The First Monday In May

Director: Andrew Rossi (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Ever since Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was satirised by Glenn Close in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) she has been aggressively addressing her public image.

Following in the well heeled footsteps of Vogue documentary The September Issue (2009) and her cameo in Zoolander 2 (2016), comes this immaculately attired documentary about her charity fund raising.

It’s an inside look at the build up to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art annual Met Gala, is held on first Monday in May. The star-studded event is a multi-million dollar fundraiser for the museums fashion wing, the Costume Institute.

The glitzy evening is also the opening night of the Institute’s Spring exhibition. Titled China: Through the Looking Glass, it focuses on the influence of the orient on western fashion.

Our backstage British guide is the engaging chief curator Andrew Bolton. A charming Lancashire lad who wears his trousers ever slightly too short.

Bolton and Wintour demonstrate great knowledge, passion and enthusiasm as they trip arm in arm through delicate negotiations with the Chinese, financial issues, creative conflicts, building delays and a monumental seating plan.

Interviews with designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano provide support to their occasionally fluffy endeavours.

Fashionistas will simply adore the many fabulous outfits and the film successfully argues that haute couture deserves to join high art in the most prestigious galleries.

But despite her best efforts, Wintour’s carefully crafted public persona fails to disguise her disdain for the general public.




Free State Of Jones

Director: Gary Ross (2016) BBFC cert: 15

Matthew McConaughey is the Hollywood romcom star who so successfully reinvented his career he won an Oscar. In only his third leading role since his 2014 success in Dallas Buyers Club, he gives a brooding and impassioned performance in this high minded American civil war drama.

What begins as an exciting action movie develops into a sincere and somber look at how the wealthy white elite kept their grip on the lives of freed slaves when the fighting stopped.

Newton Knight is a confederate deserter who leads of an insurrection during the American civil war. McConaughey hides his leading man looks behind long hair and a ragged beard, mostly saving his charm for Rachel. The underused British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw does well to bring depth to her role as a slave who joins his band of outlaws as they hide out in the local swamp.

The two leads ensure it’s always watchable and there’s no shortage of battles, burnings, hangings and evil deeds by the Ku Klux Klan. But brief flash forwards to a court room drama involving Knight’s great great grandson muddy the narrative flow, and the story becomes mired in the Mississippi swamp.

Although the film is keen to flag up its the accuracy of its historical accuracy via contemporary photographs and on screen captions, Knight is presented as an unrealistic combination of Robin Hood, Che Guevara and Jesus Christ.

As a revolutionary socialist who preaches from from a bible, Knight inspires slaves, farmers and women to take arms against the powerful and the rich. They declare themselves the free State of Jones.

However as Knight moves from pacifist medical orderly to merciless killer and then political activist, he suffers from an alarming lack of self reflection and none of his horrific experiences seem to affect him. And if he isn’t moved by what he sees, there’s no reason why we should be.


Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

Director: Tim Burton (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Step inside the latest dark fantasy from the macabre mind of Tim Burton. Based on the best selling novel by Ransom Riggs, the director’s gothic sensibility has been fused with the superhero stylings of X-Men screenwriter Jane Goldman to create a clanking automaton of insufficient heart or electric thrills.

Whether this is an exhausted creative reaching for his reliable stock in trade ideas to get the job done or a potentially career fatal exercise in barrel scraping, Miss Peregrine’s Home makes for a great game of Tim Burton bingo.

There is a young lonely outsider of estranged parents, a kindly grandfather figure, suburbia is given its regular beating, pastel shades denote danger and sports are used as shorthand for idiocy, Visually there is elaborate topiary in the shape of dinosaurs, a scissor handed puppet is given life and a circus ring features in the finale. House!

The Birds (1963), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Time Bandits (1981) and Brigadoon (1954) are among the many other films drawn upon for inspiration.

The plot is not so far away from any X-Men movie, honestly, pick any one you want. An outsider discovers a hidden school for specially gifted children ran by a powerful mentor. Nazi experiments in genetics are hinted at the cause of the ‘peculiars’ special powers.

