Enough Said

I think I’m going to have to start watching ‘The Sopranos’.  The first time I saw James Gandolfini in anything was ‘True Romance’, his was a short but stand-out performance as a hitman hunting down the runaway couple and having watched him in ‘Enough Said’, he’s someone I want to see more of.  He’s the kind of actor who brings a likeable quality to the characters they portray, even if that character is a killer for hire, or a television library archivist (my idea of the perfect job!).

In ‘Enough Said’, he plays Albert, a guy I warmed to very quickly.  He’s got an encyclopaedic knowledge of US television; he’s a self-confessed slob and I felt a great deal of empathy for this lovely guy through every step of the story.  Albert and Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) meet at a party, Eva also separately meets Marianne (Catherine Keener); she begins to date Albert and become a new friend to Marianne.   It’s no spoiler to say that unbeknownst to Eva (at first, and for a while), Albert and Marianne used to be married, Albert doesn’t know Eva and Marianne have become friends; Marianne doesn’t know that the ‘flabby guy’ Eva is dating is her ex-husband.

The best way to describe this is as a classy rom com for grown-ups.  It has a very Woody Allen style to it – unsurprising given that writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s stepfather produced Allen’s movies and she worked on a few of them herself.  The style is more modern than Woody Allen though, and not quite as self-reflective and dare I say, whiney. This is no high school romance, it’s not another modern re-telling of Cinderella, there is no Bridget Jones style angst about being single.  The protagonists are established people in their 40’s, they have children on the verge of leaving home, they’re both divorced, and they both know how relationships that at first can seem like everything, can sometimes turn sour.

There’s a realism to this movie, there aren’t any melodramatic moments, there’s just life and how one interacts with others in the many different types of relationships.  The story is primarily told through Eva and so we mainly see the different types of relationships in her life.  Aside from her relationship with Albert, and with her new friend Marianne, there’s the interaction between Eva and her daughter; Eva and her daughters’ friend; Eva and her ex-husband, Eva and her ex-husbands’ wife; Eva’s relationship with her best friend Sarah (Toni Collette); Sarah’s relationship with her husband and even Sarah’s dysfunctional relationship with their maid.

There are some interesting observations on the dissatisfaction that comes with all these relationships and how they are often left to fester.   Complaints are rarely made directly to the person in question, more often to a third party; so here, Eva talks to Sarah and Marianne about Albert; Eva’s daughter’s friend talks to her about her relationship with her mother, and Marianne talks to Eva about the many issues she had with her ex, Albert.  Weirdly, Sarah and her husband choose to raise their complaints about each other in front of each other in company, but they couch it in terms of theoretical situations, ‘If I were to get married again, I’d…’.  Sometimes the irritations get too much, and the relationship ends, and sometimes irritations are just something you learn to live with that’s preferable to losing the person from your life.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the perfect lead for this movie and the chemistry between her and James is palpable as their character’s relationship deepens.  I feel like I’ve been around Julia’s work for most of my adult life, I used to love her as Elaine in ‘Seinfeld’, then as a version of herself in ‘Curb’ then as the lead in ‘Veep’ and latterly in ‘Onward’ and ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’.  Eva is an interesting character, she seems content with her life, her family, her friends but is open to new people; she also knows her own flaws and is open to change.  She works as a masseuse and every time she meets someone new she is faced with the same questions anyone who does that job must constantly be asked; she fields these observations with a polite boredom.  And again, even with her clients, they have their idiosyncrasies that irritate her and rather than address the problem and risk losing them as a client, she chooses to make the best of it.

I found it refreshing to see that one of the many realisations in this movie is that what one person thinks of as a flaw in another is often subjective. One of the lessons here is that everyone can be everything to someone and nothing to someone else.   Everyone deserves to find their ‘one’ and to have a shot at happiness regardless of whether someone else has discarded them.  It reminds me of something someone once said to me that ‘there’s a lid for every pot’.

Given the central premise of Albert & Marianne not knowing that they both know Eva, you might expect many a farcical situation, but this movie isn’t about playing up to that.  There are maybe two instances where it comes close, but the situations are dealt in a more relatable way and not for obvious laughs.  The laugh out loud moments are naturally driven, the kind of laughs you would have in a real-life situation if someone said or did something funny, rather there being a big set up for the metaphorical punchline.  I found a great deal of warmth in this movie, it’s very touching, intimate and clever; it seemed to be about decent people trying their best and I think with all the troubles around us these days, it’s valuable to be reminded of that.

