Reviewin Brief: Vivarium (2019/20)

I hope you’re ready for cuckoo metaphors, a lot of cuckoo metaphors. The symbolism of VIVARIUM is so blatant at times that they probably didn’t need to show an actual cuckoo in the opening as well. Everything in the film is designed to put you on edge – uncanny valley houses, the same day looping around time after time, an eerie dubbed child sounding like he’s something else that hasn’t quite got the art of human speech down pat. Boxed domesticity. Domesticity, boxed.We haven’t seen any of the 98 days Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), Gemma (Imogen Poots) and the creepy Book of Mormon-looking kid (Senan Jennings) have spent together, but we know they say good morning by showing the finger. It’s a short film but it can still feel like a bit of a slog. There’s a wonderfully surreal final stretch – the aesthetic that was previously Magritte goes all Dali, but rarely does this make any kind of connection beyond the conceptual. SSP

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My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999) Review SSP

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True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) Review SSP

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Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Well this was absolutely sensational. It was also the final film I saw in the cinema before Coronavirus closed them (cheery thought). PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is sensual, appropriately painterly and with a huge heart. Love stories are seldom this flawlessly presented.

A talented but unappreciated painter (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of an aristocrat (Adèle Haenel) to attract a potential suitor for marriage. But Héloïse has resisted all previous offers of marriage and portraiture so Marianne must paint her subject from memory as they take daily walks along the coast of Brittany. As their relationship grows and Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) leaves them alone for a time, passion intervenes.

The landscape, the colours and lighting, the meticulous framing, are all dazzling. From the early playful scene where the two leads are trying to not be seen by the other stealing glances, the shot constructed in such a way that their profiles obscure the other from view, every aspect of director Céline Sciamma’s filmmaking process is meticulous. Claire Mathon’s camerawork can make scenes grand or intimate, but always perfectly in control.

We see that female artists in this period are sometimes “tolerated” but never acknowledged. Marianne is only allowed to paint female subjects, has limited avenues to refine her technical skill and what work of hers that is exhibited is often attributed to her artist father.

In most romantic dramas, the discovery of deception would be the lowest point, the “all is lost” moment. But here it’s only the beginning and the core relationship moves past it and passion continues to grow beyond it. Marianne feels terrible about her deception of a woman she has grown close to, but is under no illusions of how necessary misleading Héloïse for a time was. Equally, Héloïse is deeply hurt that her new companion was spending time with her under false pretences but understands her reasons and is prepared to forgive for the sake of a genuine relationship.

I sort-of understand why French audiences have reportedly found this tame. There’s not that much sex and nudity, but plenty of passion and looks that say everything. The sexiest scenes are the portrait sittings, how these two women play, work each other out and pick up on telling body language. My favourite moment from the whole film was the previously mirthless Héloïse suddenly grinning like a Cheshire Cat during a sitting and Marianne becoming personally thrilled but artistically frustrated at the incongruous change she’s caused in her subject. It is sexy, in a real and understated sort of way.

Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) become an endlessly caring family together. They go from a lady, her companion and her servant to a sensitive daughter and her two mums. But of course this domestic ideal cannot last. For all the freedom they have over the month where Héloïse’s mother is away, she will inevitably return expecting a portrait and her daughter’s ticket to marriage. It is still the Eighteenth Century and personal liberty, especially for women, is limited.

You’re left with some really stark images lingering on the mind. The way we’re introduced to Marianne and what’s important to her – she retrieves her precious canvases from the waves then sits naked with them in front of the fire to dry, posed like an artistic subject herself. The upsetting, but beautiful abortion scene – women looking after each other’s bodies, a young family surrounding the necessary procedure and providing comfort at a distressing time. The two lovers locking eyes over a campfire as the film’s title literalises itself.

The film is mostly without music apart from in a few key passages. A female choir chant evocatively around a campfire, Marianne does a slightly clumsy rendition of Vivaldi on the harpsichord, a professional concert of the same piece of music at the end gives them a new connection despite them sitting apart. A little music is so important in a film so often about looking. This is the second new Queer Cinema classic in recent years after CALL ME BY YOUR NAME to hold its final shot heartbreakingly on one of its leads going through emotional turmoil to music.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is sublime – a story of creativity and passion for the ages rendered tragic by the time it is set in. However these kinds of stories ultimately end, audiences need to experience them and their beauty in the moment now more than ever. SSP

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The Truth (2019) Review SSP

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Windows into Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite SSP