Despite antagonism from some pupils he eventually joins forces in defending the school against their enemies. Along the way hidden talents are discovered and lessons of reaching ones full potential are received. The End.

Talented  and likeable Brit Asa Butterfield plays Jake, a modern 16-year old American teenager who visits Wales and discovers a time loop where it’s still 1943. Wales is a modern and forward looking country so I’ll not be making any cheap gags here. Despite being replaced on screen by Cornwall, Wales is made to look magical.

Hidden inside the time loop is Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, where the never ageing pupils live the same day over again. Each child has their own peculiarity such as invisibility, great strength or pyrokinesis. Ella Purnell plays the angelic Emma who has to wear lead boots to stop her floating away.

Eva Green gives a wonderfully eccentric turn as the pipe smoking housemistress Miss Peregrine, a glamorous combination of Mary Poppins and Morticia Adams. As well as creating the time loop to protect her young charges from their fearful enemies, she can transform into a peregrine falcon and is a deadly shot with a crossbow.

Her home is only one of may such time protected hideaways and all are threatened by The Hollows, monsters lead by the evil Mr. Barron. With sharklike teeth and a white wig, Samuel L. Jackson matches Green’s performance and the film is energised by his belated appearance.

A bevy of English actors add their name to the film poster. Dame Judi Dench flies through her cameo, Rupert Everett sports binoculars and an alarming accent. Terence Stamp and Chris O’Dowd play Jake’s grandfather and father.

There’s plenty of handsomely designed spectacle adorned with a dash of romance and odd moments of black humour. Mike Higham provides the unmemorable score and the familiar strains of Burtons’ usual collaborator Danny Elfman, are missed.

But the big mystery is who this film is aimed at. Its eye eating villains are far too macabre for little ones and the sub-superhero adventure is too gentle for teens.

And true to its lengthy title, the storytelling is caged and never soars.









The Lovers And The Despot

Director: Ross Adam, Robert Cannan (2016) BBFC cert: PG

With international espionage, kidnap, brainwashing and torture there’s a cracking story at the heart of this well researched documentary, but aping the brooding tone of a Cold War thriller takes a great deal of fun out of it.

In 1976 the glamorous power couple of South Korean cinema disappeared from Hong Kong, leaving children, debts and failing careers behind them.

Shin Sang-ok was a stylish director and Choi Eun-hee his beautiful muse and leading lady. They emerged in North Korea at the side of dictator Kim Jong-Il, for whom they made a series of films.

After defecting to the US in 1986 they claimed to have been kidnapped, but suspicion remained they staged their abductions and had been merrily collaborating.

This collection of interviews, propaganda films, press conferences and secretly recorded conversations encourages the audience to draw its own conclusions.


Little Men

Director: Ira Sachs (2016) BBFC cert: PG

Greg Kinnear stars in this sincere and stagey snapshot of awkward adolescence. Brian is a struggling actor who inherits his father’s apartment and takes his family in a socially downward move from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

Brian is the smallest man in the film, buffeted by a domineering sister, emotionally blackmailed by his conniving tenant and frozen out by his distant wife. Talia Balsam, Paulina Garcia and Jennifer Ehle skilfully sketch the three very different women.

The focus of the story falls on the growing relationship between his son Jake and Tony, the son of the downstairs tenant. Theo Taplitz and especially Michael Barbieri are remarkably assured as the odd couple thirteen year olds, one artistic and shy, the other outgoing and sporty.

The hint of unrequited feeling from one of the boys is one of a number of plot strands the film fails to commit to. More than one character may be having an affair and past relations are hinted at. Half formed characters mingle with jokes about the plays of Chekhov.

It’s nicely observed and consistent of tone. But just like Brian, the film would rather bury itself in art than risk creating any emotional scenes.



