Film review – The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017

The moment lead character Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, has had enough of her landlord Bobby (the ever-brilliant Willem Dafoe) is a touch of genius. Her constant trouble-making, lack of responsibility for her own life and the conseqeut poor behaviour of her daughter has come to a head. Bobby counts to three, demanding she leaves his office. She relents, but as a parting shot removes the sanitary towel from her pants and slaps it on the glass window of the reception, punctuated by a flip of the middle finger in his direction.

It reveals a lot about her character. It’s one of the most disgusting visual moments of the cinematic year and (hopefully) goes far beyond the imagination of most viewers even on their worst of days.

That Bobby also shortly after is again protecting her from trouble beyond this action says a lot for his character too, presumably a reason Dafoe was attracted to the role. He delivers a typically nuanced performance. He’s rough and tough on the exterior, largely through necessity. Inside he is a man who clearly recognises the peril all his residents face – most are one missed payment away from homelessness and without any hope to get out of the predicament.

The film achieves what it aims to do, which is to shine a light on the horrific living conditions for many people living in Florida in the shadow of the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth”. Disney World’s original work-in-progress name was The Florida Project, though here the name is repurposed to represent the social housing slums of America, all too familiar to so many of the nation’s population.

The film takes the form of a series of vignettes, each showing another layer to the life of Halley and her daughter Moonie (Brooklynn Prince). Prince is as brilliant as she is irritating, her idea of hyjinx ranging from spitting on her neighbour’s car to burning down a disused house.

The plot is laced with humour throughout, and there were certainly some huge laugh-out-loud moments. But for all the laughter, there was an element of sadness and horror to think about how real these situations are.

The result is effective, though the overall sum feels less than the parts. By the end of the film it felt like it was dragging, meandering towards a final set piece that didn’t really feel as triumphant as the filmmakers had hoped. It’s a film that I wanted to like more than I did, but I just couldn’t get behind the characters enough to really allow myself to enjoy the film.

It’s an interesting but disappointing watch that is more thought-provoking than it is entertaining.

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Film review – Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

In September 2003, I had reached my goal. Or so I thought. I spent 18 years building towards reaching university. I studied hard, behaved sensibly, stayed away from alcohol, achieved good grades, applied to a reputable university and chose a subject I knew would hold me in good stead for the future. I put the effort in and the hard work paid off. I was there, wherever “there” was.

I should have felt a distinct sense of achievement, but instead I stood there as my parents drove away, face in hands, sobbing my eyes out. Suddenly I was alone with nobody to turn to. Everything I’d done before, all the friends I’d made, all the information I’d been taught, right in that moment, meant nothing.

My university years were ahead of me, or a romanticised version of them. A chapter in my life was firmly shutting behind me as the next chapter started. It was, it must be said, one of the fearful moments of my life.

It was my memory of that moment, strangely seen through my parents’ eyes rather than my own – a trick of the mind I often play on myself when remembering my own memories – that flashed through me at some point near the start of the film ‘Lady Bird’, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. It’s a powerful piece of cinema that awakens such stark memories, but that is exactly what it did.

‘Lady Bird’ a small story about a girl in Sacramento, California. That person is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) , a girl we are introduced to in an emotional rollercoaster of an opening sequence in a car journey with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), which spirals down from a joyous reflection of an audiobook cassette of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Before long the pair are engaged in a wholesome argument unique to parents with teenage children, before Lady Bird finds a novel way to end the discussion with shocking and hilarious consequences.

The film serves as an exploration of a girl coming of age, fitting in, not fitting in, hoping to go to college in New York and dealing with the relationships and life surrounding her. It is, simply, a snapshot of a girl at a critical point in her life.

There is are many secondary relationships that help further explore the character of Lady Bird at a critical time of her life. Her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) encourages her to join a theatre group, where she meets her first teenage love obsession Danny (Lucas Hedges). The scenes set in this plot strand provide some fantastic early laughs, though Danny’s story arc is one that allows Hedges to deliver a really beautiful characterisation when the story could have settled for a much lesser throwaway love interest. Indeed, the relationship between Ronan and Hedges shares a certain understated chemistry that is brought to fruition in one of the film’s most powerful scenes during an encounter behind a coffee shop. It’s a real showstopper.

