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Rich Pickings on Long Day’s Journey Into Night

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Chinese director Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a masterpiece in magic realism. It benefits from a sensational performance by Huang Jue as loner outsider Luo Hangun. Bi creates a dreamscape and we are never quite sure what is simply poetic license or an action in the real world.

The narrative quest sees Luo in search of lost friends but he finds others on the way, some helpers, some barriers. Bi prefers to infer things rather than state them plainly and even the actors switch characters and places shape-shift, adding to the surreal reverie of the piece.

In a very fine performance Tang Wei as Wan Qiwen is stunning if rather masochistic. But dreams and reality are so blurred maybe the pain is unreal too. There is a great amount of symbology which is treated by Bi masterfully. Even the rainstorms are very beautiful though there is much suspension of disbelief such as when rain drops down on a light fitting (water and electrics do not mix do they?!)

The long 3D take in the second half will go down as a huge event in cinema history (it had to be shot seven times). And it is not just for show – it adds to the feeling that we are inhabiting Luo’s unconscious or even a collective unconscious with the other characters. Despite being occasionally bewildering this is a mind-blowing film that compels you to take in the wash of colours and candid camera movements with great joy.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 19 March 2020.

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Rich Pickings on Sorry We Missed You

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This film is a mighty blow from master of social realism Ken Loach which benefits from an acerbic script by Paul Laverty. It focuses on the woeful life of Ricky (an explosive Kris Hitchen) desperately seeking to stay off the dole and forced into a zero hours contract as a delivery driver. Loach does not labour the point but we are bound to conclude that this is grossly unfair and putting terrible pressure on him and his family.

Also his wife Abbie (in a cracking performance by Debbie Honeywood) feels the pinch as a drastically overstretched care worker. The atmosphere in the household also affects their awkward adolescent son Seb (a talented Rhys Stone) who is led into truancy and eventually suspended from school. Then there is Liza (a revelation in Katie Proctor) who due to her more naïve and innocent nature starts to wet the bed at night.

So the gig economy is examined and found wanting but without being preachy. Loach uses his familiar technique of having the actors improvise in key scenes to add to the naturalism. ‘Nasty bastard’ boss Maloney (Ross Brewster) exemplifies all that is wrong with his ‘franchise’ without demonising.

We really feel for Ricky throughout, but in particular when he is attacked and his van robbed. This leads to a fine from the company and we are left seeing the protagonist battling on despite all odds. The performances are candid and convincing and Loach is never didactic. He just allows the characters to voice out loud their fears and frustrations. Despite all the couple’s hard work it seems they will never be free from the yoke of debt and an uncertain future due to this travesty of an economy.

Loach leaves us with no easy answers, just a seething rage at our society’s injustices.

Available on BFI Player and Prime Video.

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Rich Pickings on Astronaut

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Director and screenwriter Shelagh McLeod’s feature film debut is an emotional rollercoaster ride ranging from deflation to elation. It benefits from a highly emotive score by Virginia Kilbertus and astounding and agile cinematography by Scott McLellan. Richard Dreyfuss puts in a once-in-a-lifetime performance as Angus, an 80-year-old with dreams of space travel.

So when Angus discovers he has been short-listed to take part in a TV competition to win a place on the world’s first commercial space voyage it seems his long-held dreams have come true at last. But this is no sentimental or soppy look at his situation. He has had to sell off his home after his late wife turns out to have bought a donkey farm. So he enters a retirement home where he is really the life and soul of the party.

Though that is not all: his family are in dire straits with his son-in-law caught out for illegal banking and his daughter knows nothing of his intended trip into space. He does, however, have the support of his grandson Barney, a revelation in Richie Lawrence. When Angus flunks his chance on the TV show where the lucky astronaut is chosen he instead begins a mission to ensure the mission’s safety.

As a civil engineer he has direct knowledge of the runway’s flaws and brings this to the attention of the powers-that-be. No spoilers here but suffice to say that the film has an upbeat ending that is tremendously touching. And at times like this don’t we all need to follow our dreams a little more?!

Reviewed on 18 March 2020 by Rich Jevons. On general release in the UK on 20 March.

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Rich Pickings on Escape from Pretoria

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Director and co-writer Francis Annan recreates the real-life prison breakout by ANC’s Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee. Jenkin and Lee are played by Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Webber with verve and veracity facing sentences of 12 and 8 years respectively.

But right from the start the pair are intent on making a spectacular escape from Pretoria to the incredulity of their fellow inmates but not without raising the suspicion of the prison regime rulers. They do however manage to obtain the help of Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter) who makes sure their plans are water-tight.

