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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: London Road; James White; Demolition; Macbeth; Caf Society; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; Hello, My Name Is Doris (Movies)

London Road (Movie) written by Alecky Blythe; directed by Rufus Norris; starring Olivia Colman, Clare Burt, Rosalie Craig, Anita Dobson, James Doherty, Kate Fleetwood, Tom Hardy, Hal Fowler, Nick Holder and many others.

Some people seem to think that almost every play or novel is more enjoyable if turned into a musical. I’m not one of those people. Often, that’s because of the kind of music provided. Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, for sure! Stephen Sondheim, not so much.

So I approached this movie with caution. It’s an adaptation of a stage musical about a real-life series of murders in the town of Ipswich, England, in 2006. In an area of the town known as London Road, five prostitutes were found naked and murdered within the space of a month or so. The show is mostly about how people living in that area reacted. I know what you’re thinking: that’s taking this musical thing a bit too far! A musical on Sweeny Todd was one thing, but to riff musically on actual murders that have occured within our own times seems callous in the extreme.

However, the fact that London Road received some rave reviews from critics I trust emboldened me to give it a try.

The point is made early on that all the dialogue in the movie is taken from transcripts of interviews, from records of what residents of London Road actually said. Same for the words in the songs. The problem with that, you might suspect, would be that the things people say in everyday speech don’t necessarily make for good lyrics; the poetic touch might be lacking. Early on in the movie, though, it becomes evident that, if you take something fairly banal and you get a number of people chanting it in chorus, it can have a powerful effect. This is demonstrated in one of the first numbers. Everybody’s going around singing words to the effect "We’re all very worried. We’re all very nervous about what’s going on." (That’s the gist. I’m not able to give exact quotes from the movie.) Spoken by one or two people, that wouldn’t have much impact. The cumulative effect of the words chanted repeatedly by many people in a chorus, however, creates an eery feeling.

Another instance of the power of simple words sung repeatedly comes in a scene where two teenage girls are walking through a caf crowded with different types of men. While eyeing the men, the girls are singing words along the lines of "It could be him, it could be any one of them." Again, a spooky effect. It becomes all the more striking with the addition of choreography when the girls are dancing around some male store mannequins, while singing the same words.

Among other memorable moments, there’s a scuzzy taxi driver talking about his research on serial murders, while we’re hearing an angelic rendition of "Silent Night" in the background, this being the Christmas season. Another notable scene has media reporters scrambling on the courthouse steps in a singing/dancing frenzy while waiting to hear the verdict in the murder trial. At another point, one reporter struggles to figure out how to avoid using the verboten word "semen" in his report on some evidence. It takes the reporter multiple tries – in song – to get an acceptable take for the camera. And an important change of mood comes in a sombre number where some remaining prostitutes talk about their inability to keep working in such dire circumstances.

Throughout the movie, the cinematography is inventive and striking. Sometimes, images are superimposed like modern abstract art. At other times, a telling point is made by a single shot – such as the one showing dozens of crockery teacups being rapidly filled for a community meeting.

The music throughout the piece is modern and a bit strident, with very close harmonies and complicated rhythms. One can’t help thinking that, given the elaborate movement accompanying much of the singing, it must have been unusually difficult for the performers to learn their songs. Perhaps some of the difficulty was managed by extensive use of the post-synch technique. The credits of the movie seem to indicate that such technology was used extensively.

All of the performers in the movie, with one exception, are professional actors but not well known, at least not in North America. They look and speak absolutely like ordinary townspeople. When some of the men in the caf are voicing their contempt for the immigrant who, they think, probably committed the murders, you can’t help thinking that these are the very people who voted for Brexit.

The one exception to the relative anonymity of the performers is the well known actor, Tom Hardy. He stalks through town looking darkly at what’s going on, not saying much, as if he were harbouring some kind of secret. You’re thinking that he knows something he’s not telling. In the end, though, there’s nothing exceptional about him except that he’s a bachelor who lives alone. Maybe that, in itself, was supposed to make him a prime suspect and maybe that’s why he looks so wary throughout the movie. Otherwise, I don’t know why he’d have been singled out by the camera the way he is.

While there’s considerable tension and suspense leading up to the discovery of the killer’s identity, this is far from being a typical murder mystery – and that’s not just because of the music. The big difference is that the suspect is caught relatively early and we learn almost nothing about the investigative process. The murderer doesn’t even appear on screen. The point of the movie, then, is about how the townspeople respond to the calamity that hit their neighbourhood. Ultimately, they decide to embark on a local beautification project. (No spoiler in my mentioning this because the previews make it obvious.) The movie ends with a joyful street party in which nearly everybody comes together to celebrate their street’s new-found joie de vivre.

