Category: Films


Remember this name: Gerald McMorrow. If his début feature is anything to judge by, he’s set to become a very significant film-maker. You can keep your benjamin Buttons — this is how fantasy cinema should be done.

Franklyn begins in Meanwhile City, a fantasticated place that my words cannot describe adequately; but think of a steampunk-ish London imagined by Neil Gaiman or China Miéville, then painted by Les Edwards in his ‘Edward Miller’ style, and you may get an idea. Jonathan Preest (played by Ryan Philippe) — the only non-believer in a city where faiths can be built on anything, even a washing-machine manual — prepares to assassinate The Individual, a ruthless cult leader responsible for the death of a young girl.

We then move to ‘our’ London, where three further stories unfold. Milo (Sam Riley) was due to get married, but has been jilted and now feels lost — until he catches sight of a red-haired woman he feels sure is Sally, his childhood sweetheart. Emilia (Eva Green) is an art student, whose project consists of filming herself attempting suicide (though always taking care to call for an ambulance beforehand) — the again, it could just be a means of aggravating her estranged mother. And Peter (Bernard Hill) travels down from Cambridge in search of his missing son.

These four strands become intertwined in unexpected ways, and it’s here that the real magic of Franklyn happens. We start to see some of the actors playing dual roles, and it’s clear that something odd is occurring — but what? McMorrow provides an explanation which is exquisitely constructed and makes perfect sense — not to mention leading the plot towards inevitably tragic consequences… And then, brilliantly, that very explanation is undermined, and something stranger tries to take its place.

What’s going on, then? Delusion? It’s an attractive explanation, but it doesn’t quite fit all the facts. Parallel worlds? Hmm, could be, but it won’t suffice for me… No, I’m not going to go any further, because to do so would be to spoil the film — and Franklyn is a film that deserves not to be spoiled. If it comes anywhere near you, see it. Simple as that.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I’ll get to the film in a moment, but first let me tell you about a story – a story called ‘Last Contact’ by Stephen Baxter. The story is about the end of the Universe, as seen from an English country garden, and it is beautifully affecting. My problem after reading it was that, to achieve his effect, Baxter had to make his cosmic cataclysm take place unfeasibly soon (seventy years hence rather than the billions of years that has been predicted). He stretched the science to a point I just couldn’t accept; I had seen too much of the working, and it spoiled the trick for me. I mention this now because watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button left me in a very similar state of mind.

As the First World War ends, Thomas Button’s wife dies in childbirth. Unable to face the prospect of raising his son, Button (played by Jason Flemyng) abandons the baby on the steps of a care home. One of the nurses, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), takes the boy in and names him Benjamin. But Benjamin is unusual, because he was born with an aged body, and grows physically younger as the years go by.

As a youngster (though with the appearance of an old man), Benjamin meets Daisy Fuller, six years his junior and the granddaughter of one of the home’s residents. He is infatuated with her, and remains so throughout his life. But they can’t be together, not yet; and especially not after he joins the crew of a tugboat and she starts a career as a ballerina. These come to an end in time, as the tug is destroyed in the Second World War; and, several years later, Daisy is injured in a car accident. And, eventually, Benjamin and Daisy gain their happiness together, becoming parents – but Benjamin ultimately decides to leave, not wishing his child to have a father who’s growing younger.

The adult Benjamin is played by Brad Pitt, and the adult Daisy by Cate Blanchett. Their performances are decent enough (though Pitt seems to spend a good deal of the film looking quizzical), but the real star of the movie is its visuals. That’s what won the Oscars, and deservedly so: I’m not sure when Pitt first appears properly ‘in the flesh’, but it must be at least half an hour into the running time; before then, Benjamin is CGI, and I couldn’t spot the point of transition. It’s undeniably impressive to see the actors at different stages of their characters’ lifespans (and there are others beside the two leads who are shown at multiple ages); but I also find there’s something creepy about it, particularly about seeing Pitt’s and Blanchett’s features on younger faces.

That’s not my main quibble with the movie, though. For one thing, I’m not sure that Curious Case really makes the most of its premise, because many of the situations feel as though they might as well be happening to someone ageing in the normal direction. The twenty-something Daisy does not fall for Benjamin, but what difference does it make that he has the body of an old man? The two would surely be estranged anyway, because he’s spent years at sea, and she’s moved on with her own life. When Benjamin contemplates being a father in his situation – well, anyone becoming a parent at the age of fifty would face similar issues.

And when Benjamin and Daisy do get together (when he is 44 and she 38), the ‘age difference’ just isn’t there; by then, he has matinée-idol looks, but she too looks younger than she is. They make a typically attractive Hollywood-movie couple; their life together is pretty much as perfect as it could be. The only fly in the ointment is that this won’t last forever – but then, it wouldn’t anyway. A true sense of otherness only emerges in the film’s closing stages, when the elderly Daisy encounters the ‘child’ Benjamin. But where was that otherness in the rest of the movie?

