’s new fling Penelope (played with wit by Samara Weaving) are left mainly on the fringes, but that’s ok, because together they constitute a film that knows what it’s doing and has the confidence not only to let its cast breathe, but to edit them down where necessary. The film feels like it loves spending time with its characters, like McDonagh had a great time writing them, and this feeling transposes onto the audience.

What makes Three Billboards… McDonagh’s most well-rounded, likeable piece of work, is that the framework holding all those solid, well-written characters together feels delicately honed and precise; there is no fat on the bones of this film, and editor Jon Gregory deserves plaudits for keeping the whole thing moving while still allowing time for the script to indulge, in a good way, in its characters. There’s also a really well-chosen and effective soundtrack underlying all of this, which adds to the overall feeling of quality.

If there are missteps, they are so few and far between that they can be mostly ignored. One worth mentioning is that there are one or two facets to Officer Dixon (Rockwell) that don’t quite work, in particular a streak of racism that feels oddly out of place, most noticeably in a scene in a prison cell midway through, in which the N-word is invoked by two characters in a way that felt crass and misjudged. It’s a shame because the rest of the scene is beautifully put together.

That misstep feels like a too-obvious attempt by McDonagh to harness to hard-hitting writing style he’s (at least partially) known for, but ironically that talent of his is used to much better and more subtle effect in the rest of the film, which does contain lines here and there that can, in a positive way, draw gasps, laughs and surprises.

Three Billboards… feels like it was the ideal project to take Martin McDonagh to the next stage in his career, moving on from the well-written and well-played, but perhaps slightly indulgent, Seven Psychopaths. That film felt like it had a lot of very good elements strung together into something that didn’t entirely cohere, but Three Billboards… avoids that pitfall and then some. With a r oster of memorable characters, a cast on universally great form and a script that is frequently capable of wrong-footing its audience, there’s really very little to complain about.


Our favourite films of 2017

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 30 Dec 2017

2017 has been a pretty impressive year for film. People who aren’t looking hard enough will tell you that modern cinemas are only full of franchise fare and sequels, but that opinion ignores the staggering amount of quality releases we’ve been able to enjoy over the past year. Show the rest of this post…

And the presence of one massive-budget sci-fi blockbuster in my end-of-year list, plus another couple in the honourable mentions and plenty of other good ones besides, suggests that even blockbusters still have something to offer cinemagoers.

My top 10 of the year, which is ordered alphabetically, is the best of what I’ve seen. There are, as always, countless films I’m yet to catch up on, including, but certainly not limited to, A Quiet Passion, The Levelling, Detroit, Gods Own Country and a pair of animations, The Red Turtle and My Life as a Courgette, that I sadly haven’t got around to yet.

But even despite the missing names, 2017 has been a memorable year, and I wrestled hard with what to include in the final 10. Some of the films in the honourable mentions list came close to the final cut, but just missed out. Some of the films below came out so long ago I could scarcely believe they were released in the UK in 2017.

Enjoy the list, and Happy New Year from Fan the Fire.

 Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2046

A couple of years ago one long-awaited sci-fi sequel made it into my year-end list in the form of Star Wars The Force Awakens, and now, just two years later, we have another. If anything, Blade Runner 2049 had even more to live up to than The Force Awakens did, following on as it was from a masterpiece of an original, whereas JJ Abrams’ film only needed to dispel the memory of the much-maligned Star Wars prequel trilogy. My excitement levels for this sequel grew the more of its director’s previous films I saw. Denis Villeneuve, whose Arrival made my list of best films in 2016, did something great with Blade Runner 2049, managing to craft a film that is not only visually and aurally stunning, but which continues to wrestle with big themes in the way its predecessor did. It isn’t perfect – for one thing, the lead villain and his plot are disappointing – but it’s one hell of a ride.