Such large scale demonstrations of civic goodwill and happiness can be rather hard to stomach. Thankfully, then, we do get the sour note from at least one person who doesn’t feel that there’s anything to celebrate. And another sobering touch is added by one of the surviving prostitutes whose wistful regret shows clearly on her face as she watches the respectable townspeople whooping it up.

Still, what are we left with but some conviviality and a lot of pretty hanging baskets? I’m not sure that makes a great theme for a movie. Some people have banded together to cheer themselves up, to rescue their street from its unsavoury reputation: is that great drama? I don’t think so. Which is to say that this may not be the most profound movie you’ll see this year, but it’s certainly one of the most creative and dazzling. So dazzling in fact, that it makes you forget, briefly, that the material is a bit thin.

 

James White (DVD) written and directed by Josh Mond; starring Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Ron Livingston, Makenzie Leigh

If the inauspicious title makes you suspect that this would be a small, quiet, independent movie about some ordinary people, you’d be right. James White (Christopher Abbott) is a young New Yorker whose mom (Cynthia Nixon) is dying of cancer. For various reasons, there’s nobody else to take care of her, so he has to step in. A health care worker comes in by times, but otherwise it’s up to James.

My impression of the buzz about this movie was that critics were extolling it for its intensity, its sensitivity, its intimate study of the mother/son relationship. The movie does have all that. But it’s a strange concoction. Very little is explained. In movies and plays, most of us tend to look for dialogue that provides, not only exposition, but, more importantly, meaning. You don’t get much of either in this one. (George Bernard Shaw this sure ain’t.) James is supposed to be a writer – although he’s having major trouble getting his act together – but he’s inchoate sometimes, not to mention the fact that when he does let fly with a volley of words, the actor’s mumbling is often hard to understand. (Granted, the speech might be easier to decipher if you’re getting the movie in a theatre with surround-sound rather than on a DVD player.)

As a result, there’s a great deal of the movie that I found confusing. Near the top of the movie, James and his mother are sitting shiva after the death of his father but there’s some bewildering reference, never elucidated, to the dad’s having abandoned James and his mother to start another family. James has a male friend (Scott Mescudi) but it never comes clear to me what the relationship is between the two men. At one point, the mother says to them: "It’s nice to see you two together again." What’s that about? We never find out. James gets involved in a bar fight but it’s not clear why. A young woman (Makenzie Leigh) enters the picture as James’ girlfriend but, at times, you have to wonder if the two guys are sharing her. Is that why we sometimes see the three of them waking up in the one bedroom? In one morning scene, as our three friends are leaving a bedroom, we see a naked body prone on a bed. Who’s that? The one sex act that we see between James and the girl has a slightly weird aspect. Is that supposed to say something about their relationship? Why not just show them making love in one of the more conventional ways?

The fragmentary, jerky (hand-held camera) docu-style gives you the feeling that much of the movie may have been improvised. And that some clarifying scenes may have been cut. In a scene at a beach, for instance, James appears to be meeting a young woman for the first time. But he refers to an earlier scene where they met. Huh?

At one point only does the movie break into the sort of eloquent speechifying that helps us to make sense of things. It’s when James’ struggle with his mother’s condition is at one of its lowest points. He asks what her favourite city is. She says Paris. He thereupon spins a fantasy about the two of them living in Paris: he married with two kids, and she loving the life of the doting grandmother. Given the wretched situation they both actually find themselves in, the speech is heart-stoppingly poignant.

Maybe the point of the movie, then, is that the moments when we can articulate meaning are rare. The rest of the time, stuff just happens and we bungle through without much understanding. James pleads repeatedly: "What am I supposed to do?" Maybe that’s meant to echo everybody’s existential uncertainty. That’s life, n’est-ce pas? Our attemps to impose coherent narrative on it are mostly artificial. That, I suppose, is a valid theme for a movie, even if it makes the viewing somewhat dissatisfying.

 

Demolition (DVD) written by Bryan Sipe; directed by Jean-Marc Valle; starring Jake Gyllenhall, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis

This movie made such a splash that you’ve probably heard the premise: a young woman is suddenly killed in a car accident and her husband, Davis (Jake Gyllenhall), unable to express his grief verbally, goes around destroying things. He starts in a small way, dismantling appliances, and he ends up wrecking houses.

