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Popular Reviews

Dickie (far right) and family

The Many Saints of Newark

The pre-publicity for The Many Saints of Newark made much – all, actually – of the fact that this was the origin story of Tony Soprano, fictional mob boss and kingpin of the TV show The Sopranos. Take a quick look at the IMDb page and there, at the very top, the blurb says – “Witness the making of Tony Soprano.” The casting of Michael Gandolfini, son of James (who played Tony Soprano in the TV series), reinforced the idea – here’s how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano. But. But. But. Whatever The Many Saints of Newark is, what it certainly isn’t is a film about Tony Soprano. He’s at best peripheral to … Read more
Gia crying

Earth Mama

A remarkable feature debut by Savanah Leaf, Earth Mama is the grim social drama that’s had a magic wand waved over it. Not the story, though. That remains grim. Young single mum Gia has lost her children to social services. She is a recovering drug user and is heavily pregnant. She loves her kids and realises she has made a mess of things. So she is trying to do whatever it takes to get her life back on track. But the system seems gamed against young black single women like her. How can she take on more work and earn enough money to satisfy the authorities’ stipulation that she be financially OK if … Read more
Guy in a war zone

Free Guy

An update on the Truman Show idea, Free Guy follows a Non Player Character in a game – the ones who get shot at or driven into in shoot-em-ups and driver games – who starts to get an inkling of what he is. Ryan Reynolds plays the guy called Guy – he’s got a buddy called Buddy (played by Lil Rel Howery, en route to stardom) – in this immensely smart and fairly funny CG-heavy actioner full of great talent in front of and behind the camera. Not as funny as Deadpool, though it’s not aiming for quickfire quippery, there’s a thoughtful and meditative aspect to Free Guy and its ruminations on artificial intelligence … Read more
Dominic Cooper (centre) in The History Boys

The History Boys

Mr Chips meets Dead Poets Society in Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play, and depending on how you approach it, it’s either a fairly satisfying or a slightly disappointing event. Personally, I was disappointed, but then maybe I’d expected more from a film which as a play had garnered such critical plaudits. Or maybe it was the play-iness of the whole thing that stuck slightly in the craw. The story concerns a bubbly class of boisterous Sheffield boys in the 1980s being crammed for Oxford and Cambridge by a gaggle of teachers – Hector the advocate of the thirst for knowledge (Richard Griffiths), Mr Irwin the teacher to the test (Stephen Campbell … Read more
Leon lets the pages of his novel scatter in the wind

Afire

The films of Christian Petzold often feature a man thunderstruck by a woman, and so it is with Afire (Roter Himmel), the second of Petzold’s “elements” movies and the second to star Paula Beer as the focus of enchantment. In Undine Beer played a water sprite in human form, though Petzold never explicitly said so. Here she might be a fire sprite in human form. Petzold never tells us that either. But she’s dressed in red throughout, which possibly is a clue, and for the duration of the film, which plays out on the Baltic Coast, there is a fire is raging through the nearby forests and it threatens to engulf the holiday … Read more
Aarne and Iris dancing

The Match Factory Girl

The Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki was already a critical success when he had his first hit (in cult terms), 1989’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, a road movie about a fictional Russian rock band on tour. The Match Factory Girl came a year later. It was neither as commercially or critically successful, in spite of Roger Ebert’s raves. It looks like something of an intellectual and artistic exercise – storytelling pared back to the absolute minimum – dialogue, lighting, acting style, ambient sound and music compressed and compressed again until there’s no fat left to lose. Its short running time (one hour nine minutes) made it difficult to categorise and a hard sell for … Read more
Ben Mendelsohn as the marsh king

The Marsh King’s Daughter

Languid is a strange way to go for a psychological thriller, an even stranger way to go for an action thriller. But that’s how director Neil Burger plays it in The Marsh King’s Daughter, a misfire that looks like a bold experiment gone wrong. There are a a number of people in the cast, among them Brooklynn Prince, Gil Birmingham, Caren Pistorius and Garrett Hedlund, but the only two that really matter are Daisy Ridley and Ben Mendelsohn, who play to their strengths – plucky and menacing respectively. Helena is a girl (played at the point by Prince) being brought up brought up in the wilds and taught the ways of the woods … Read more
Bobby screams

The Boy behind the Door

Welcome to sex. The Boy behind the Door is the sort of film that a Freudian shrink could go to town on, being all about two boys cusping puberty who are abducted and taken to a remote property where they have to fight for their lives to get free. “Friends to the end,” Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey) have pledged out in the bright, sun-dappled world where they were hanging out before being knocked senseless and bundled into the boot of a car. Waking up, Bobby is dimly aware that Kevin has been dragged off somewhere, leaving him to suffocate out in a garage attached to a house a long way … Read more
Sonia and the Duke

Arsène Lupin

1932’s Arsène Lupin wasn’t the first movie about the gentleman thief by a long stretch but it is one of the best, thanks to canny casting and a pace that never slackens. The canny casting comes in the shape of the Barrymore brothers, Lionel and John, on screen together in starring roles for the first time – the publicity machine made much of it. Older sibling Lionel gets the best of it as the huffing, irascible cop Guerchard, while John (aka “The Great Profile”) does more matinee idol stuff as the Duke of Charmerace, womanising noble lord by day, thief by night, and a thief, what’s more, who likes to announce to the … Read more
Lieberman and Popsíchal in a dugout

Tobruk

If you love the colour beige or taupe, can’t get enough fawn, dun and khaki, you’ll have an extra affection for Tobruk, the 2008 Czech movie written and directed by Václav Marhoul. It’s his second, after the Philip Marlowe-spoofing Smart Philip (Mazany Filip) of 2003, and has little in common with the 1967 film of the same name directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Rock Hudson and George Peppard. In fact it’s closer to The Red Badge of Courage, the 1951 war movie set during the American Civil War and starring Audie Murphy, since both are to greater (the older film) and lesser (this one) extents adaptations of Stephen Crane’s 1894 novel about … Read more
Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg

Lux Aeterna

Gaspar Noé’s Lux Aeterna (or Lvx Æterna in its original Latin-script form) is a short film about the shit women have to put up. Like the old ironic joke about the light at the end of a tunnel probably being an oncoming train, Noé’s “eternal light” (the translation of lux aeterna) is probably being emitted from the fire built to burn problematical women as witches. The first image is from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (made in 1943, but with looks from 1443) and is a remarkable shot of a woman being placed on top of a ladder, from where she’s dropped down at speed into a massive fire. The actress, Noé’s … Read more
Freda Dowie in Distant Voices, Still Lives

Distant Voices, Still Lives

A re-release from one of the most distinctive cineastes in British film. Terence Davies’s 1988 maundering autobiographical film (“It all happened… I had to tone down the violence of my dad”, Davies told The Guardian) is set in the Liverpool of his youth and is more an impressionistic montage of vibrant tableaux vivants than a drama with a traditional structure. It’s a two part affair, the first half concentrating on the brutish, violent dad (Pete Postlethwaite), long suffering, sad-eyed mum (Freda Dowie) and their three kids – as wartime austerity starts to crack and the good times of the late 1950s start to make their presence felt, which is the theme of the second … Read more

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