The plot is brought to life with some extremely snappy dialogue that provides genuine laughs throughout. Greta Gerwig has had a mixed bag of output throughout her career, beginning with a strong association with the mumble core movement and an early success with ‘Frances Ha’. Whilst both Mistress AmericaandWiener-Dog’ had some drawbacks, her role in 20th Century Women in 2016 was a real high point in a career that had been under close scrutiny since her early success. She has grown into an actor, writer and director of real credentials, and ‘Lady Bird’ feels like the ultimate realisation of her talents.

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It is a love letter to the city of Sacramento, with Gerwig inevitably drawing on her own experiences and relationship to the city to create plot points. She herself grew up in the city and moved to New York to study at university. One can’t help but feel that Lady Bird’s quick switch of home city from Sacramento to San Francisco was a line Gerwig has used many times herself, partly to enhance her exoticism and partly to make explaining it much easier.

Stylistically, the costumes, sounds and stylisation of the film managed to achieve a sense of nostalgia for 2003, which can’t have been easy given that it feels so recent. As a house party scene begins and we hear Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River over the sound system there is a real feeling that they were getting it right.

‘Lady Bird’ is. simply, a joy to watch. From start to finish the balance between humorous dialogue and well-paced plot progression is very fine indeed. The result puts it as a frontrunner for awards season next year.

‘Lady Bird’ will reach UK cinemas on 29th December 2017.

Film review – Blind Date (Blake Edwards, 1987)

What do you get if you cross the director of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther, one of the sexiest women of a generation, the film debut of one of the most bankable actors of all time and a soundtrack by one of the most celebrated film composers in film history?

A steaming pile of cinematic turd, that’s what.

It’s a rare occurrence to find a film with a run time of just 95 minutes that somehow feels like it drags on. But Blake Edwards has managed it with ‘Blind Date’, a turgid effort if ever you’ve seen one.

Bruce Willis does his best as an ambitious and hardworking career man named Walter Davis. Walter must attend an important dinner with his colleagues, boss and the Managing Director of an important business partner from Japan. However, Mr Yakamoto has very traditional values and Walter is advised to take a date to the meal. In desperation, he calls up his friend Ted (Phil Hartman), who recommends he takes his wife’s cousin Nadia, played by the usually irresistible Kim Basinger.

It’s unusual that a rom-com tries to put a shocking twist or genre-challenging break to the norm. Blind Date doesn’t even attempt to change this. The humour derives from the fact that Nadia can’t take her drink and Walter is advised not to let her have even a sip of alcohol. Of course, Walter forgets this and Nadia instantly becomes wild, causing absolute mayhem at the dinner and leading to Walter losing his job.

By the end of the night they are being pursued by Nadia’s maniacal ex-boyfriend and Walter ends up in prison. It feels like a spoiler but the entire plot is played out in the tag line on many of the posters. Plus it is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year so it’s hardly new news.

One of the most remarkable choices is to recolour Basinger’s hair brown and cover up her eyes with a dreadful fringe. This is one of the pin-ups of the 1980s, known for her beautiful blonde hair and striking blue eyes. Here, she loses one and has the other covered up, with no obvious reason for either choice.

Bruce Willis, here billed second to Basinger, is clearly still finding his feet as he made the transition from American sitcom Moonlighters – and that dreadful pop career – to Hollywood A-lister. It’s hard to imagine that by the time this film was released he was already filming Die Hard. Noticeably, Fox Plaza, tbe building that starred as the Nakatomi Towers in that film, can be seen half-built in the background of a scene at Walter’s office.

Remarkably, Madonna was originally cast to star as Nadia in the film. She turned it down because director Blake Edwards refused to accommodate her wish to cast Sean Penn, at the time Madonna’s husband, as Walter. Of the incident, she said, “I was supposed to have approval of… the leading man, but they didn’t tell me they’d already hired Bruce Willis.” In my opinion, this film would have been even worse had the pair been involved, and viewers need only seek out 1986’s ‘Shanghai Surprise’ for evidence of exactly how bad it could have been.