The music is very unintrusive and choice of songs were a great fit; this song that plays over the end credits, perfectly encapsulates the sentiment of the movie.

I’ve read a few times since seeing this movie, that Albert is the closest character to how James Gandolfini was in real life.  If that’s true, then he was a lovely guy.  It’s a tragic loss that James died aged just 51 (before the release of this movie and having never seen the finished work). 

As the credits rolled and after the cast of characters were displayed, came two simple words by way of a dedication that broke my heart, ‘For Jim’.

As a footnote, upon finishing this blog post, I was delighted to see that this movie is #20 on Rotten Tomatoes ‘The 200 Best Romantic Comedies Of All Time’:


StoryNicole Holofcener
CastJulia Louis-Dreyfus, as Eva
James Gandolfini, as Albert
Catherine Keener, as Marianne
Toni Collette, as Sarah
DirectorNicole Holofcener
Running Time94 mins

Uncle Frank

Partially inspired by Writer/Director Alan Ball’s own family history, ‘Uncle Frank’ is a coming out story. 

Frank comes from a fairly large Southern family; having removed himself from it to study and then live and work in New York, he only returns to South Carolina for big family events where he’s met with brooding hostility from his father and with fascination from his niece Beth.  This story is told mostly from Beth’s perspective as she takes a similar path to her uncle, not feeling like she quite fits in at home and encouraged by Frank, follows him to New York to study.

Frank is in his 40’s and over the decades has separated his life into compartments, he’s got his non-sexual/heterosexual family part, his NYC professional part then his friends & lover part.  All kept strictly apart, and for good reason; until relatively recently, this is something everyone in the LGBTQ+ had to do in order to survive and have a halfway decent life.

However, Beth is the catalyst that throws chaos into that order moving from his family life into his NYC life, and then into his personal life dragging aspects from one through everything else.  A family event that happens back home goes on to further blur the lines of his separate lives when Frank, his lover, and Beth have to undertake a car journey from New York back to South Carolina.  It’s a literal and metaphorical journey with the destination being the family crucible.

This feels like a necessary catharsis for anyone in the LGBTQ+ community.  Sadly, as with much LGBTQ+ film and television, there is a lot of sadness and tragedy, it being set mainly in the early 1970’s in the American South adding its own dimension to that. However, there’s also a lot of humour, much joy and a great deal of love.

I felt that it said all the right things to its audience, people need reminding that it wasn’t very long ago that homophobia was socially and legally acceptable in every part of society.  It’s less the case now, but it’s still pretty bad and in many places it’s as bad as it can be and I think people sometimes get comfortable and complacent.   This story begins within my own lifetime and I know prejudice like this exists now in many places but it’s still shocking and sobering to see just how things were for many people.  Homophobia is a fairly unique prejudice in that it gives the subject the option of hiding; hiding what makes them different or living their genuine life openly and freely; this could sound like a blessing, but it’s always a curse.

I’m writing this having watched episode 3 of ‘It’s a Sin’ by Russell T. Davies. Set from 1981 to 1991, it tells the story of a group of friends, mainly gay, living in London during the outbreak of the AIDS pandemic.  It’s interesting to see ‘Uncle Frank’ in the context of ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘The Normal Heart’ where Frank has to deal with intolerance, shame, and illegality pre the era where all that has a deadly disease thrown all over the top of it to make each of those components magnitudes worse.  It’s like you know there’s a monster coming that’s going to kills millions of people and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

The cast of this movie is superb.  There’s a bit of a debate lately as to whether straight actors should be playing gay characters and I understand the concern but sometimes it just depends on whether the actor can do the role justice.  I thought Paul Bettany, as Frank, was exceptionally good in this, I believed in him.  Sophia Lillis, as Beth, was equally as good and remarkably self-assured given her relative inexperience to the rest of the cast, people like Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Stephen Root.  The other outstanding performance here was that of Margo Martindale as Franks’ Mammaw.  I’m growing to really love Margo Martindale, having seen her play such great roles in ‘The Good Wife’ and ‘Mrs America’, she’s never in things quite enough, I always want to see more.