Call Me By Your Name

The final part of Luca Guadagnino’s Desire trilogy, Call Me By Your Name stars Timothée Chalamet as Elio, a smart, charming teenager living with his American-Italian family in the Italian countryside. Into this apparently idyllic lifestyle (which is so sumptuous you want to leap into every one of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s gorgeous frames) comes an American graduate student played by Armie Hammer, with whom Elio begins to form a deep friendship, and perhaps something more. Chalamet, who I’d only seen before in a minor role in Interstellar, gives an extraordinary performance here, capturing intelligence, love and grief in wholly believable ways. Opposite him, Armie Hammer gives probably his best performance yet as the charismatic Oliver, who is worldly and smart, but not beyond petulance or bad choices. The excellent supporting cast add further gloss to Guadagnino’s marvellous, moving romance.

The Florida Project

 The Florida Project

Sean Baker’s follow up to 2015’s Tangerine, The Florida Project takes us into the world of the garish motels that sit on the outskirts of Disneyland, where deprived communities of people struggle to make ends meet. This world, unknown I would imagine to most viewers of the film, certainly to this one, is portrayed vividly and with great affection for its inhabitants, even when the film is dealing with serious social issues. The looming, candy coloured edifices that form the backdrop for the story bring a sense of fractured wonder to the whole thing, and Baker gets lovely, naturalistic performances from his young cast as they roam freely around this forsaken landscape – in particular Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, the precocious girl at the film’s centre. The supporting cast are terrific too, from Bria Vinaite as Moonee’s mother Halley to Willem Dafoe as the manager of the motel in which they live. Vivid, important filmmaking with a knockout final movement.

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is alive with the joy of a filmmaker thoroughly in touch with, and enjoying working on, the material. This ambitious adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith shifts the action from Victorian-era Britain to Korea, but Park somehow makes that change feel vital. His film is a twisting, turning delight, with great performances illuminating a deceptively complex and well-structured narrative that crackles with erotic tension, dramatic weight and thrilling unpredictability. Park blends these elements together in something approaching gothic tradition, and in doing so creates a thoroughly idiosyncratic, mesmerising psychological drama not quite like anything else released this year.

I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro

Three documentaries about, or at least partially about, race in America were nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category at this year’s Oscars. The one that won, OJ: Made in America, I confess I haven’t yet seen, but of the other two, which I have seen, I Am Not Your Negro was the standout for me. Ava DuVernay’s 13th is an equally important film and worth a watch, but the lyricism and beauty of Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, based on an unfinished manuscript by social critic James Baldwin detailing his friendships and interactions with civil rights leaders, has stuck with me. Peck’s film fluidly blends archive footage with Samuel L Jackson’s narration, and elucidates its issues with intelligence and passion. It also benefits hugely from the eloquence and wit of Baldwin himself, who appears in numerous clips, and whose speeches resonate with power.

La La Land

La La Land

One of a few films on this list that feel like they came out ages ago, but were actually released in the UK in January, is Damien Chazelle’s wonderful musical La La Land, which stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as star-crossed lovers both attempting to make their way in Hollywood. He’s a struggling jazz pianist, she’s a struggling actress, and as success begins to come their way, it will test the limits of their feelings for one another. The film harks back to classic musicals, perhaps chief among them Singing in the Rain, but does so in a way that is affectionate and original. The performances are great, the songs are great, and the whole thing is beautifully shot by Linus Sandgren. Chazelle paces the film with confidence and the tone is always just right, moving effortlessly between laughs, tears and dance routines, sometimes all at the same time.

Manchester by the Sea

 Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s beautifully taut, emotionally raw Manchester by the Sea stars an excellent Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a man struggling to deal with a tragic event in his past who is suddenly called back to the town in which it happened and entrusted with the care of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, also excellent). Lee’s estranged wife Randi (Michelle Williams, sparingly used but great) still lives in the town, so he will be forced to confront his grief alongside his new and frankly unwanted companion. Depression is not an easy thing to depict on screen, but Affleck’s performance and Lonergan’s strong script make Lee a sympathetic protagonist. The film is a strong, surprisingly uplifting piece of work, some of the scenes in which have stayed with me throughout the year, in particular a beautifully choreographed sequence in a police station and a heartbreaking conversation between two characters late on.



