Saturday 11 February 2017

Reviews: De Palma, The Handmaiden, Hacksaw Ridge, Jackie, and Denial

Coke is it: Al Pacino in Brian De Palma's Scarface

Time for a reviews catch-up - here are my thoughts on the last five movies I've seen (in order of preference). Please note, my reviews may contain the odd spoiler...

1. De Palma (2015)
Directors: Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach
Controversial director Brian De Palma takes us on a fascinating but breathless rummage through his life and career, explaining how he went from being a New Jersey "science nerd" as a kid, to shooting Pacino in Scarface and Cruise in Mission: Impossible. Bambauch and Paltrow keep it simple, training their camera on the director himself and leaving it there. Their questions and interjections are edited out, and there are no other talking heads to provide further context or even an opposing view. It's just straight-no-chaser De Palma - maverick, provocateur, supreme technician - and a ton of clips from pretty much everything he's made over the last 50+ years. Luckily, the 76-year-old is hugely articulate and utterly candid about his successes (The Untouchables) and failures (The Bonfire Of The Vanities). He's also full of great stories about his stars, collaborators, working process and lifelong passion for Hitchcock. It would have been good to see him challenged about the lurid, exploitative content of some of his films (Dressed To Kill, Body Double), but this is more a celebration of an extraordinary career than an attempt to put him on trial for the perceived shortcomings of his sexual politics. I'm not sure old-school fans of the director will learn anything new but, as an introduction to his work, it's hard to see how it could be topped. Rating: WWW½

Director's cut: De Palma under the microscope

2. The Handmaiden (2016)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Sumptuous adaptation of Sarah Waters' 2002 novel, The Fingersmith, which relocates the action from Victorian England to 1930s, Japanese-occupied Korea. A young pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), is sent to serve as a maid for Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress betrothed to her repulsive uncle (played with villainous gusto by Cho Jin-woong). Sook-hee's employment is part of a criminal scheme set in motion by a conman, calling himself Count Fujiwara
(Ha Jung-woo). He plans to seduce Hideko, before having her committed to a mental asylum and pocketing her inheritance. Just one fly in the ointment: the two women fall in love. Like Fujiwara's plot, The Handmaiden is all about deception - during the film's three separate chapters, it time and again picks the pocket of your expectations. Park deliberately withholds information and skews perspectives, making for a discombobulating ride that keeps you on your toes every step of the way. There's a reason Waters' book has been adapted so often (a TV adaptation, stage play and this film since publication) and that's simply because her story is such a giddily entertaining - and sensuously erotic - romp, with much to say about patriarchy and female sexuality. Its romantic central message - that love always finds a way - may be corny and as old as the hills but its rarely been articulated as fulsomely or perfectly as it is here. Rating: WWW½

The con is on: Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden 

3. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Director: Mel Gibson
Cinemagoers are surely so used to every 'true story' adapted for film being described as 'extraordinary' or 'astonishing', that we've become desensitised to it. But forget all those tales of soulless entrepreneurs and above-average sports people, this is the real deal. Andrew Garfield is Desmond Doss, a World War II medic and staunch pacifist, who went into the hell of battle completely unarmed. Up against guns, bayonets, knives, grenades and lord knows what else, he didn't have so much as a pointed stick with which to defend himself or his comrades. It's very much a film of two halves; the first sees Doss struggling to rein in his violent, alcoholic dad (Hugo Weaving), wooing a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) and fighting the US military brass for the right to serve; the second pitches him right into Okinawa's heart of darkness, a hell of mud, blood, explosions and mangled limbs. Of course, it is in this latter scenario that he truly comes into his own. Gibson does too because few can do jaw-dropping, stomach-churning violence quite like he can, while Garfield - a reserved study in stoicism, decency and profound bravery - turns in his finest screen performance to date. Yes, it's all a bit 'Oscar-baity' and the film's depiction of the Japanese (frothing lunatics to a man) is problematic to say the least, but this is often a more complex film than it is given credit for, with Gibson keen to highlight the problems with Doss's moral stance as much as his extraordinary acts of courage. Rating: WWW

War and peace: The amazing story of Desmond Doss

4. Denial (2016)
Director: Mick Jackson
Powerful dramatisation of the late-'90s libel action - and subsequent trial - brought by Hitler historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) against Professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), the author who accused him of falsifying evidence to support his claims the Holocaust never happened. David Hare's screenplay is, out of necessity, a little on the nose at times (legal jargon and processes are integral to the plot) and there was one clumsy moment that actually made me cringe. But, for the most part, this is a very smart piece of work that finds intriguing conflicts between Lipstadt - a fiery, tough-talking American, who just wants the chance to take the stand and get stuck into Irving - and her cool-headed UK legal team (led by Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott), who plot a rather different and more sober course. There's a sequence filmed at Auschwitz that will chill your blood and, while Spall doesn't look much like Irving, he captures his hubris and arrogance to a T. At a time when the providence of truth is under assault in the Western world, this is a timely and perhaps even crucial film. Rating: WWW

Truth be told: Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt

5. Jackie (2016)
Director: Pablo Larrain
Natalie Portman is First Lady Jackie Beauvoir Kennedy in the days immediately following the assassination of her husband and US president, JFK. Chilean filmmaker Larrain (The Club) brings a real arthouse sensibility to a movie that in other hands (Steven Spielberg or  Ron Howard, perhaps) would have been a big dramatic potboiler. But the results are somewhat mixed. Technically, it's perfect and beautifully structured, with all manner of flashbacks inserted seamlessly and imaginatively into a framing device, which sees Jackie being interviewed by a reporter just a week after her husband's murder. It's gorgeously shot, too, and a couple of times I wanted to reach out, grab what was on screen, and put it in a frame. Somehow, though, for all its technical elan, Jackie lacks a soul. Portman gives us a note-perfect impersonation of the iconic First Lady but you never quite shake the knowledge she's putting on a rather mannered, over-rehearsed show. In fact, with its elegiac tone and Mica Levi's discordant score, this is a cold, somewhat distancing film, that should pack far more of an emotional punch than it does. Rating: WW½

Line of fire: Jackie Kennedy struggles with grief

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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