To use an old-fashioned term for a modern artifact, it’s a stylish movie. First, in terms of the decor. Most of the interiors are unbelievably sleek, looking as though they couldn’t be inhabited by messy human beings. And there’s tremendous flair to the editing. Often, we get brief, interrupted flashes, sans dialogue, representing memories or hallucinations, or painting a vivid picture of what’s happening right now. So much for the movie’s look. In terms of theme, the point is made that everything is a metaphor. Fair enough, but I was never convinced that busting things was a believable expression of grief.

I did, however, like the somewhat kooky use of voice-over narration. It starts as Davis voices his letter to a company that leases automated food dispensers. On the night that his wife died, Davis lost his money in the company’s malfunctioning machine in the hospital corridor. In the process of writing his complaint to the vending company, he begins to talk about his life and his marriage. Several letters follow that first one. He begins to get a response from a company employee (Naomi Watts) who’s touched by his writing. It sounds like an unbelievably corny device, but it works; it has an off-the-wall charm.

I wasn’t so charmed, at first, by Davis’s encounter with the fifteen-year-old son (Judah Lewis) of a woman who enters his life. Are we going to be treated yet again to this overly familiar trope about the unprepared adult having to bond with the obnoxious kid? We know how that always works out. Along the way, though, the adult and the kid in this case do get into some interesting stuff. And Davis’ relationship with the kid’s mother keeps you guessing as to what’s happening.

Through it all, Jake Gyllengall maintains a sadsack expression which, if not particularly impressive in terms of acting talent, does serve the purpose of the story. One of the few moments when his character showed something special was when he was welcoming a woman – a potential romantic interest – who was making an unexpected call at his front door. All he could say was "D’ya wanna grilled cheese?" Realizing how silly that sounded, he couldn’t help giggling on the last word. Jake Gyllenhall won me over on that.

As with so many movies these days, this one has mystifying elements that never come clear. Davis worries about a station wagon that seems to be following him around town. We never get any enlightenment on that mystery. (Unless I missed the tip-off.) He undergoes some sort of CAT scan or MRI which leads his doctor to proclaim that a piece of Davis’s heart is missing. Really? I get it that this can be read in a metaphorical way, but doctors don't talk in metaphors. What is the physical fact that this doctor is seeing and that has given rise to the metaphor? The final scene with Davis and some kids watching some sort of explosion on a pier, then turning and running exuberantly towards the camera, was completely incomprehensible to me.

On the other hand, some aspects of the movie were too obviously inserted as plot devices. Complications about the disposition of the deceased wife’s insurance money, for instance, plus a dark secret at the heart of her marriage to Davis. To me, those developments made the movie a bit too conventional, detracting from its originality and uniqueness. But such touches are probably welcomed by viewers who want a movie to provide a well-rounded tale with a resounding conclusion.

 

Macbeth(DVD) based on the play by William Shakespeare; screenplay by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie; directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Lynn Kennedy, Seylan Baxter, Amber Rissman, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki, Roy Sampson

This recent film of Shakespeare’s play, being utterly filmic, is almost the antithesis of a theatrical production. Instead of actors standing on stage and delivering text with beautiful articulation to the far reaches of an auditorium, you get a lot of close-ups, with muttering and murmuring. This makes it hard to follow the plot if you don’t know the play well – as I don’t. The result was that I found it very hard to tell what was going on at times. It doesn’t help that it’s hard to distinguish between the male characters, most of them looking roughly the same: scruffy, dark, with ragged beards. And Marion Cotillard’s breathy stage whisper makes it almost impossible to know what she’s saying unless you have Lady Macbeth’s speeches firmly implanted in your mind.

There’s no question, though, that the movie does full justice to the dark, bloody violence at the heart of the play. That’s most evident in some of the outdoor scenes where something like a scorched earth policy seems to apply – huge conflagrations keep happening in the background. I found a strange contrast, however, between these outdoor scenes and the interior ones. In the first part of the work, mostly outdoors and in tents, the characters have almost a pre-historical look: faces painted with black markings. But then they move into what seems a medieval gothic-style castle, a change which seems a bit incongruous.

Not being especially knowledgeable about Shakespeare’s script, I can’t say exactly how much it has been adapted for this movie. But there are certainly some changes. The porter scene – the only touch of comedy in Shakespeare’s play – has been eliminated. The witches appear, not as freaks, but as soulful types who wander the heath. Macbeth delivers his "Tomorrow and tomorrow" speech to the corpse of his spouse as he carries it around. Lady Macbeth’s mad scene, commonly referred to as the sleep walking scene, is delivered from the floor in a seated position, staring into the camera in a dazed way as tears gradually fill her eyes. That seems an effective way to portray the lady’s deranged state of mind, but it comes as something of a shock when the camera pulls back to reveal that she’s talking to a child seated on the floor in front of her. When you think about it, though, you have to admit that that could add an extra level of meaning to the scene.