Even Henry Mancini’s score feels bland and half-hearted, which is disappointing from the man who brought us ‘The Pink Panther Theme’ and ‘Moon River’. I do note that a better film could have made me see the score differently.

Fans of The Simpsons will take great pleasure in hearing Phil Hartman produce his best Troy McClure voice when he’s describing Nadia over the phone to Walter. It’s unmistakable and one of the few positives that helped me get through the ordeal.

It’s a film that has been largely forgotten by everyone who saw it and everyone involved with the film. Forgetting it is something I’ll be trying to do too, as quickly as

Film review – All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

The year was 1955. Eisenhower was president of the United States. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born. Bill Haley and His Comets were flying high on both sides of the Atlantic with their hit ‘Rock Around The Clock’, just before the global phenomenon that was Elvis Presley really took hold. It was also the year that the civil rights movement began to take off in the USA, notably including the groundbreaking Rosa Parks bus incident.

Cinema-goers were able to escape to enjoy a range of musical hits including Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, whilst the highest-grossing film at the box office was a travel documentary called Cinerama Holiday. Jane Wyman, one of the top 10 highest-grossing film stars of the previous year, was cast in Douglas Sirk’s latest Technicolor romance ‘All That Heaven Allows’. She would be playing opposite Rock Hudson, two years before he’d be at the top of the very same list.

Wyman portrays affluent widow Cary Scott, a woman with two college-aged children and no shortage of men interested in her affections, all of the rich, well-to-do, country club variety. Hudson portrays a much more grounded gardener by the name of Ron Kirby, a man of strong morals and much more appealing looks. Her attraction is palpable, despite being eight years his senior and several rungs higher on the social ladder. As their romance blossoms, so grows the disapproval of their relationship amongst their friends and peers.

It wasn’t the first time Sirk had used them together. 1954’s ‘Magnificent Obsession’ also featured Wyman as a mourning widow and a spoiled playboy played by Hudson accused of contributing to his death. Wyman may have been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the film, but it is ‘All That Heaven Knows’ that has stood the test of time critically. Indeed, The Guardian placed it at 11th on a list of the greatest romantic films of all time in a critics’ poll released in 2010.

It is not a particularly intellectual film by modern standards, but within the genre and against other films of the same era, there is an emotional punch and considered social commentary running throughout that lifts it above the mire. Wyman may be older, but she is certainly attractive. Sirk dares to question why she shouldn’t be allowed to have an interest in the younger man in her life. Who wouldn’t? This is Rock Hudson after all. The men vying for her attention are all at least ten years her senior. Indeed, Conrad Nagel, whose Harvey eventually receives a well-deserved punch from Hudson’s Ron, is twenty years older than Wyman. That no character questions this is a sad reflection on the state of society in 1955, though it is ten years better than the romance sold to audiences in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina just one year earlier. Sadly, it’s a situation still prevalent in Hollywood some sixty years later.

For all of Rock Hudson’s impressive physicality and charming smile, it is Wyman that wipes the floor with the rest of the cast. Her performance is nuanced and brought to life perfectly by some wonderful mise en scène from Sirk. This is a woman trapped by both society and her own fear of being seen to be selfish. She continuously puts her children first, because that is what is expected of her. The heartbreaking moment when she finally informs her spoiled son Ned (William Reynolds) that she has left her man behind is as frustrating for the viewer as it is for her, with Wyman connecting with us the deflation as her son hangs up on her without a second thought.

Sharp-eared Disney fans may also note an uncredited speaking role for Eleanor Audley, who was both the evil stepmother in Cinderella (1950) and the Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959). She plays a disapproving party-goer in Act 2.

This may not be the high point in the careers of either of its stars, nor that of the director, but it’s worth seeking out nonetheless. Beautifully shot and with a purpose behind its potentially saccharine plot, it offers the chance to enjoy a romance that has slipped under the radar due simply to the passing of time rather than an evident lack of quality.

Film review – Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017)

WARNING: This review contains moderate spoilers of a good film. Just go watch it. Then come back.

Taylor Sheridan’s first mainstream foray into directing comes in the form of Wind River, a low-budget film that makes good use of some astute casting to harness a subtle script to leave an impact way beyond the sum of its parts.