StoryScreenplay by Alan Ball
CastPaul Bettany, as Frank Bledsoe
Sophia Lillis, as Beth Bledsoe
Peter Macdissi, as Walid ‘Wally’ Nadeem
Steve Zahn, as Mike Bledsoe
Judy Greer, as Kitty Bledsoe
Margo Martindale, as Mammaw
Stephen Root, as Daddy Mac
DirectorAlan Ball
Running Time95 mins


Pixar always manages to go above and beyond what you’d expect from an animated PG movie.  From their very first, ‘Toy Story’, Pixar movies have told stories about what it means to be alive; the central theme isn’t about finding romantic love but instead is about the relationships we have with our family, our friends and ourselves.  In recent years, Pixar has delved deeper into the human condition and looked at how we face death with movies like ‘Up’, ‘Coco’, ‘Onward’ and now ‘Soul’.

‘Soul’ is the story of part-time music teacher Joe Gardner who’s dream it is to play jazz professionally.  As with ‘Up’, the story is set up beautifully within the first few minutes, we see Joe at his job, we see his relationship with his mother and we understand what drives him, and right before the titles roll, we see Joe get the break that he’s been longing for before walking into the street and (presumably) plunging to his death down an open manhole.

The afterlife, or as is here, the in-between, is often portrayed in movies as a celestial bureaucracy, think of ‘Beetlejuice’, ‘Defending Your Life’, ‘Heaven Can Wait’ or ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ with the common theme of a mistake, a loophole, someone attempting to cheat the system.  Clearly, ‘Soul’ has borrowed imagery and themes from ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ including the classic stairway to heaven and the rendering of the afterlife as simplistic and flat with life being portrayed as being full and beautiful – it’s the antithesis of the depiction of the colourful fantasy, dream world of ‘Oz’ and the mundanity of life for Dorothy in black-and-white Kansas.

As an aside, Powell & Pressburger movies have provided artistic inspiration to others for many decades later. One such example being where ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ unashamedly lifts the scene from ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ where the pilot is being comforted by his love interest via radio as he crashes to his (presumed) death.

However, ‘Soul’ goes one step further and similar to another Pixar movie, ‘Inside Out’, ‘Soul’ (same director) throws in some complex psychological, philosophical theories to flesh out the bureaucratic aspect. Hopefully, this doesn’t make it sound dull or to complex, for me it makes it more interesting and adds another, optional layer to engage with.

After the opening titles, the rest of the movie concerns itself with Joe’s journey through (and quest to get out of) this theoretical in-between existence where he meets various bureaucrats of a varying degree of officiousness.  He also encounters the other souls in various stages of development looking to be deployed; one of these is a reluctant soul who’s been there an eternity, numbered 22 out of however many billion.

Part of the fun for me with animated movies is hearing the well-known voices and trying to guess who they are.  As usual, with Pixar, there’s a mix of the very famous and the relatively niche; Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, Graham Norton and Richard Ayoade.

We’d watched ‘Onward’ a couple of months before this and emotionally that had a more instant, harder punch.  ‘Soul’ is a slow burner that gets right inside and stays with you a long time afterwards, which I guess is the whole point.

StoryScreenplay and story by Pete Docter, Mike Jones & Kemp Powers
CastJamie Foxx, as Joe Gardner
Tina Fey, as 22
Graham Norton, as Moonwind
Phylicia Rashad, as Libba
Angela Bassett, as Dorothea
DirectorPete Docter & Kemp Powers
Running Time106 mins


Judy Garland died before I was born; I’ve always found it fascinating that I would feel such an affinity with someone who didn’t exist in the world when I did.  I don’t know if this is a weird thought but to me, she’s someone I grew up with, she’s there in my earliest memories, I would call her ‘Judy Garden’ as I couldn’t get my tongue round the word ‘Garland’.  I was maybe 4 years old when I first saw ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and I was captivated, I’d never seen anything like it and I’d never heard anyone sing like THAT.

I’d always assumed that many people generally feel indifferent towards Judy, maybe a little fondness bound up with some childhood memories and those that admired her greatly were in the minority.  It’s the reverse for gay men, at least for gay men over a certain age.  She exists in a collective unconscious where there is a genetic predisposition for us to be drawn to her, I know this is a generalisation as my partner is one person who’s never seen a Judy Garland movie the whole way through, but in the main, the affection for Judy is palpable whenever you mention her name.