I also have a sense (as with the Stephen Baxter story I was talking about earlier) of seeing too much of the artifice behind the film – to tell its story, the movie makes choices that stretch probability. The key example is how Daisy ages: she is very fortunate in that regard for most of her life, as it suits the film (looking younger than her years for as long as she does, becoming a mother in her forties) – but then the plot needs her to be on her deathbed, and she goes from a vigorous, healthy old woman to being bedridden and decrepit in the space of two years. I don’t buy it. Yes, it’s all possible, but it’s too obvious that Daisy’s life takes the course it does because it serves the purpose of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a bad movie: it’s arresting to look at (if a little unsettling, as I said), it feels shorter than its running time of two-and-a-half hours – it is an impressive achievement. But it still feels to me as though it’s lacking something. The moral of the story can be summed up as ‘make the most of life and your talents’. Sounds a good idea to me – but it didn’t need a life lived backwards to make me think so.

Hard Candy

It is difficult to know what to think about this film, or how to feel — except that it consists of 103 thoroughly absorbing minutes, largely of two people talking to each other. It begins with an internet chat room, where a 14-year-old girl arranges to meet a man in person. We then join them as they meet: he is Jeff, a photographer in his early thirties who lives alone; she is Hayley, a precociously intelligent teen who would not look out of place playing Peter Pan on stage. Hayley soon finds an excuse to suggest that they go back to Jeff’s apartment — where she spikes his drink…

…And when Jeff wakes up, Hayley has tied him to a chair. Her intention is to take revenge, for she believes him to be a predator — which he is, for she soon finds the photographic evidence, including a picture of a local girl who has gone missing. Did Jeff kill her? He says not, but Hayley doesn’t believe him.

Later, when Jeff tries to escape, she stops him by wrapping his head in clingfilm; when he next wakes, Jeff is tied to a table — to find Hayley dressed in surgical scrubs, with her father’s medical textbook, and about to perform an operation that Jeff would prefer not to contemplate. So the movie continues, a game of cat and mouse, with Jeff occasionally gaining the upper hand, though not for very long — until Hayley demands he make the ultimate choice.

This is the kind of film that stands or falls by its central performances, and both are excellent. Hayley is portrayed brilliantly by Ellen Page (who played another precoious teen a couple of years after this in Juno, but the two characters are nothing alike). It should be absurd, the idea that a small, skinny, waif like Hayley should be able to overpower a grown man who’s a foot taller than her — it is absurd, and both characters know it (what’s the point in Jeff calling the cops, who’d believe him). And it’s not that Hayley is invincible: yes, she came prepared, she has her weapons and her defences — but at the moments they fail, we see the scared girl inside, who knows that Jeff could overpower her easily if he had the chance.

But perhaps Hayley’s greatest defence is one that can’t be taken away — her inscruatble nature. There’s nothing of the femme fatale about Hayley, nor does she have brute strength; she’s menacing because we (and Jeff) don’t really know who she is or where she came from — but we do know that she’s implacable. With Page’s performance, there is never any doubt that this situation is reality, however absurd it may be in theory.

Jeff is played by Patrick Wilson and, whilst his performance may not have quite the same impact as Page’s, that’s really only a matter of degree. We don’t learn much at all about the two protagonists, so it’s hard to judge what to feel towards Jeff, especially at first — ostensibly he’s the victim of the piece, but Hayley says he’s a monster, but then again,  we only have her word for that for a good while. Only gradually does Wilson reveal glimpses of Jeff’s true nature underneath. Layered, subtle performances from both leads.

As all this may suggest, the morality of the film is complicated. You can’t root for Jeff, because of what he’s done and may do again. But can you really root for Hayley, after what she does? The movie, it seems to me, does not come to any firm conclusions, leaving everyone to make up their own minds individually.

What’s not in doubt is that Hard Candy is a very striking piece of film-making. Despite its theme, there is hardly anything gratuitous or graphic in it (there’s some blood on a scalpel, and that’s about it); so much of the film’s effect is achieved by suggestion and implication. The visual style is also distinctive, with claustrophobic close-up shots and an often washed-out palette.

In short, Hard Candy is not a comfortable film to watch — but it keeps you watching nevertheless.

Slumdog Millionaire

The latest film by Danny Boyle has already been showered with plaudits and, whilst I found it very enjoyable rather than outstanding, I can kind of see where the awards are coming from. The essence of the story (based on a novel by Vikas Swarup)  is right there in the title of Slumdog Millionaire — Jamal Malik, a boy from the slums of Mumbai, grows up to become chai-wallah at a call centre, and wins the jackpot of 10 million rupees on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But the question (as posed by the movie’s initial caption) is, how did he manage it?

Which is a question the police are also very interested in, as we discover in the brilliant opening sequence, which intercuts stark footage of Jamal being interrogated (including having his head thrust in a bucket of water, and later having live electrodes attached to his toes) with clips of him on the game show. The contrast between the two is shown vividly, with the WWTBAM? segments seeming an impossibly distant dream, and the interrogation a grotesque nightmare from which waking up is not an option. It’s a great start to the film.