Part murder mystery, part western thriller, it plods along at a pace that, at times, risks feeling simply like a better-than-average TV investigation drama. Then, with a well-executed flashback as the introduction to the final act, the film turns into a classic western, complete with Mexican stand-off and the resulting bloodbath. It’s the payoff for a steady build-up that is well worth the wait.

The plot centres around an unsettling and mysterious opening sequence, where we follow professional huntsman Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) as he discovers the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, USA. Her body is frozen in the snow and there are clear signs of rape. She is without shoes. FBI agent Jane Banner is brought in to investigate, quickly forming an unlikely bond with Lambert to trace and track the truth.

Wyoming is the unorthodox setting for the story, captured beautifully by cinematographer Ben Richardson. Much of the film is set in mountainous terrain and the snow-covered land becomes integral to the plot. But as picturesque as the environment is, the bloody and violent story playing over the top trumps it.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis team up again to provide a moody and fitting soundtrack, shadowing the film rather than becoming overbearing.

It’s a gritty conclusion to Sheridan’s trilogy – following Sicario and Hell Or High Water – and one that absolutely does its predecessors justice. It may not feel as brash and immediate as either film, but the three films feel like they are a strong body of work and wholly played out in the same universe. As a result, Taylor Sheridan is holding his own with both David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve – a sign he has the ability to keep delivering the goods.

Film review – Alien (Director’s Cut) (Ridley Scott, 1979)

I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Alien. I’m sure I was far too young. I know this because I remember I was really sad I couldn’t see Alien 3 at the cinema. I’ve calculated that I was eight years old at the time. Why was I gutted? Because I’d already seen the first two films and didn’t want to wait.

Yes, that’s right. Somehow either my mum was supremely lenient or we pulled a fast one on her and managed to get a VHS copy of both films.

Looking back on the 1979 debut, it’s easy to see what the appeal was for a eight-year-old. Sure, the heart of the film lies in a character-driven plot and it’s powered by Scott’s unwavering ability to build suspense. At the time I wasn’t sat there thinking “Well, Parker and Brett have an agenda now because of this pay dispute, so this is going to get really interesting.” No. I was looking at the alien, the guns, the space travel and the explosions.

All of these things are, unquestionably, of great appeal to a child. Or, at least, they were to this child.


It was great, then, to finally see this masterpiece of cinema on the big screen as part of Alien Day. As an adult. And, completing the circle, with my mum as well. 

It’s a film that deserves to be seen on the big sceeen, away from disturbances that home viewing might detract from the experience. 

The film was originally released in 1979, in the midst of the wave of hysteria for space-based films created by Star Wars. However, it is very much the antethesis of the 1977 space opera. The distant past setting is replaced with a not-too-distant future. The bright and open planets are replaced with a singular, isolated spaceship. The droids played for light relief are dropped in favour of a malfunctioning synthetic human with a hidden agenda.

Indeed, whilst the film may have seemed like a lucrative prospect for 20th Century Fox after Star Wars, Alien owes a lot more to films like Jaws or Forbidden Planet in both tone and pacing.

It is a film about isolation, playing on the claustrophobia of being trapped in the middle of nowhere and allowing your survival instincts to take over. 


Jerry Goldsmith’s score, conducted by Lionel Newman and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, may be one of the most perfectly-suited film scores ever crafted. It starts off exactly where the audience do at the beginning of the film – somewhere between romanticism and intrigue. As the horror unfolds, the score increases in intensity and loses any sweetness it ever had, heightening every moment we see on screen.

The set design and the Alien itself was famously designed by surrealist artist H. R. Giger. It’s as iconic as the film itself, critical to the story and heightening the horror when we eventually see the creature fully formed in the final act of the film.

It was a hard act to follow and they’ve spent 38 years trying to reach the heights of the original film. James Cameron’s sequel may be preferred by some, but for me you simply can’t compare that to the original. They are in the same universe but are completely different genres, one wrapped in suspense and the other all-out action.

Film review – Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)

For all its technological achievements and successes as a great tale, William A. Wellman’s 1927 cinematic epic is remembered for one thing – it’s the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

The ceremony was far removed from what we know today. The winners were announced three months before the ceremony and it was a much smaller affair than the modern interpretation, with the awarding of prizes taking around fifteen minutes to complete. Wings actually won a prize called “Outstanding Picture”, later renamed to Best Film, making it famous at the expense of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The latter won the similarly-named “Unique and Artistic Picture” on the same night, though on the night it is unlikely this was treated as a runner-up prize.