Some may say that gay men are drawn to tragic figures: the substance abuse, the multiple marriages to men who would let her down, the early death and the regret at not being able to save her.  But, for me at least, I was too young to know any of that or what it meant, I just saw this young girl singing from her the depths of her soul about a place in her dreams where she yearned to escape to, my love pre-existed the cliché.  I didn’t know what gay was, I guess I knew I was different and that there were times when I didn’t fit in to what was expected that a little boy would like or enjoy doing but I was drawn to worlds of fantasy and the idea of being able to reach somewhere over the rainbow beguiled me.

When I was a little older I saw the extravaganza that was ‘Easter Parade’, then some years later, ‘Meet Me In St Louis’ where she sang about ‘The Boy Next Door’ and then ‘A Star is Born where she sang about ‘The Man That Got Away’.  Her performance in ‘A Star is Born’ is the defining role of her adult career, her portrayal of Vicki Lester is so raw and painful, her voice the best that it ever was.

A few years ago, I heard a theory that Judy Garland’s death was the spark that ignited the Stonewall riots.  The overwhelming grief combined with the continual harassment and persecution proved to be too much and caused the LGBTQ community to finally fight back and say enough!  The dates certainly fit, Judy Garland’s funeral was held on Friday, June 27 1969 and in the early hours of Saturday June 28 1969, the NYPD raided the Stonewall bar, for the second time that week.   I don’t know if the connection is real and I don’t know if it matters but as an apocryphal event it’s entered into a gay mythology where the love for Judy Garland sparked a movement that fought for the equal rights of a downtrodden section of society, for those people that loved her the most.

The movie of Judy Garlands’ last months, ‘Judy’, was released in late 2019.  Based partly on the stage play ‘The End of the Rainbow’, it shows Judy coming to London to perform live shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub, now the Hippodrome, off Leicester Square.

With a few flashbacks to her days on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ set and on a fake date with Mickey Rooney, we see her as a vulnerable teenager being emotionally manipulated, and drugged, by the powerful studio she worked for.  The personification of this manipulation comes in the overbearing form of Louis B. Mayer. His threatening behaviour strikes alarming parallels with Harvey Weinstein and you see that little has changed in the past 80 years, though hopefully now, the brave women of the ‘Me Too’ movement have helped consign this dark chapter to history.

This is perhaps the iconic performance of a lifetime for Renée Zellweger, the physical transformation is perfect, the dark eyes, the hair, the costumes but the biggest homage to Judy comes when Renée sings.   When Judy arrives at the club for her first night, she’s all but physically pushed on to the stage by her PA and starts in on a lengthy chat as she engages with her audience for the first time. We’re unsure that she’s going to be able to pull this off, she’s clearly unsure of it herself, we’ve just seen her crumpled and coughing backstage.  But then she begins to sing, ‘By Myself’, and it’s like someone pressed the on switch, she instinctively knows how to do it, she’s been doing it for over 40 years.

Judy Garland has one of those voices that you instantly recognise, there’s an indefinable quality laying underneath it and Renée gets it down perfectly.  She isn’t mimicking her, or parodying her, you can hear it’s Renee Zellweger singing but you hear Judy Garland coming through as well. I found a really cool clip on where Renée Zellweger and Rupert Goold, the director break down this scene:

This movie is a love letter to Judy, you see how flawed and flaky she is, how unreliable and temperamental she is but you also see why and how this happened and that she really didn’t stand a chance.  She never comes across as mean or spiteful and the times where she crumbles as a helpless victim are counterbalanced with shows of strength and compassion.

Of one of the things that I learnt from this movie, one really struck a chord with me, I learnt that Judy was the same age as me when she died; she could still be alive today at 97 when you think that Olivia de Havilland is still with us at 103.  At 47, she had achieved so much and yet she was still a young woman who had the potential to achieve more had she chosen to, and to enjoy the rest of her life in her own terms.

Another aspect of Judy that I hadn’t fully appreciated before was the depth of her love for her children, something that is all the more poignant given the lack of any care from her own parents.  She loved singing and when she performed, she entered some kind of ethereal state but ultimately, her work was a means to provide for her children.  You can see the bond she has with them in this interview with Barbara Walters from 1967:

Perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie, undoubtedly fictitious but with a sense of authenticity, is when Judy meets a gay couple at the stage door and ends up going home with them.  Judy is clearly everything to them and for one night their idol becomes their best friend.  I found it powerful because it’s the one scene that really acknowledges her indelible connection with the gay community. As one of the guys plays the piano while she sings, he begins to sob; for him this is not only because this is a dream come true but it’s from the relief that comes when you’ve nothing left at the end of a struggle.