Barry Jenkins’ affecting adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue won the Academy Award for Best Picture this year (after a brief fiasco in which La La Land was announced as the winner) and it was one one of the few occasions when the Oscars gave out a prestigious award to very little backlash. Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a conflicted boy growing up in Miami, through three different time periods and three different actors. It’s tough when it needs to be, but the film is also capable of channeling both raw emotion and great delicacy. Quite apart from the film’s importance in terms of the mainstream profiling of prominent social issues, Moonlight is a dramatically rewarding, heartfelt piece of work, and deserves to be seen.



Julia Ducournau’s cannibal coming-of-age tale will probably make you uncomfortable at times, but Raw is so much more than a shocker. Ducournau, who also wrote the script, injects the film with thrills and bold, concise moments of horror, but also more wit and dark humour than perhaps we might expect. Garance Marillier is terrific as Justine, a vegetarian student who joins a veterinary college and is horrified to find herself developing a taste for a very particular variety of meat. The film uses its subject matter as a lens through which to explore growing up and sexual discovery, among other things, but does so in a way that not only has depth, but which is visually inventive and at times impressively sinister. I can’t wait to see what Ducournau does next.

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade’s film Toni Erdmann is regularly described as a comedy, though that description perhaps suggests an altogether different film. While there are laugh-out-loud moments in Toni Erdmann, Ade’s film is nevertheless dealing with difficult issues, particularly a broken father-daughter relationship and the domineering role that careers play in modern life. The film will make you laugh, yes, but it’ll also make you cry. Possibly at the same time, and possibly through a grimace as you cringe at some of the outrageously uncomfortable scenarios on screen. As a prankster father trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Peter Simonischek, with his daft wig and fake teeth, is great, and so too is Sandra Hüller as his daughter, whose professional exterior cracks just enough that we can see the woman, indeed the child, underneath. Quite apart from the great performances and sharply written dialogue, there are some truly memorable sequences and a wonderfully disconcerting touch of the weird.

Honourable mentions

Baby Driver, Lady Macbeth, Get Out, A Ghost Story, The Last Jedi, The Lost City of Z, mother!, Personal Shopper, Your Name

DVD Review: An Inconvenient SequelFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in DVDs, Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 11 Dec 2017

In a way, the most prescient thing about the sequel to Al Gore’s 2006 zeitgeist-hitting documentary An Inconvenient Truth, is that 11 years after the first one came out, the issues at its core are more prominent than ever before. While this sequel may not have hit the box office as hard as its predecessor, the message is no less important. Show the rest of this post…

As former US Vice President Al Gore continues his global climate change training programme, around which much of this documentary is built, his overriding feeling is clear: frustration. And that frustration comes through in the film, and is its strongest asset. Much like in the first film, Gore comes across in An Inconvenient Sequel: A Truth to Power as someone who simply cares, and believes what he is doing is the right thing. In fact there’s a speech near the end that attests to this, which is genuinely moving in its sincerity.

It’s the sincerity at the heart of the film that makes it work. As a documentary, you could argue its construction is somewhat perfunctory, and its cinematic qualities relatively sparse (barring some impressive footage of ice floes at the beginning) but it is nonetheless filled with interesting information that illustrates the struggle Gore is fighting. Home media is perhaps its natural home.

The film is a polemic, not designed to be balanced, but thought-provoking. Your enjoyment of it may depend on what side of the argument you come down on, although climate change deniers are hardly likely to be watching this in the first place.

For the rest of us, Gore’s message is a handy reminder that this is a subject we as a collective cannot afford to forget. The presence of Donald Tru mp in the final stages casts a grim shadow over much of the optimism that powers Gore’s efforts, but that shadow will hopefully help what came before to linger in people’s minds.