The Girl with All the Gifts

Director: Colm McCarthy (2016) BBFC cert: 15

Unwrap this British action thriller which flowers into a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse.

Young Sennia Nanua gives an endearingly open performance as a teenager of prodigious mental ability. She and her classmates are prisoners in a military research station. Outside of lessons they’re kept in solitary confinement and under armed guard.

Gemma Arterton plays Helen, a gold hearted gun toting teacher who has a maternal bond with Melanie. Along with Glenn Close’s dedicated scientist, Paddy Considine’s gruff army sergeant and Fisayo Akinade’s dim squaddie, the five develop a dysfunctional family dynamic.

Outside the base the majority of the population are suffering from a fungal infection to the brain. This has turned them into fast moving mindless monsters, reminiscent of the manic ‘infected’ from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). They are nicknamed ‘the Hungries’ and can be killed by the traditional bullet to the head.

The Girl With All The Gifts is based on the book of the same name by Mike Carey, and it was no surprise to learn the author is a former writer for the cult British comic, 2000AD. Still going strong it is soon to publish its 2000th issue and was recently the subject of a highly entertaining documentary, Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014).

Like all British sci-fi of the last thirty years, this story’s roots are deep in the fertile soil of the self-styled ‘Galaxy’s Greatest comic’. The hallmarks of its best stories are all present here; extreme violence, sardonic humour, strong characters and a twist at the end.

Also the script mines Greek myths for inspiration and throws in baby-eating rats and mother-eating babies into the gory mix. Plus it draws on elements of John Wyndham’s evergreen novel Day Of The Triffids (pub. 1951) as well as William Golding’s The Lord Of The Flies (pub.1954).

The set designers have had great fun turning the West Midlands into an overgrown urban tundra. The make-up artists have a field day and the sound engineers go all out to scare us with an impressive variety of blood curdling noise.

Always keen to keep shovelling on the action, The Girl With All The Gifts offers sufficient rewards for those who dig zombie films.


The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Director: Antoine Fuqua (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Compared to the truly magnificent 1960 original, this unlooked for western remake is unsurprisingly inferior. But after a summer of poor blockbuster fare, it’s passable entertainment in its own way.

Unburdened by any more ambition than a broad desire to be please, the film trots through the familiar story of a small posse of cowboys facing overwhelming odds.

There’s a liberal lifting of scenes and dialogue from the John Sturges version and a cheeky play of Elmer Bernstein’s majestic original score over the end credits. The new main score by the late James Horner is monumentally forgettable.

Reasons for watching include handsome photography, great period design and the no shortage of old school action. There are real sets, stuntmen and horses instead of CGI fakery. The $100M budget is all on screen.

Traditional western themes of comradeship, courage and loyalty are wrapped up in a glossy tale of redemption. This is an optimistic vision of how the US could still be won, with a rainbow society trying to overcome corporate greed and restore the church to the centre of civic life. This last point will resonate with US conservative Christians, a larger and more influential congregation across the pond than here in the UK.

Headliners Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke are clearly enjoying themselves and their combined charisma is the film’s biggest strength. Vincent D’Onofrio adds more humour as a tracker, a fool who speaks truth to power.

The casting attempts to accurately reflect the ethnic mix of contemporary US, and presumably hopes to attract the audience which makes the multi-ethnic Fast Furious franchise such a global success. So the remaining gunslingers are respectively Chinese, Mexican and Native American. Sadly they’re so poorly scripted, their race is pretty much the extent of their characterisation. One is described as an assassin but they may as well have gone the whole hog and called him a ninja.

Washington stars as bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, hired by a young widow who needs protection from a corrupt industrialist. Haley Bennett offers true grit as Emma, the only female speaking role of note.

It’s a shame there aren’t a few more women in the movie, or even – gasp – in the seven. Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Natalie Portman’s Jane’s Got A Gun featured strong willed gun-toting women. We could have done with more similarly natured women here.