“They hound people in this world, anyone that’s different.
Well to hell with them.”

One of the things that I’m grateful to this movie for is reminding me of how I feel about Judy now and how I felt about her growing up.  It’s a fitting tribute to her and for the people who love her.  It’s awesome, and no surprise, that Renée won the Best Actress Oscar for this role, but it’s also poignant and touching given that Judy Garland never won this accolade herself.  It’s as if she’s been given a second chance and this film brings her that final piece of recognition.

“You won’t forget me, will you? Promise you won’t.”

StoryScreenplay by Tom Edge, based on ‘End of the Rainbow’ by Peter Quilter
CastRenee Zellweger, as Judy Garland
Jessie Buckley, as Rosalyn Wilder
Finn Wittrock, as Mickey Deans
DirectorRupert Goold
Running Time118 mins

The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer is as mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more; powerful doesn’t do this movie justice.

I’ve heard people say that it seems like any movie about gay people will inevitably end in someone dying of AIDS but with the advent of ‘Love, Simon’, ‘Call Me By Your Name’, God’s Own Country’ and ‘The Weekend’ we are seeing more stories that focus on individuals and their relationships without them getting sick. However, the reality is that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is a major chapter in our history and if you don’t retell it, it gets forgotten – and it mustn’t be forgotten.

‘The Normal Heart’ is a valuable addition to the litany of movies that includes ‘Philadelphia’, ‘Angels in America’ and ‘Longtime Companion’. Where this movie differs is that it charts the rise of a movement as well as telling the very personal stories of the individuals involved.

‘The Normal Heart’ begins with our lead character Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) visiting the East Coast gay party central, Fire Island in 1981 for his friend Craig’s birthday.  Mark Ruffalo is playing a fictionalised version of the movies’ screenwriter (and activist) Larry Kramer. As they celebrate, Craig begins to exhibit symptoms that he is very ill.  From here, the movie then charts the genesis of a movement that led to the recognition of a global health pandemic and ultimately to its detection and treatment.  It’s semi-autobiographical in that all the main characters existed (though their names have been changed) but the events have been condensed and heightened to work effectively to tell the story in 2 hours.

One of the two central relationships of ‘The Normal Heart’ is between Ned and Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch).  They’re both desperate to help where no-one else will but they clash wildly on how to go about it.  Ned is an angry, loose cannon, unwilling to compromise while Bruce is more careful and conciliatory – the heart vs. the head.

Julia Roberts is Dr Emma Brookner, wheelchair-bound due to contracting Polio as a child. She is the catalyst that fuels Ned’s anger and indignation whilst also providing him with hope, ‘Polio is a virus and no one gets Polio any more’.  Her initial advice to gay men is that they should refrain from sex in order to survive.  While she is driven initially by logic, through getting to know the people setting up the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group she learns that there are larger, societal and political reasons why this advice is untenable.

Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatright really stood out for me, in a sea of anger and passion, he is the voice of calm and reason.   He’s the most relatable and it feels like he takes you by the hand and leads you through a story that often feels more like a war zone.

The wider political story here is juxtaposed with the effect that this new disease is having on the individuals.  The first, is the dramatic difference we see through Ned’s eyes of an acquaintance, Sanford, who he bumps into in the Dr’s waiting room, he has a couple of scars on his face ‘that keep getting bigger and won’t go away’.  A bit later on, Ned is visiting an isolation ward at the hospital and we see Sanford, totally alone, covered in scars and out of his mind in one of the rooms.  It’s also here that we see the inhumanity, driven by fear, that vulnerable people were subjected to by those meant to be caring for them.

The other central relationship is the love story between Ned and Felix Turner (Matt Bomer). Having met very briefly before, Ned is now more open and their relationship enables him to fall in love for probably the first time.  But like a character in a horror movie, the disease doesn’t discriminate between its victims and Felix soon finds a scar on his foot that ‘keeps getting bigger and doesn’t go away’.

Originally written as a play, there are half dozen instances when a character will give an impassioned speech and I felt that in this context it worked and didn’t seem stagey.   The speeches are immensely powerful, heartfelt and moving whilst punctuating the story and succinctly summarising where a character is at.

In the great honour roll of civil rights leaders, the ones fighting for LGBTQ+ rights are much less welll-known and so the stories of people such as Larry Kramer, Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones & Peter Tatchell require telling.  These people define ‘hero’ as they dedicate their lives fighting for the basic equalities that should be available to everyone despite being portrayed as a nuisance at best or a villain a worst.