No spoilers here as to how the trio actually get out but suffice to say that this is a thriller par excellence. It will have you at the end of your seat throughout, gripped with suspense. The film painstakingly builds up the daily drudgery of prison life and the brutality of the guards is depicted unflinchingly.

But as well as the physical fists and blows there is a war of attrition that would send the hardest of men over the brink. There is not a dry eye in the house when the trio get through the prison gate after a host of locks. And we are pleased to discover the eventual outcome of their brave lives. Prepare for the highest tension imaginable followed by intense relief in this gripping thriller.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 17 March 2020. See imdb.com for a showing near you. Or you can watch on Prime Video.

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Rich Pickings on Onward

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Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon has himself experienced the death of his father and this is the theme of Pixar’s road trip/buddy movie. It features two elves: Ian (Tom Holland) a skinny shy 16-year-old; and Barley (Chris Pratt) his big brother obsessed with role-playing games. They live with their widowed mother Laurel and as it is Ian’s birthday she presents him an heirloom from his father.

This is a wand and gem with a spell to bring their dad back for a day. Unfortunately, however, Ian only musters up enough magic to recreate him from the waist down. Hence begins a narrative quest to finish the transmutation. So this is a coming-of-age saga with the real purpose of putting an end to the two elves’ sibling rivalry.

The animation is up to Pixar’s high standards and has melancholy moments as well as magical fun and frolics. It sees medieval magic pitted against today’s technology. The climax depicts some awesome sword and sorcery as their mum joins in the adventure. No spoilers here but it ends on a quite profound and purposeful high note. And it gave Rich Pickings a break from some very deep and disturbing recent theatrical events!

Reviewed on 10 March 2020. Runs at Vue Kirkstall Road on IMAX until 19 March and on general release near you see imdb.com.

Rich Pickings on True History of Kelly’s Gang

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Based on the Peter Carey novel screenwriter Shaun Grant’s adaptation of the tale of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is split into three sections: boyhood, early adulthood and time as a wanted man. The young Ned is played by Orlando Schwerdt who is quite a revelation in the role. His upbringing is harsh with his mother (Essie Davis) giving out to all and sundry and the death of his wastrel of a father. He is then sold to Harry Power (a mean Russell Crowe) who teaches him a host of criminal tricks.

Then, as an adult Kelly, George MacCay paints a hideous picture of his development into a practically feral existence. Like his father Kelly’s gang cross-dress to appear seriously mad and instill fear in the Anglo-establishment. His nemesis Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) is a lecherous coward and comes into Kelly’s sights more than once, we do not know what prevents him from pulling the trigger.

This is an exploration of masculinity as well as criminology with unflinching and gutsy cinematography by Ari Wegner. Justin Kurzel’s direction is very much with no holds barred, especially in the horrific climax. We see Kelly in a cell with his mother preparing to go to the hangman’s noose without fear.

We do empathise with Kelly despite his flaws and it is easy to see how the legend has become part of Australian folklore. This is a visceral and shocking film that is both compelling and compulsive.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 3 March 2020. Showing at Vue The Light, Leeds until 8 March and Pictureville Cinema, Bradford until 12 March. See imdb.com for showtimes near you.

Rich Pickings on Little Joe

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In Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe Emily Beecham plays Alice, a scientist with a speciality in plant breeding. She names her new project Little Joe after her son, and even sneaks a sample plant back home for him.

The basic premise is that the new breed is more of a pet than a plant, responding to the human voice and emitting a happiness-inducing fragrance. Hausner builds up the tension with clue after clue leading to the suspicion that the plant is evil and affecting humans detrimentally.

Kit Connor is a revelation as Joe who becomes sultry, antagonistic and just generally weird after contact with the flower’s pollen. Alice menawhile is in therapy and begins to realise something is very wrong – or is this just a trick of the mind?

There is some great work by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht who frames the action with a clinical precision. The film also benefits from a Japanese score which adds to the tension and otherworldliness. The general paranoia is heightened when Alice’s colleague Bella goes off the rails, having her dog put down due to its strangeness. And Bella herself meets a sticky end.

Overall this is an intriguing film which keeps us guessing till the end and even then leaves the verdict open. Beecham carries the narrative well and Ben Whishaw as love interest Chris adds to the mix also.

A claustrophobic and intense experience that raises ethical questions about genetic engineering as well as other moral considerations. But you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy it as its suspense and intrigue will carry you through this taut tale.