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Review in Brief: Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP is so much better than you might expect. The first film worked so well almost by accident, but there’s enough wit and splatter here to make this return journey fly by. It’s just great to spend another movie with this beloved foursome – Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) are in it for the duration. There are new zombies (stupid-even-by-zombie-standards “Homers”, smarter-than-the-average-zombie “Hawkings” and double-tap-proof “T800s”) and new traveling companions of varying levels of survivability. Zoey Deutch’s adorably dumb Madison may be a stereotype, but she completely owns it, and Rosario Dawson’s Nevada gives Tallahassee a run for his money. Some of the winking humour crosses the line into smug and there’s a bit too much plot-retreading, but then you see a Gen-X hippie commune taking cover in “Babylon”, named of course after “that David Gray song”. SSP

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Review in Brief: Aladdin (2019)

There’s a line of dialogue in the new ALADDIN that sums it up rather well: “Clumsy, but in a charming sort of way”. It’s very close to the animated movie, with Mena Massoud really looking and sounding the part, but this time Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is young and smouldering and Jasmine (Naomi Scott) wants to be Sultan and comes with a song spelling that out. Most musical sequences are abbreviated except for the Genie’s two still spectacular extravaganzas “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” which Will Smith handles with aplomb. A few moments of speed-ramping aside, you’d never really guess this was a Guy Ritchie movie – weirdly the personalities of the guards on the tail of Al in the original animation felt more Ritchie than anything here. Elsewhere it’s business as usual in the Disney remake game, all gloss and scale and impressive recreation but very little to make it essential viewing. SSP

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Porco Rosso (1992) Review SSP

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Review: Onward (2020)

Committed family LARPers: Disney/Pixar

Haven’t we been here before? SHREK, BRIGHT, DISENCHANTMENT and many others all present us with a fantasy world that operates by the rules of the world today to some extent. Pixar’s latest, ONWARD, might not be the sharpest or most original animated family adventure, but it is one of the most heartfelt.

In a fantasy land, magic has been abandoned in favour of the far easier electricity and the world has continued to evolve to present day with much less wonder. Meek teenage elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is gifted a wizard’s staff on his sixteenth birthday and together with role-playing game obsessive older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) they try and cast a spell to bring their dearly departed dad back to life for one final day. Things of course do not go according to plan, and so the brothers depart on a dangerous quest…

This world is populated by, according to director Dan Scanlon, “everything that would be on the side of a van in the 1970s”. Think Prog Rock, Dungeons & Dragons and authors who thought they could be the next Tolkien, all dumped in sitcom America. So you get suburban elves, biker gang pixies, trolls in toll booths, centaurs as beat cops and a manticore running a family restaurant, not to mention unicorns going through the bins.

Ian and Barley’s shoddily resurrected dad appearing for the majority of the film as a disembodied pair of legs (their spell went a bit wrong) is a thing of genius, Pixar’s best running sight gag in a long time. What the brothers do to the legs to make him blend in a bit better is even funnier, especially for the reactions of passers by.

We get not one, but two explicit INDIANA JONES references in this quest. There are as you’d expect plenty of winks to fantasy and adventure tropes, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags, my favourites being a drive-thru “now serving second breakfast” and the way in which they visualise Barley’s rustbucket van making a heroic charge. It’s a dazzling film to see in IMAX though the larger format probably isn’t the best for spotting all the jokes in the background. Now it’s coming early to Disney+ I’m sure there will be many, many pause-worthy moments.

The supporting players are arguably not given enough to do except react to the progress or lack thereof of the Lightfoot brothers, and an interesting cast aren’t served well enough by the script. We’ve seen single parents and step-parents go on these journeys to understand their children before – giving them pointy ears, horns of hooves doesn’t make their stories automatically stand out. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer give appealing performances as Mrs Lightfoot and the entrepreneurial Manticore respectively, but you want them to show a little more growth to go with the jokes at their expense as middle-aged fantasy women.

This is also a world where the internal logic doesn’t quite add up if you pause to think about it for any length of time. It’s a convenient storytelling shortcut to have the film world the same as ours is now but with fantasy creatures, but it might have been more interesting to see what else might have changed in a world formally powered by magic, or to tell us exactly how a centaur driving a car works…mechanically.

It may take a while to find its feet, to realise what it is, but when the pieces move into place Onward becomes another classic Pixar tear-jerker. It’s not quite the classic fathers-and-sons tale and the slightly divergent path taken is pleasingly refreshing. So Onward is new, but not new enough to be really special. That said, even mid-level Pixar is pretty great animation chock full of honest emotion, visual invention and amusing adventure hijinks. SSP

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