Film Review: Stronger

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Sam Bathe on 8 Dec 2017

In 2013, Jeff Bauman lost both of his legs below the knee in the Boston Marathon bombings. David Gordon Green’s film Stronger is an adaptation of Bauman’s memoir of the same name, and depicts Bauman’s struggles coming to terms with his new life dealing with disability and living in an area of Boston that is not exactly conducive to his needs. Show the rest of this post…

In the opening scenes we see Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) hanging around with his friends and trying to reignite his relationship with on-again-off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). That seems to be going moderately well until Bauman attends the marathon as a spectator to cheer Erin on. In the aftermath of the bombing, their relationship will be tested again, but in wholly different and more stressful circumstances.

Green’s film is, of course, a story of triumph over adversity, but for the majority of its runtime it tries to sidestep most of the clichés that can creep into the genre, and in general avoids the kind of mawkishness that can derail emotional impact.

Although Stronger depicts people admiring Bauman as a hero, the film wisely doesn’t elevate him as such. In general, the focus stays on at ground level, and doesn’t try to deal with the political side of the story. Gyllenhaal plays Bauman as a likeable but flawed character, and the film wisely doesn’t shy away from either of those traits after the accident. In the first act there are some jarring tonal shifts that prevented me from really settling into the film, and some scenes with Bauman’s family and friends that felt like they were trying a little too hard, but once I relaxed into the characters I discovered a well made, if not exceptional, film.

If some of the scenes involving the supporting cast aren’t always as solid as they could be – despite the presence of Miranda Richardson as Bauman’s alcoholic mother – the leads are capable of carrying most of it by themselves. Gyllenhaal’s is a strong performance – there are moments when he’s called upon to emote in a fairly visceral way, but in general it’s a performance not afraid of subtlety. The real star of the film for me, though, is Tatiana Maslany, who is really impressive as Erin, a woman who gives up her time and emotions to a man who, prior to the bombing, she wasn’t technically attached to. Maslany convinces as a woman offering a lot but not necessarily receiving much in return, and makes the character of Tatiana as vital to the narrative as Bauman himself. She also gets the film’s last and best-delivered line of dialogue, which rounds things off on a powerful note.

Stronger is the second film in just four years to deal with the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon, after Peter Berg’s Patriots Day last year, although they approach the subject matter from very  different perspectives. Stronger takes a stripped-down approach and focuses in on the way that day affected the lives of just a few people, and is generally successful in doing so. It doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of the genre in which it sits, but there are a couple of scenes where it takes risks – most notably one in which Bauman has his legs bandaged – and is successful in doing so.

It treats its subject matter seriously and apolitically and makes the admirable decision to stay grounded. Even if not all of its elements are entirely successful – the supporting cast didn’t add a huge amount for me, beyond  one scene in a cafe, and the script is tonally a little inconsistent – Stronger is nevertheless a well-acted double header and worth a look for Gyllenhaal and Maslany alone.


Film Review: Revolution: New Art for a New World

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 23 Oct 2017

Margy Kinmonth’s documentary Revolution: New Art for a New World aims to elucidate the connection between political events in Russia in the early 20th century and the art that its citizens produced in response, much of which is little known in the wider world.
Show the rest of this post…

The documentary focuses primarily on the October Revolution in 1917, during which the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government of the country, which itself had been installed not long before as the result of another political upheaval. Kinmonth’s film, which she also wrote and narrates, attempts to paint the connections between a tumultuous time period and the art that it spawned.

For art enthusiasts, the greatest draw of the film will be the revealing of many significant works that have, to date, been little seen outside of Russia. Even for an art novice like me, the film did a good job of explaining the significance of these pieces and, crucially, how they relate to the events that, at least in part, inspired their creation. There are also some interesting interviews with contemporaries of the artists discussed, in some cases with their actual descendants, and seeing the physical similarities between them and the old photos is a treat in itself.

The film is ultimately a little televisual and perhaps did not require a cinematic release, but even so there is an interesting discourse in here about not just how this art related to its period, but how any art can do so, and the importance of that relationship. The music is a little distracting at times, and some of the dramatic voiceovers – recreating speeches from historical figures such as Lenin (Matthew Macfadyen), for  example – don’t really add much, but for those with an interest in the period, or indeed in the relationship between art and politics more generally, it’s an interesting watch.