Michael Fassbender’s gloomy visage conveys every ounce of the haunted, tormented psyche that you expect of a Macbeth, and the weirdly atonal music – modern yet archaic – keeps reinforcing the dire mood of the proceedings.

 

Caf Society (DVD) written and directed by Woody Allen; starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Corey Stoll

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, heads out to Hollywood in the 1930s, hoping to find his fortune. His first step on that path is to get himself hired as a flunkey in the office of his uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), an important Hollywood agent. Soon, Bobby falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a young woman who also works in the office. It seemes like she reciprocates his affection, but before long, trouble comes to light: she’s actually committed to another man.

That leads to a couple of interesting plot twists but, apart from that, the movie strikes me as limp, lame and lack-lustre. If I claimed to know exactly why it doesn’t work, that would imply that I know more about making movies than Woody Allen does. But I don’t.

However, I can note some of the issues that strike me as problematic.

It seems that Mr. Allen wants us to be moved by the plight of love that is never quenched even if it’s never fulfilled, no matter how many years go by. In that sense, there seems to be a whiff of Gatsby hanging over the movie. Unfortunately, though, I could never believe much in the supposed love between Bobby and Vonnie. Jesse Eisenberg looks ill at ease throughout. He seems like the type of actor who would be perfect for the ingenuous Bobby, but he never seems comfortable in the role. And what’s with the stoop? Is that a sign of his anxiousness about working with Woody Allen or is it just that Mr. Eisenberg is ageing that quickly? Kristen Stewart, supposedly a great beauty, isn’t. Another problem is that she has a quality of guarded skepticism and diffidence that make her seem much more like a knowing, shrewd young woman of today than anybody from the 1930s.

The voice-over narration is cloying. A bit of that sort of thing is okay to get a story rolling, but in this case, the narrator keeps butting in for the whole length of the movie to bring us up to date on every major plot development. Was Mr. Allen too lazy to convey the necessary information in more dramatically effective ways?

We know Mr. Allen is an expert on Jewish characters. In this case, for instance, the cranky wife (Jeannie Berlin) and the long-suffering husband (Ken Stott) The wife, complaining about how one of her sons has turned out, says: "First a murderer. Now a Christian. What did I do to deserve this?" A great line, but it feels like it belongs more appropriately in one of Mr. Allen’s earlier works, such as Take the Money and Run or Don’t Drink the Water. The line’s presence in this movie only points up the dearth of good lines in a banal script.

And speaking of Mr. Allen’s earlier work, the theme of the guileless youngster wanting to make his way in showbiz was handled beautifully in his Bullets Over Broadway. Why, then, did Mr. Allen want to return to that motif? Is Caf Society just a fond look back at subject matter that he loves, without much attempt to construct a good drama? Certainly the era is created lovingly, both in the visual sense (lavish costumes and interiors) and in the aural one (tinkly jazz music all the time). The fact that everything’s bathed in a golden glow seems almost to be a blatant admission that this is all about nostalgia, not reality.

Apart from those superficial aspects of the scene, it looks as though Mr. Allen couldn’t be bothered to create people and situations believable enough to make us care about them. Some of the material in the movie comes off as inane. Take Bobby’s brother (Corey Stoll), a mobster who keeps executing people who aren’t guilty of anything much worse than looking at him the wrong way. Is that supposed to be funny or what?

 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (DVD) written by Jesse Andrews; directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon; starring Thomas Mann, R.J. Cyler, Olivia Cook, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, Katherine Hughes

This one reminded me, right off the top, of Napoleon Dynamite. As in that movie, here you have a somewhat geeky teen, Greg (Thomas Mann), with a severe case of low self-esteem, who’s trying to find his way through high school in his own idiosyncratic style. However weird Greg may seem to his contemporaries, Mr. Mann makes the guy instantly likeable to us viewers with his candour, wit, intelligence and his courage in saying exactly what he’s thinking.

What propels the plot is his mother’s insistence that Greg spend some time with Rachel (Olivia Cook), a classmate who’s been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg resists this enforced demonstration of charity as long as possible but his mother (Connie Britton) is a force that ultimately cannot be overcome. The resulting first meetings between him and Rachel are standout examples of acting and writing that deliver some of the most startling truths that I’ve ever seen on screen about chippy teens with a lot of attitude. The chill in the air makes you reach for your sweater, but you can’t help being fascinated by the candour and the underlying humour in the writing.

