The Post (2017)

It’s ironic but perhaps unsurprising, given history’s persistent tendency to repeat itself, that such an unapologetically old-fashioned period piece could be so piercingly relevant to the times we’re living in now. Steven Spielberg’s ode to journalists fighting to expose years of political wrong-doing in the face of a government willing to do anything to suppress it may be resolutely retro in both style – no CGI or special effects to distract here – and setting, but no amount of seventies suits or old-timey typewriters can obscure the immediate, overwhelming pertinence of its two principal themes: freedom of the press as the protection of freedom, and women stepping up and taking control after years of being told that they can’t.

That’s the preaching part of my review over for the night, though. Here’s the rest: The Post is an engagingly earnest, lovingly-made movie with something to say, and I loved it. The cast is magnificent – Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are the irresistible partnership at the centre of it, and they’re wonderful, but even the smallest roles have some of the best actors (Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, the list is endless) working today in them, and the performances, paired with clean, clear-headed direction turn what could have been a stodgy, preachy two-hour lecture into an incredibly entertaining, thoroughly enjoyable and ultimately uplifting fist-bump of a film. Sometimes, the old stories really are the good ones.

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The Circle (2017)

Emma Watson plays herself Mae, a young woman who gets an entry-level job at sinister social media behemoth Facebook “The Circle,” thanks to her friend, and high-ranking Circle executive, Karen Gillan. At first, Mae treats it like any other job and y’ know, goes home and does stuff outside of work, that sort of thing, till it becomes clear that working for the Circle is meant to be a more immersive experience than that. Instead of running away at top-speed shouting “This is a cult! These people are insane! Save me!’ however, Mae ignores a parade of red flags, chugs down all the Kool-aid in one go, and becomes the poster girl for the transparency revolution instead. Or something. Anyway, it all goes very badly wrong because duh, and the scenes where that happens are genuinely powerful, making the point about privacy and mob mentality that the entire movie (currently available on Netflix UK) is desperate to make in horribly plausible, disturbing fashion.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t fare quite as well. It’s reasonably entertaining and fine to pass the time on a quiet day, but Watson is miscast (and Mae is an idiot), Gillan’s story arc belongs in a different film, John Boyega just sort of hangs around, waiting for something to do, and the ending is abrupt and confusing. Circle leader Evil Tom Hanks (playing against type) though, is terrific – far and away the best thing about the whole shebang. It’s a real shame we don’t see more of him and fellow Circle chief Evil Patton Oswalt; since the “good” characters are much less interesting, more focus on the bad ones and their motives (which are so quickly glossed over in a few lines we’re pretty much left to guess at them) might have made for a better, darker drama and a clearer message than “Facebook bad! Except when it’s not!” There’s definitely a great film to be made about the dangers of the pervasive, insidious, soon-to-be-all-encompassing power and danger of social media but however much The Circle would like to be that film, it isn’t.

Their Finest (2017)

I went in not expecting much, and not in the best mood, but this wartime story about love, courage, sacrifice, heartbreak and film-making won me over very quickly, turning out to be an unassuming, unexpected delight. The writing is warm, thoughtful and witty and the cast is tremendous – Bill Nighy is an irrepressible joy; Helen McCrory, Sam Claflin, and Eddie Marsan are all great and I was so pleased to see Jeremy Irons, I almost clapped my hands. The heart of the film, though, is the wonderful, luminous Gemma Arterton, who not only holds her own against a raft of top-tier talent, but is never less than mesmerising. All of which means that “Their Finest” is a genuinely lovely, funny, deeply moving film with humour, sorrow and humanity in abundance. I loved it.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

imageWhen troubled teen Ricky Baker is taken in by Bella and taciturn husband Hec, things start to look up for him and them, till Bella dies suddenly and nightmarish Child Welfare lady Paula – motto: “No child left behind” – decides she’s taking him away from the first real home and family he’s ever had and back into the system instead. Of course, Ricky’s not having this, he and Hec end up on the run in the bush and…. anything else would be telling, but trust me, it’s tremendous.

More an eccentric comedy fairytale than a realistic social drama, New Zealand Writer/director Taika “What We Do In The Shadows” Waititi’s distinctive, delightful style is stamped all over this quirky, funny, heartfelt adaptation of Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress, and the performances he coaxes out of seasoned old hand Sam Neill and new young talent Julian Dennison are just terrific. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is irresistible; somehow managing to blend sharpness, sweetness, and satire in an utterly charming, original and joyful way, while never shying away from the undercurrent of sadness underneath, it’s never less than wonderful and I absolutely adored it.

Public Service Announcement 34 of 2016: In a Lonely Place (1950)

We don’t normally do this for movies, because TV is, of course, Unpopcult’s bae.  But I’m making an exception for Nicholas Ray’s post-war film noir classic In A Lonely Place (on More4 at 11.20 am on Tuesday 22 November) which stars Humphrey Bogart as violent, volatile screenwriter Dix Steele, and Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray, a neighbour who gives Steele a false alibi when he’s accused of murdering a hat-check girl. Laurel falls for Dix, but then starts to believe that he might have killed the girl after all.

Offscreen Ray and Grahame were husband and wife, but their marriage was falling apart, and they separated during filming; Ray, in fact, had Grahame sign a contract in which she undertook that Ray would be “entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command (her) actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday… I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail”, and that she would not “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him”. The full story of Ray and Grahame’s relationship – and how it influenced Ray’s rewriting of the film – is explored in episode 68 of Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast You Must Remember This.

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Dark, sweaty, passionate, and nasty, In a Lonely Place is an absolute masterpiece.

Arrival (2016)

Wow.

Denis Villeneuve’s beautiful, spellbinding Arrival, about a linguistics professor trying to find a way to communicate with aliens who are hovering above earth and scaring everybody senseless, is film-making at close to its best. It’s not only a gorgeous, deeply intelligent piece of sci-fi, but also a haunting, melancholy human drama about connection and choices, with a soundtrack that seeps into your bones and a mesmerising, astonishing central performance from the incomparable Amy Adams. I loved it.

Café Society (2016)

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Woody Allen’s love letter to the 1930s starts in Los Angeles with Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) leaving New York, looking for more excitement than the family jewellery business can provide, and arriving at the office of his uncle, big-shot Hollywood agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) looking for work. Bobby falls in love with Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who already has a boyfriend, and although Vonnie has feelings for Bobby, when forced to make a choice she picks the other man. A devastated Bobby returns to New York, where he successfully runs his gangster brother’s Ben’s nightclub, and marries a beautiful divorcée (Blake Lively). But when Vonnie visits, with her now husband, she and Bobby are thrown together again, and left to reflect on what might have been. The ending is beautifully-judged, and more melancholic than I was expecting, freighted with the sort of measured, reflective, equivocal regret that comes with age.

Café Society is admittedly slight, but it’s elegiac and entertaining late-period Allen. Significantly, it looks utterly glorious: Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango In Paris, Apocalypse Now) is, for the first time, Allen’s cinematographer, and he suffuses just about every scene with a ravishing golden light. And, as ever with Allen, the performances are good. Eisenberg is excellent, transitioning smoothly from faux-Woody (the younger Bobby in LA), into the more cocksure New York nightclub proprietor. Steve Carell is entertainingly bullish. Blake Lively might, had she been given more time, have stolen the show. But the real star is Kristen Stewart, who turns in a subtle and moving performance; it could be argued that she looks and sounds a little too modern for a film set in the 30s, but one suspects that the camera would have loved her in any era.