Four films strongly recommended to punctuate festive revels. (Review by Patrick Compton)
If you’ve decided not to put your life in other people’s hands on our roads over the Christmas season, chances are that you’ll stay within range of Durban’s movie houses.
Here are four films currently being screened that I would strongly recommend to punctuate your revels.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (9/10)
Marvellous fantasy film and you don’t have to be a Harry Potter-head to enjoy it although it won’t harm your prospects. I went to see the movie this week and was deeply impressed by JK Rowling’s script, Potter veteran David Yates’s direction, a great cast led by Eddie Redmayne and some special effects to remember.
Redmayne, the standout performer, plays the central character, a shy, donnish magician named Newt Scamander – who you can trace back to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – who arrives in prohibition-era New York looking for some exotic species of animals. He’s got a few of his own as well, tentatively locked inside a shabby suitcase with worryingly insecure clasps.
Much play is made of Newt’s particular “fantastic beasts” who are a varied and wondrous lot, but the film has a darker strain that features a dark, poltergeist-like whirlwind – called an Obscurial – that ravages the Big Apple from time to time.
Newt, being English, still refers to mere human beings as “muggles”, but the New York magic set prefer the term “no-maj”. The tensions within the magic community about their relationship to the human world are palpable and Newt’s arrival sparks a crisis.
There are fine performances from Katherine Waterston as a kind of agent for the magic community, Samantha Morton as a creepy anti-witch activist, Dan Fogler as an amiable no-maj we can all identify with who gets caught up with Newt and Alison Sudol as a sexy mind-reader. Colin Farrell is also excellent as a sinister, darkly ambitious member of the magic community.
Director Yates has a veritable army of talented technical folk behind him looking after the stunning production design, special and visual effects and animation. I was suitably goggle-eyed. There are four more movies planned which is an exciting prospect. Meanwhile, take the family to see this first, splendiferous start to the series.
The movie is showing at Gateway (3D), Musgrave, Shelly Beach, Boardwalk Inkwazi, Watercrest Mall, Suncoast (3D), Pavilion (3D) and Galleria (3D).
HELL OR HIGH WATER (10/10)
This is the real deal: a muscular, modern-day Western with great performances, a brilliant script, ravishing images and a soundtrack to die for. So far, it’s my film of the year.
Set in sunbaked, depressed West Texas, it may be a surprise that the movie is directed by a Scotsman, David Mackenzie, who first made his name with the 2003 Ewan McGregor drama, Young Adam.
But Mackenzie does a great job of insinuating himself into the authentic Texas bubble created by scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan (who wrote the Tex-Mex drug thriller Sicario). A native Texan himself, Sheridan knows his terrain – physical, economic and cultural – down to the last wrinkle and sardonic drawl.
The film is structured in a similar way to the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men with which it shares certain similarities. On the one hand we get to know the Howard brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who are engaged in the sly enterprise of robbing minor branches of the Texas Midland Bank, the very same corporate entity that is threatening to foreclose on the mortgage for their family farm where oil has just been discovered.
Strolling, or so it seems, in the wake of the brothers is laconic Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges in outstanding form) and his Indian-American sidekick Alberto Parker (Gil Hamilton). Their leisurely pursuit is punctuated by reflections on Hamilton’s impending (and unwished-for) retirement and his joshing relationship with his partner that shines a sharp light on the history of the region which was once owned by the Indians, then the whites ... and now the banks (who are the movie’s real bad guys).
The two brothers are very different. Pine, best known for his work as Kirk in the Star Trek series, is unrecognisable as the softly-spoken brother who is masterminding the robberies largely for the sake of his two sons from a former marriage. His wild-spirited brother Tanner, just out of jail, is played with scene-chewing abandon by Ben Foster.
What is particularly impressive about this film, which also contains echoes of Bonny and Clyde, is that it manages to be a heist thriller, with all that entails, as well as a full-bodied character study of both the pursued and their pursuers, not to mention a cogent portrait of the particular world that contains them.
The movie is also very funny in its bleak way, with tonal colours ranging from dark to black.
Mackenzie’s director of photography, Giles Nuttgens, vividly captures the visual tone of depressed West Texas, ranging from one-horse towns to the semi-desert plains and the open roads that bisect them. The soundtrack is brilliantly complementary, composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, that includes songs from the likes of Townes van Zandt, Gillian Welch and Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Mackenzie has remarked that he “looks forward to the day when people get sick of superheroes”. There are no heroes of any ilk in this movie, just ordinary people pushed to the limits by corporate forces beyond their comprehension.
Hell or High Water is showing at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway, and at The Pavilion.
MAGGIE’S PLAN (9/10)
A few years ago, I became aware of Greta Gerwig. Not everyone will adore her lovable ditziness, but I was immediately captured by her charmingly idiosyncratic ways, as if she was Annie Hall’s daughter. Now the blonde actress has made two films in quick succession which successfully display her talents.
Both movies, fortunately, have been screened at Cinema Nouveau. The first, Mistress America, was directed by Ms Gerwig’s boyfriend, Noah Baumbach. Sadly, that movie has been and gone. The second opened last weekend and is a smart metropolitan (read New York) comedy of the screwball variety that is written and directed by Rebecca Miller.
Ms Miller, to put it mildly, has an interesting artistic DNA, being the daughter of that towering American playwright Arthur Miller and the wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis who is himself the son of Cecil, Britain’s former Poet Laureate. In fact, if Miller was ever invited to meet the Queen, she would be introduced as “The Lady Day-Lewis”. So there you go.
Of course, none of the above would remotely matter if she has made a stinker, but thankfully Maggie’s Plan is a witty, sophisticated rom-com of the sort that almost never gets made these days.
Gerwig is perfectly cast as Maggie, a woman whose relationships never seem to last longer than six months. She describes herself as “able”, perhaps her friends would say “controlling”, but she always seems to end up with too much on her plate. She’s keen to have a baby, but not with a man, so she’s on the lookout for a sperm donor. She settles on Guy (Travis Fimmel), blue-eyed and bearded, who makes the best pickles in Brooklyn.
So far so good, but Maggie’s carefully laid plan is – naturally – subverted by Eros in the shape of John, a “ficto-critical anthropologist” (do such creatures exist?) who is rather inconveniently married to a formidable Danish academic, Georgette, brilliantly played by Julianne Moore, complete with accent.
As John (Ethan Hawke) observes, in every relationship someone is the gardener and someone the rose. We learn that his marriage to Georgette foundered over the fact that both wanted to play the same role (the rose). Maggie, on the other hand, is happy to play the gardener, bringing up their daughter as well as cultivating and admiring her husband’s academic work and his (interminable) first novel.
Paradise is soon lost, however, as Maggie begins to realise, hilariously, that perhaps John would be better off with his ex after all.
No more spoilers, but suffice it to say that the movie’s comic force radiates from Maggie’s fragile efforts to manage and anticipate the unruly logic of her own desires ... and everybody else’s.
Aside from Gerwig, who carries the movie, Moore is wonderful as the outwardly chilly academic who nurtures an inner fire, while Maggie’s best friends are a delightfully abrasive couple played by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, both veterans from Saturday Night Live.
Maggie’s Plan is not a “laugh-out-loud” comedy, but it’s full of potent lines and rich chuckles and you’ll have a satisfied smile plastered on your face as you walk out.
Maggie’s Plan is showing at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway
A United Kingdom (8/10), which I reviewed on artSMart last week (http://news.artsmart.co.za/2016/12/a-united-kingdom.html) , is the final movie of the quartet. It’s showing at Cinema Nouveau. – Patrick Compton