The reason the police are questioning Jamal is that they’re convinced he must have cheated at the quiz, because how could a ‘slumdog’ know all those answers? Well, luckily for Jamal, the questions asked things that he’s picked up during his eventful life — or perhaps not so luckily to an extent, because some of those memories are very painful. Jamal goes through each question in turn, recounting the relevant parts of his life to the police, and we see the events in flashback.

Orphaned as children when their mother is beaten to death in a riot, Jamal and his brother Salim are taken under the wing of Maman, who first appears to be a benevolent man running an orphanage, but proves to be a gangster who uses children as beggars, and blinds for real those who sing well, so they’ll bring in more money. Maman plans to do just that to Jamal, but the boy escapes, along with Salim and a girl named Latika; the brothers make it on to a train, but Latika is recaptured by Maman’s goons.

As they grow, the two brothers have to live off their wits, but Salim grows violent, and their ways eventually part, with Jamal becoming the chai-wallah, and his brother a gangster’s hitman. And Latika moves in and out of Jamal’s life, but remains always in the back of his mind, ultimately leading him to go on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The teenage Jamal is played by Dev Patel, a British actor who has trouble disguising his accent (or chooses not to do so) and seems to spend most of his screen-time looking nonplussed, but does a good job with his part all the same. However, much of the film is carried by the young actors playing Jamal, Salim and Latika as children, and they carry it very well. Amongst the remaining cast, I would also single out Anil Kapoor, who gives a great performance as the game show’s vile host.

But Slumdog Millionaire‘s greatest strength — and, perhaps, its greatest weakness — is the way it’s put together. This is an expertly constructed movie: there’s further superb use of intercutting to move between the TV show/interrogation and the flashbacks; to mark other transitions (in one particularly memorable moment, Jamal and Salim are thrown off the train on which they fled Maman, they tumble down a banking, and when the resulting dust cloud clears, the brothers are a few years older and standing before a building they assume must be some sort of hotel — it’s the Taj Mahal); and to counterpoint the harshness of Jamal’s life and the pristine world of the game show. Unusual shots and oblique camera angles also help to give the film a dynamic, edgy feel.

The trouble is, though, that these techniques also draw attention to the artifice involved, which the movie can’t necessarily afford when its plot is already based so transparently on contrivance. I found that it conflicted with the very real emotional elements of the film, and made it that bit harder for me to care about everything.

The adverts for Slumdog Millionaire are quoting a review that describes it as ‘the feel-good film of the decade’, which not only overstates the case but also, I think, does Boyle a disservice. This is actually quite a dark, sombre film: violence and death are never far away at any stage. But there is also a good deal of humour peppered throughout; and Boyle plays fair with his story: ‘Why do people watch this?’ asks Jamal at one point, as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? plays on a television screen. Latika replies that it’s because the programme offers a dream of escape. And when escape finally comes, so does the big dance number, in the end credits.


On a street in Dublin, a young(ish) man (played by Glen Hansard) is busking. The camera zooms in on his face as he raises his voice towards the end of the song, clearly putting his heart and soul into it, even if the world at large isn’t listening. Well, one person is: as the camera retreats, it reveals a pretty Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) standing there. She congratulates him on a great song and performance; he confirms that, yes, it’s one of his own songs. They talk in the halting way that people tend to when they’ve only just met. He works at his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. How fortunate: her vacuum cleaner is broken; she’ll bring it over tomorrow.

She does. The two talk some more. He discovers that she plays piano (her father was in an orchestra, and taught her). They go to a music shop, where he teaches her one of his songs, he playing his guitar and singing, she joining in on the piano. They complement each other naturally.

As time progresses, they grow closer. He wants to go to London, to try to make it in the music industry. But first he needs to record a demo, and for that he needs to put together a band. Would she be willing to join in and play piano on the recording? Yes, she would. Life moves on.

I’ve wanted to see this film for quite some time, and I’m so glad to have finally done so, as it’s a delight from beginning to end. Everything about Once flows so naturally: the dialogue feels like real conversation; the plot runs like life (with an added dash of the magic it sometimes brings); the protagonists’ relationship develops in a way that it might do in reality (Hansard and Irglova work so well together that it’s no surprise to discover that they fell in love for real while making the film). The fly-on-the-wall style of camerawork only adds to the sense of authenticity.

But the centrepiece of Once is its music. Hansard and Irglova are both professional musicians, and great musicians they are too: he has a powerful voice, raw and gentle by turns; she is an excellent pianist, and has a lighter vocal style that meshes well with Hansard’s. In keeping with the naturalistic feel of the film, the songs appear only when it would be plausible for them to; but, with just the right amount of artfulness, they have greater clarity than the spoken soundtrack. In fact, the songs often play over the visuals with no other sound, as though the music is more important than anything else. And perhaps it is for these two characters, who come together through a shared love of music, and seem more comfortable playing songs together than talking. Certainly Once is one of the clearest statements of the potential of music to affect lives that I have encountered in a long time.

I was pleased to learn that, not only did Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova write the soundtrack, they have also recorded an album together previously, and that Hansard has a band, called The Frames. I have a lot of music to investigate, then. Here is a clip of Hansard and Irglova performing the Oscar-winning song ‘Falling Slowly‘ from the movie.

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