Shamefully, their/our fight is still relevant today, nearly 40 years later.

28 May 2020 – Yesterday Mr Larry Kramer died aged 84; the LGBT community has lost one its true heroes. Fearless in the face of unabashed hatred, he fought for our very lives. One of the truly heartwarming things since yesterday has been the outpouring of genuine love for this man. RIP Larry x

Larry Kramer (1935-2020)
Larry Kramer (1935-2020)
StoryScreenplay by Larry Kramer, based on his own play
CastMark Ruffalo, as Ned Weeks
Matt Bomer, as Felix Turner
Taylor Kitsch, as Bruce Niles
Jim Parsons, as Tommy Boatright
Julia Roberts, as Dr Emma Brookner
DirectorRyan Murphy
Running Time132 mins


Set in 1970, in Mexico City, this is said to be Alfonso Cuaron’s most personal film to date.  The care he’s lavished on this film becomes obvious in the opening credits when you see he’s taken ownership of every key aspect: direction, production, story & script, cinematography and editing.

‘Roma’ is very reminiscent of the British and French New Wave styles of the 1950s and 1960s that promoted a more realistic, pseudo-documentary style of film-making.  The documentary style of this movie is developed through beautiful black and white, naturalistic dialogue, the long-tracking shots and economical use of editing.  Rather than using the bombastic techniques of cinema to show the drama, this all falls to the actors and the story itself.

Using unknown actors is another way of keeping the focus on the seemingly small story and not blowing it big by using famous people.   In her debut role, Yalitza Aparicio is Cleo, maid to a middle-class family and she carries this movie, appearing in virtually every frame.  It’s a powerful performance but a lesson in quiet dignity and unassuming bravery as she bears the pain and disappointments that come her way.  Her priority is the family she works for and in return, they give her an immense amount of love back.

As Cleo’s boss, Sofia, is Marina de Tavira who gives the impression of someone living on the edge of her nerves.  Mirroring Cleo’s tribulations, her life as she knows it is beginning to unravel.  Although the problems are of an equal ordeal to both women, they differ in relation to the social constructs they find themselves in.  The defining common ground they both have is verbalised one night when Sofia returns home and drunkenly says ‘Women, we are alone. No matter what they tell you, we are always alone’, their fortunes are up to this point determined by the men in their lives but are theirs to deal with, on their own.

Having no original score, music of the time and place is played on the radio, at the cinema, at a party, in the street.  The expert use sound in this movie rivals the exceptional cinematography; the bedlam of a hospital, the chaos of a student riot, the sound of a marching band practising in the street, the crashing of waves at the beach, the everyday sounds of the street from people talking, planes flying overhead, dogs barking.  It’s all very beautiful and naturalistic.

This is a classic slow-burner of a movie that through it’s slow and quiet pace draws you in bit-by-bit as you literally follow Cleo through an ultimately dramatic and life-changing year.

StoryScreenplay by Alfonso Cuaron
CastYalitza Aparicio, as Cleo Gutierrez
Marina de Tavira, as Sofia
DirectorAlfonso Cuaron
Running Time135 mins

Penny Marshall (1943-2018)

As a teenager, I would often take myself off to the cinema after school; part of it was the new found ability to be independent and do things on my own, but mostly it came of a desire to escape into my love of the movies for a couple of hours. Naturally, those movies you see when young are what you will always regard as a ‘golden-age’; my teens covered the late 80’s and early 90’s with the release of such movies as ‘Back to the Future’, ‘The Goonies’, ‘Die Hard’, ‘The Princess Bride’, ‘Beaches’, the list feels endless to me.

Three of the most memorable movies were ‘Big’ (1988), ‘Awakenings’ (1990) and ‘A League of their Own’ (1992); directed by Penny Marshall. Wildly different in theme, these were all brave choices that don’t on paper shout out ‘hit’. All the braver considering that Penny was practically the only successful female director on the scene at that time. Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow were just coming into their own but everyone else seemed to disappear after one-hit.

There are no guns, no special effects, no Arnie – these are character-driven stories with fun, passion and empathy: ‘Big’ is the story of a boy who wishes to be grown up; ‘Awakenings’ is based on the true story of Oliver Sacks’ work with catatonic patients in a psychiatric hospital; ‘A League of their Own’ is again, based on a true-life story of the women baseball players who kept the leagues going while the male players were fighting in WWII.