Although Emma plays a small but crucial role, she definitely is not part of the all-male gang. As it is, she barely qualifies as the female Smurf. Amid all the back slapping diversity, fifty percent of the population are woefully under-represented. Except for whores, who are everywhere.

Chisolm has a personal reason for taking the job and recruits collection of desperadoes and misfits to defend the gold mining town. They include Pratt’s gambler and Hawke’s PSTD suffering civil war veteran.

Through a suitably sweeping landscape we move briskly from one action scene to another. The action is staged with occasional invention but at times the geography is unclear. This is especially true in the finale where our heroes face almost insurmountable odds and a seemingly infinite supply of ammunition. Until the smoke cleared I wasn’t sure exactly who had survived.

Peter Sarsgaard sketches without light or shade his consumptive black hearted villain, Bartholomew Bogue. He mostly acts apart from the Seven and with the protagonist isolated there’s a sense the film isn’t terribly interested in him. Consequently nor are we very much.

For long periods it’s agreeable crowd pleasing stuff. We’re reasonably entertained but never roused or excited. This not a disaster such as the recent Ben-Hur remake is, but it is quite far from magnificent.



The Beatles: 8 Days A Week

Director: Ron Howard (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

This rock and roll documentary examines how the touring years of the Fab Four affected their musical output and consequently the cultural landscape of the world.

It’s a triumph of research and editing. Though hugely enjoyable even for a casual fan such as myself, there isn’t much new and the genius you can hear has been around for over fifty years.

Clearly a passion project for director Ron Howard, he mines exhaustively from a wealth of archive material. This allows the band to speak for themselves with their trademark goofy charm and sharp wit.

Journalists from the time contribute their memories and various famous people pop up to declare how much the band meant to their youth, such as an entertaining Sigourney Weaver.

We follow their meteoric rise from the cramped belly of Liverpool’s Cavern Club to become the first ever band to conduct a stadium tour of the US.

Despite unparalleled period of chart success, an exploitative recording contract encourages the ambitious band to hit the road to make some real money.

Due to the boys unprecedented popularity, US authorities were worried about fans’ safety and insisted the group play giant stadiums, leading to their selling out the 56,000 seater Shea Stadium in Chicago.

The bands innate decency and fearless naivety results in their successfully challenging the segregation of audiences in the US south. They also deal with bomb threats, riots and hordes of screaming teenage fans wherever they go.

Decisions are made democratically, albeit it’s a democracy where John Lennon is the first among equals. Though we’re spared the creative differences which were to tear the group apart, the on-stage placing of George Harrison between Lennon and Paul McCartney suggests a temporary buffer to the schism to come. The much maligned Ringo demonstrates his almost violent musical contribution to their success.

We see how crucifying schedule of recording and performing contributes to their collective decision to quit touring in August 1966 to focus on recording. A superb montage to A Day In The Life shows how they develop physically, emotionally and artistically.

After a three year hiatus their last ever gig was performed unannounced from the roof of their Savile Row Apple office. This places it firmly in context and it becomes an act of spiritual and creative catharsis.


Blair Witch

Director:Adam Wingard  (2016) BBFC cert: 15

This third film in the surprisingly resilient supernatural franchise closely apes the narrative and storytelling techniques but not the invention of the low cost original.

Feeling like a knocked off VHS copy, we’re once again watching the discovered memory card recordings of a group of young people who headed into the Maryland woods to investigate the local legend of the Blair Witch.

They’re lead by James whose sister went missing during the course of the first film, The Blair Witch Project (1999). There are screams in the night as one by one they go missing.

The cast do their best but it’s an irritating experience which offers little excitement and nothing new to the found footage genre.

Poor choices lead to their climbing of trees, running in circles, crawling through tunnels and exploring an old house. A potentially interesting time paradox is introduced, unexplored and abandoned.

The real terror is the thought of the franchise continuing in the same bloodless vein. I’m perfectly happy for this series to get lost in the woods.