Reviewed on 26 February by Rich Jevons. Runs at Pictureville Cinema, Bradford until 27 February. See imdb.com for a showtime near you.

Rich Pickings on Emma

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In her debut as director Autumn de Wilde contributes the fourth big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic rom-com to come top of the pile. The film benefits from a simply brilliant and complex character study of the title role by Anya Taylor-Joy. Another great performance as her father also sees Bill Nighy on fine form.

One of the subjects of Emma’s misguided matchmaking is the apparently orphaned Harriet played with demure clumsiness by Mia Goth. She has many crushes, starting with widowed farmer Mr Martin (Connor Swindells), but Emma’s interfering often backfires. Then there is Mr Elton, a vicar who embarrassingly falls for Emma rather than Harriet, to the former’s disdain of course.

Despite his absence Emma secretly wants Frank Churchill in her life but he is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax. So Emma continues as a charming and endearing but solitary figure. Despite the plot’s complexity Eleanor Catton’s script is seriously funny and the eye candy is heightened by the lavish and luscious costumes by Alexandra Byrne.

And although argumentative with Emma Mr Knightley comes across as refined and intelligent, especially on all things romantic. While being faithful to the original Austen novel the film is still well-paced and boasts a finely atmospheric score by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge. And perhaps the clinching selling point is the decadent surroundings of the stately homes and parks under the scrutiny of Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography. A beautiful and greatly successful costume drama with action that flows gently through the narrative with assured style and irreverent wit.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 25 February 2020. Showing at Vue Leeds Kirkstall Road until 27 February. See imdb.com for showtimes near you.

 

Rich Pickings on The Gentlemen

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Director Guy Ritchie’s crime caper flick sees private detective Fletcher (Hugh Grant) dishing the dirt on a huge cannabis factory operation. At the head of this Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) grows vast quantities of bush in the safe haven of his stately-home-owning aristocratic friends.

On Mickey’s retirement there are two rival buyers for the outfit: American Jewish billionaire (Jeremy Strong) and Chinese-Cockney gangster Dry Eye (Henry Golding). Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dochery plays Mickey’s wife Roz with feisty feminism throughout. While Colin Farrell appears as a boxing coach caught up on his cohort’s petty crime.

There is a film-within-a-film with Fletcher pitching a screenplay based on the drug baron and his sidekicks. This comes replete with flashbacks and allows Ritchie to make us question whether this is fantasy or reality (the dope plants look real enough!) So this is not an inyerface gangster flick – far more subtle than that.

It has been criticised for not having enough pace but I found the slow revealing of the masterful plot quite apt. And it in no way glorifies the drug world or the violent crime that comes with it. Ultimately Grant carries it through quite skilfully and leaves us asking as many questions as the film answers.

Reviewed on 24 February 2020, playing at Vue Kirkstall Road, Leeds 25 and 27 February. See imdb.com for showtimes near you.

Rich Pickings on Little Women

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Writer-director Greta Gerwig puts her auteur stamp on this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century coming-of-age novel. It benefits from a superb ensemble performance. The four March sisters and their parents are depicted with verve and veracity and we are rooting for their freedom and happiness throughout. The feisty sisters are a breath of fresh air when some period dramas make their heroines out to be helpless and frail.

So we have Saoirse Ronan as the tomboy Jo who we see initially as a writer in New York getting her first big break from a pig-headed editor (played cynically by Tracy Letts). While Florence Pugh’s Amy is introduced to us as a painter in gay Paris. Their sister Meg (Emma Watson at her best) is a theatrical type; while Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a fine musician, if too modest to admit it.

Their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away in the Civil War so it is up to mother (Laura Dern) to run the household. Meryl Streep puts in a charming performance as the wealthy Aunt March who tries to instill the notion of marriage as a financial transaction to all four sisters. Love interest comes in the form of Laurie (or Teddy as he is affectionately known) in a key role played by Timothée Chalamet.

As you can imagine this adaptation demands brilliant production design and Jess Gonchor fits the bill exactly. While Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are simply to die for and add to the authenticity of the piece. Gluing all this together is a gorgeous soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat that combines classical and more ambient sounds.

Also the Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is second to none with some beautiful set pieces and lots to please the eye. Gerwig prefers a non-linear structure with flashbacks and forwards, testing the talents of Tracy Letts’ editing.

This is a fabulous film that combines feminist themes with a great narrative that is both faithful to the novel whilst being inventive too.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Runs at The Vue cinema in The Light Leeds until 27 February.