Film Review: The Death of StalinFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 18 Oct 2017

As anyone who has seen The Thick of It, its feature length spin off In the Loop, or the US series Veep, will know, writer Armando Iannucci has a certain unique flair for political satire. Show the rest of this post…

The thought of him tackling La Mort de Staline, a graphic novel by Fabien Nury dealing with the aftermath of the death of Joseph Stalin, was a promising one.

When Stalin died in 1953, he left behind a power vacuum at the head of the Soviet Union. Iannucci’s film depicts the ensuing struggle for power among the political elite, from Stalin’s son to his heads of state, choosing to approach what in real life was a tremendously fraught and dangerous era with his usual lightness of touch.

It’s not perhaps an obvious period to play for laughs, but the result, for the most part, lives up to the billing. Iannucci extracts humour from potential darkness, and at times plays wonderfully on the idea of political paranoia and infighting.

The film boasts a large and talented ensemble cast playing a roster of real life characters, most of whom Iannucci depicts as either bumbling, bickering fools or, in the case of Simon Russell Beale’s secret police chief Beria, in particular, tyrants desperate for power. Their interactions are the heart of the film, indeed the very point of the film, and there is much enjoyment to be had therein. If there’s a criticism to be levelled at the casting, it’s simply that there are too many talented performers here to feel that we’re getting the most out of them. As a result, some of the supporting characters feel a little undersold, and unable to leave the impression they might have done.

Alongside Beria, the chief conspirators are Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Nikita Kruschchev (Steve Buscemi), names which will be familiar to anyone with a vague knowledge of Russian history. Malenkov, upon whom the responsibility of stepping into Stalin’s shoes initially falls, is played by Tambor as a man desperately wanting to appear stately and responsible, but in fact displaying neither of these traits, and perennially trapped under the imposing Beria’s finger.

Lingering around behind them is an amusingly pitched performance from Michael Palin as Vyascheslav Molotov, who over the years has been so indoctrinated into Stalin’s regime that he has trouble remembering who he is meant to be fawning over, and what his opinions actually are. There’s also an amusing introduction featuring Paddy Considine that gets things off to a strong start, and a scene-stealing turn from a belligerent Jason Isaacs. Andrea Riseborough, meanwhile, brings an all-too-brief feminine presence to what is otherwise very much a boys club.

Although there’s some great stuff in here poking fun at the inner workings of the government,the film coasts a little towards its final act, which, though still funny, is a bit rushed and dramatically uneven. It feels as if the film is enjoying itself much more when its ensemble is bickering and fighting than when it has to tell the story, which isn’t a criticism as such, but leaves the narrative element of the film feeling a little lukewarm.

Generally, though, The Death of Stalin is an entertaining and often funny film, the  tone of which will be familiar, if not wholly so, to fans of Iannucci’s excellent previous work. It’s not as consistently funny as some of his best output, but well worth a look.


Film Review: The Glass Castle

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Liam Nicholls on 22 Sep 2017

Based on the bestselling memoir of Jeanette Walls’ childhood, The Glass Castle explores the fraught and fractured relationship between a father and daughter, played superbly by Woody Harrelson and Brie Larson. Show the rest of this post…

The story follows Jeanette (Brie Larson), one of four flame-haired siblings living a nomadic, poverty-stricken life, dragged from shack to hovel by their free-spirited and eccentric parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). Cutting back and forth in time between her younger years and her life as a a successful gossip columnist in New York, her emotions unravel in the midst of a manicured existence with Wall Street fiancé David (Max Greenfield).