Wings concerns two love rivals – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – who are fighting for the attention and affection of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack’s persistence is so committed that he fails to notice his tomboyish next-door neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow), despite her continuous effort to get him to notice her. They enlist in the Air Service as trainee fighter pilots. It covers their time in World War I as they complete training, launch into their first battles and become close friends.

It is perhaps a simple plot by today’s standards, but it’s often not the premise that makes a film great but the delivery. This is close to perfection.

Films like this may have been wonders when they were released, but few stand the test of time and allow enjoyment and excitement for the viewers today. Indeed, we are now 90 years further on in cinematic technological advancements and there isn’t a single person involved with the film that is alive today.

The world of cinema should be eternally grateful that Paramount decided to invest £900,000 in restoring this picture. The results are worth considering so you know exactly what you’re seeing and hearing.

On the positive, the picture is absolutely crystal clear. Many segments of the film were unseen for years by the general public, and whenever Wings did surface it was in a severely compromised form. A duplicate negative was found in Paramount’s archives, though this too suffered from significant damage baked into the print. However, digitising the original negatives and painstakingly restoring the film has done wonders for the visual experience. Credit must be given to Executive Director of Restoration Tom Burton and the team at Technicolor Creative Services for such a wonderful result, utilising tinting techniques of the era for added authenticity.

This has been matched up with a new recording of J. S. Zamecnik’s original score by Dominik Häuser and Michael Aarvold. The score was for a 14 reel version of the film that was edited down to 13 reels for the theatrical and roadshow release. Therefore there was a portion of freedom given to the scoring pair, but it is clear the right decisions have been made at each step, as evidenced by the moving results contained on the restored masterpiece. 

Controversially, the sound features sound effects that match to the visual image. Will McKinley has written a fantastic article about the positives and negatives of this, arguing both sides of the toss in a far more eloquent way than I could manage. It’s well worth a read. For me, these additional sounds are 100% in the score and I can see the restoration team’s predicament. If they omitted them it would sound more “authentic”, but only in as much as it’s what a modern audience expects from a 1920s sound film. This score was steeped in innovation and, like the technological risks taken in shooting the visuals, was way ahead of its time. I’m happy the music sticks to the original score, and if you don’t like it you can try an alternative option on the disc (provided by Gaylord Carter), or even mute the whole thing!

Utilising the trainee pilot angle, director Wellman was able to draw on his experience as a First World War pilot to create some absolutely astonishing sequences. They were all filmed on brilliantly blue but cloudy days, which gives the planes some scale and improves the dynamic nature of the dogfights. 

There is also a cinematic first in the film, with the first onscreen man-to-man kiss. It comes in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. David has become stranded behind enemy lines and steals a plane to return home. Jack, already believing his friend has died, is on a suicide mission to take down as many enemy pilots as possible to help the war efforts, in careless abandonment of his own safety. Miraculously he survives his plan, shooting down innumerable enemy aircrafts. On returning, he spots one last pilot heading towards the Allied base. He goes in for the kill, without knowing that it is in fact his best friend David. When he lands and seeks the enemy to seal his victory, he realises what he has done. As David dies in Jack’s arms, the complex emotions get the better of them and there on screen is the first same-sex kiss, albeit perhaps accidental. It simply couldn’t have been cut or reshot – it’s integral to the plot and seals their respective positions in their friends’ lives.

The Masters of Cinema team are the perfect choice to take control of such a historic release. There are three bonus features on the Blu-ray disc: one covering the restoration, one that puts the flight aspects of the film into context and one that covers the legacy of the film. The accompanying booklet is full of additional information and essays on the film and director. It just fits the gravitas deserved of the film.

That we can now sit in our front rooms and see a film of this importance in such high quality is a wonderful feeling. The history of cinema is too important to simply let go. It’s fantastic that an entire new generation have the opportunity to see where cinema started and Wings certainly represents a significant piece of the puzzle.