The characteristic that gives the movie its most distinctive flavour, though, is the ironic commentary by Greg, both in voice-over narration and in titles on the screen. The titles come with wording like "Day #94 in the doomed relationship" or "Scene in which I make an ass of myself." The voice-overs offer comments like: "If this movie was the typical romance, this is the scene where we would look into each other’s eyes and...." [not exact quotes] Normally, I don’t like the voice-over technique; if over-used, it can seem like an unskilfull way of telling a story. In this case, though, the voice-overs are brief and succinct. What’s more important is that they contribute an essential quality of irony to the story. They let us know about the inner man that the rest of the world can’t see. And, best of all, Greg’s droll, laconic commentary ultimately undercuts the movie’s strong dose of sentimentality

The one friend that Greg does have is Earl (R.J. Cyler) , a childhood pal, and the two of them jointly make outrageous movies that are parodies of famous films. Although their effort to make a movie for the sick girl – about her life – provides the forward thrust for the last half of this movie, I didn’t feel that Earl’s role contributed in as substantial a way as the title would lead us to expect. I also found it odd, given the unquestionable authenticity in the relationship between Greg and Rachel, that the high school scenes are corny, almost cartoonish, bordering on parody, with ridiculous caricatures such as those of a drug dealer and a Goth student.

On the other hand, the movie has a gift for showing parents who can be an embarrassment to their kids but fascinating to us adults: Rachel’s mom (Molly Shannon) who’s too demonstrative with her affection for teen boys; Greg’s mom who’s so pushy; and his dad (Nick Offerman), a sociologist who wanders around the house in strange robes while pontificating about foreign films. The cluttered interiors of their homes make you feel that this is where real people live, while the odd music adds the slightly skewed reminder of Greg’s character.

Note: This is one case where the "deleted scenes" in the DVD package provide genuine insight into film-making. One of the scrapped segments shows Greg flipping out emotionally when addressing a high school assembly on the subject of Rachel. Much better not to show him letting it all hang out. Far more effective to let us intuit the pain under his cool exterior.

 

Hello, My Name Is Doris (DVD) written by Laura Terruso and Michael Showalter; directed by Michael Showalter; starring Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daly, Stephen Root, Elizabeth Reaser, Isabella Acres

In the back of my mind, there’s a faint memory of somebody’s saying something good about this movie. I’m having trouble now trying to remember what that could have been.

Sally Field plays Doris, a middle-aged kook who works in an office where she’s surrounded by young hipsters. One of the coolest of them is John (Max Greenfield), the new art director, who just happens to look like he stepped out of a Dolce & Gabanna magazine spread. On top of that, he oozes charm, wouldn’t you know, with the result that Doris can’t helping thinking that he’s especially interested in her. It begins to look like an actual affair is developing.

This story might have worked if the director and scriptwriter had opted to present real people on screen. You could imagine a shy, introverted lady who developed a thing for a younger man who seemed more sensitive and kinder than everybody else. But maybe we viewers would be too thick to appreciate such a subtle story? Or, worse still, might it be too painful to bear? To avoid any such calamities, these filmmakers have opted to make everything broadly ludicrous.

So we get something like a cross between a Harlequin fantasy and a slapstick comedy. Instead of a real person, Doris becomes a clown. She insists on adding a frumpy hairpiece to the top of her head that makes it look like a squirrel’s nest tied up with colourful ribbons. When she needs to read something, she puts her reading glasses on over her regular glasses. As for John, it would have helped if he wasn’t such a smiley dreamboat. He’s so beguiling that I kept thinking that the twist was going to be that he would turn out to be gay. By way of a subplot, Doris is a hoarder, her house being stuffed with junk that she and her mother (recently deceased) couldn’t part with. This syndrome plays up Doris’ goofiness but it doesn’t add anything to the main story; it only provides another complication to be resolved magically at the end of the movie.

I did feel, though, that the ending, in terms of the relationship between Doris and John, was succinct, realistic and wise. And Sally Field did have a couple of good speeches where she had a chance to show a bit of the real person who might be lurking inside Doris. For me, though, the only consistently genuine person in the movie was a thirteen-year-old girl (Isabella Acres, I think), the granddaughter of a pal of Doris’. The girl acts as Doris’ savvy guide to the dating scene and the way the two of them bond is both amusing and believable.

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