The first we see of her wild-eyed parents is scavenging in bins on the Lower East Side as Jeanette drives past in a taxi, setting the tone for the disconnected relationship she has with them, born from years of reckless abandon. Her mother is an artist, more interested in her work than the welfare of her children, brought into sharp focus early on when a young Jeanette badly burns herself cooking hotdogs on the stove. Rescued from the hospital by her family before she has properly healed, she bears the physical and emotional scars for the rest of her life as she becomes protector to her brother and sisters in the absence of conscientious parents.

The beating heart of the film is the relationship between Rex and his “Mountain Goat” Jeanette, who is played as a child with brilliant poise by Ella Anderson. Rex is the film’s force of nature; a poetic soul battling with an undercurrent of darkness and repression. A Jekyll and Hyde character, he’s charismatic, warm and wise when sober but volatile and vicious when drunk, suffocating his children while living in fear of them leaving him. His grand design of building a solar-powered glass house, which gives the film its title, connects him and Jeanette to a shared hope of a better future.

Whether it’s throwing her repeatedly into a swimming pool to teach her how to swim, or begging her for alcohol when chained to a bed while going cold turkey, Rex certainly lives up to his mantra of “You learn from living”. As Jeanette grapples with rising anger and despair as her life plays out, the film is a depiction of her journey in coming to terms with the suffering she endured and accepting the pain that has ultimately shaped who she is.

Both Harrelson, Larson and Anderson carry the story magnificently with powerful performances, but they’re held back by the jarring movements in time which hinder the development of the narrative, rather than building  it. A film full of poignant symbolism and several emotionally-charged moments, its story is one that deserves to be seen on screen, despite losing some of its power in translation.


Film Review: Wind River

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Sam Bathe on 15 Sep 2017

Wind River is the final part of what director Taylor Sheridan has called his “frontier trilogy”, which began with Sicario and continued with Hell or High Water. Although Sheridan wrote all three films, it’s the first he has directed, and his first directorial credit since a little-seen horror called Vile in 2011. Show the rest of this post…

Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen star as Cory Lambert and Jane Banner, who become unlikely partners in a crime investigation. She works for the FBI and has been summoned to freezing Wyoming to run an investigation into a body that Cory discovered in the snow. Cory is a hunter/tracker and proves useful in assisting Jane who, while competent as an investigator, is not used to the extreme wintry conditions in the area.

The body is discovered on a Native American reservation – the titular Wind River – which causes jurisdictional issues for the investigation, while the harsh nature of the landscape becomes a driving factor in the narrative. Wind River is home to many disenchanted people, for whom the difficulties presented by the environment have either broken their spirits, or made them cynical. The world-weary inhabitants of the area, combined with the excellent sense of place established by Sheridan and his cinematographer, Ben Richardson, lift some of the film’s more generic elements into thoroughly watchable territory.

It also helps that Renner gives one his strongest performances to date as Cory, who clearly has an attachment to the area, but is nevertheless challenged by the toughness of the environment, which has not been altogether kind to him. Opposite him, Olsen is reliably strong as Jane, who despite playing more of a supporting role than we might initially expect, adds both vulnerability and strength to proceedings, albeit in different ways to Renner.

The film has a gritty edge to it, as we might expect from this loose trilogy, and is adept at establishing a scenario in which the vastness of the landscape serves to heighten the events being depicted. There are visual compositions that at times reminded me of the establishing shots in Sicario, and some of the recurring motifs in the soundtrack called to mind the whispered poetics of Andrew Dominik’s excellent Western The Proposition.

As things unfold and we being to learn where the narrative is going, it’s perhaps a little disappointingly straightforward, and the final movement of the film feels a little less sure of itself than the rest, but the interest is held throughout, and the film doesn’t lose sight of the characters at its heart. There’s one late scene on top of a mountain that is a little too broadly played, but in general the film conveys a sense of realism and believability. There’s also an almighty Mexican standoff in the final act that is beautifully choreographed.

Wind River is a compelling watch, with a strong sense of place, convincing performances and a welcome, if subtle, undercurrent o f political awareness. It’s not perfect, and perhaps a little generic at times, but well worth a watch, particularly if you enjoyed Sicario and Hell or High Water.


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