Bridget Jones’ Baby

Director: Sharon Maguire (2016) BBFC cert: 15

Fans of the UK’s favourite singleton will cheer at this amiably entertaining and almost touching third entry in the romcom franchise.

Renee Zellweger returns as an older, wiser and sadder but still loveable Bridget. The Texan’s talent and charm give the uneven and scattershot script a depth it doesn’t deserve. Her assured underplaying is especially welcome in a restaurant scene of excruciating embarrassment.

Helen Fielding based her original Bridget Jones Diary newspaper column on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (pub. 1813). Books and films followed with great commercial success.

Having Fielding, Dan Mazar and Emma Thompson contributing conflicting styles of humour to the script causes unresolved tensions between scenes. Plus there is again a grating change of politics between those found in the source material and some of the broader gags.

It’s not one should expect Austen levels of wit from this generally light-hearted romp, but there is a huge departure from the author’s social concerns in order to land a few punchlines. Austen was highly critical of a society where the second class status of women made them financially reliant on men and forced them to seek a ‘good’ marriage. In Bridget’s world finding a rich man is one what does for sport, not necessity.

Fielding astutely includes her comic standbys of a Bridget film. There is a breathy voice over, an obsession with sex and alcohol, a grand resignation, swearing kids and eccentric OAPs. The famous diary has been replaced by a laptop. It’s all as cosy as one of Bridget’s famous Christmas jumpers, which also make an appearance.

Thompson won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for her adaption of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1995. Novel pub. 1811). Presumably she wrote her scene stealing role as Bridget’s maternity doctor, the only consistently Austen-like female character on show.

The brief moment when the tone threatens to take a dark almost Dickensian turn also suggests Thompson’s fingers in charge of the keyboard. This plays far better than Fielding’s indulgent, ill conceived and seemingly Richard Curtis inspired cameos, Italian stereotypes and pratfalls. Having said that, Thompson isn’t afraid to lift a joke popstar Robbie Williams used on Graham Norton’s chat show, during an edition on which she also appeared.

Thompson’s deftly drawn and waspish character is hugely at odds with the presumably Mazar scripted sequence featuring a distressed and suddenly helpless Bridget. Our heroine relies for rescue on a pair of men for transport, only to find their way blocked by a parade of breast baring radical feminists.

At this point all pretence of Bridget as a modern, independent woman is abandoned for cheap gags and a Cinderella subtext. This moment also sees the flowering of another subtext as Bridget’s vagina is reduced to a conduit for a closeted bromance.

In the film’s defence there is a strong if ham-fisted appeal for inclusivity. There is also a decent Margaret Thatcher joke, though not at the Iron Lady’s expense.

Having been nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for co-writing Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), it’s easy to speculate which elements Mazar contributed. More recently he wrote the Zac Efron/Robert DeNiro gross out comedy Dirty Grandpa (2016).

The film opens in a reassuringly familiar fashion and will immediately win old fans over. Although now a successful if accident prone TV news producer, Bridget celebrates her 43rd birthday alone, drinking chardonnay and listening to her signature tune ‘All By Myself’,  by Eric Carmen.

After a couple of one night stands, the occasional wanton sex goddess finds herself pregnant and unsure whom the father is. One possible parent is Jack Qwant, a billionaire mathematician and internet dating guru at a music festival. American TV star Patrick Dempsey is vanilla at best.

The other is her former lover, the now married but still uptight human rights lawyer, Mark Darcy. Bridget and he bump into each other at a memorial service for his erstwhile and wonderfully louche love rival, Daniel Cleaver.

The absence of Hugh Grant’s Cleaver is keenly felt. Colin Firth’s grumpy and lacklustre performance as Darcy suggests he is pining for Grant’s light comic touch to rub up against.

Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones offer game support as Bridget’s parents alongside franchise favourites Celia Imrie, Shirley Henderson, James Callis and Sally Phillips.

It all ends in champagne as our heroine becomes the sort of person she once purported to despise. A late and predictable plot twist suggests a fourth film is not out of the question.