What connects these three very different stories, is Penny Marshall’s ability to put magic into real-life situations. In ‘Big’ the magic is more obvious but is only there to act as the catalyst to enable the story. ‘Awakenings’ is like a modern fairytale where the statues come to life and the magic in ‘League’ comes through the camaraderie of the women breaking down barriers and doing something they love to do rather than something they feel obliged to do.

Being a natural comedian also meant that Penny was able to imbue her movies with a sense of fun; whilst not really comedies, there are some properly funny moments in all three movies, even in ‘Awakenings’. Then on the reverse, all three movies will make most people weep buckets with their delicate depiction of the poignancy of loss (innocence, life, youth).

Credit must also be given for Penny Marshall’s ability to elicit such amazing performances from her actors. Tom Hanks utterly convinces that this grown-man is actually only a little boy; Robin Williams and Robert De Niro go totally against type as they both portray quiet, sensitive, thoughtful characters and who knew Madonna could actually be a really good actress?

With still very few women directors making movies today, Penny Marshall was definitely in a league of her own.

Lean on Pete

I went into this thinking it’d be a sweet, moving film about a boy and his horse… this isn’t that film.

Charley is played by Charlie Plummer, he lives with his Dad and life is pretty bleak.  He gets a job at a racecourse, meets some interesting people and then meets and forms a bond with Lean on Pete the racehorse.  Chloe Sevigny and Steve Buscemi as Bonnie and Del are the two main characters he meets at the racecourse, both actors are indy movie staples and rightfully so as they command the screen in their every scene.

Both Charley and Pete are characters that you want the best for. They are both vulnerable, innocent and victims of circumstances not of their making. It becomes clear early on that Pete is no longer in his prime and with an uncertain future for them both, Charley has to make a decision.

This is a movie of vignettes as Charley encounters a variety of people and situations who appear into his life then fairly soon after disappear.  Some you are relieved when they go and some you wish would hang around. It really is Charlie Plummer’s movie and he carries Charley’s life as it tangibly weighs heavily upon his too young shoulders.

With many powerful moments in this movie, there’s one that comes as a complete shock and is real punch in the stomach for the viewer, I think I actually exclaimed ‘Oh f***!’.  I hope just saying that isn’t a spoiler, though I’m not saying where in the movie and anything about what happens more than the movie shifts completely as a result.

This isn’t a movie with a very wordy script and there’s little in the way of incidental music, but every frame is beautifully composed.  It’s to the skill of Andrew Haigh and Charlie Plummer and the choices they make in telling this story that makes this film such a compelling watch.

I don’t want to give the impression that this film is relentlessly bleak, because it isn’t, but it’s certainly no ‘Mamma Mia’.

And again, I have to express my continuing admiration for Andrew Haigh, he excels in the kind of thoughtful, character-driven pieces that cinema requires and that leave you feeling fulfilled and enriched.

StoryScreenplay by Andrew Haigh, based on the novel by Willy Vlautin
CastCharlie Plummer, as Charley Thompson
Steve Buscemi, as Del Montgomery
Travis Fimmel, as Ray Thompson
Chloe Sevigny, as Bonnie
DirectorAndrew Haigh
Running Time121 mins

A Star is Born

It’s fitting that this is one of my first pieces given the connection between this website name and a previous iteration of this movie.   In this version of ‘A Star is Born’ there’s also a respectful nod to Judy Garland not long after we first meet Lady Gaga’s Ally that shows this version isn’t afraid to embrace its past.

On seeing the trailer some months ago, I was immediately predisposed to thinking that this was going to be incredible.  And it is.

This movie almost seems impossible not to be great; it’s the perfect movie for re-imagining with each generation.  The love story and the rise and fall of stardom are universal themes and a new version will simply make it relevant for today.  It’s also a cautionary tale that Hollywood curiously chooses to retell given that if ever there was a bad guy in this story, the industry that creates and maintains these stars fits perfectly.

The first version in 1937 received seven Oscar nominations, winning one for the story.  The second (and the only other version that I’ve seen) added the musical element that its taken on ever since and received 6 nominations.  Whilst Judy Garland is undoubtedly why anyone would watch this movie, James Mason is utterly believable as a broken man on a rapid descent from stardom.  Judy’s belting out ‘The Man That Got Away’ as she and her band play in a deserted bar is one of the key moments from her incredible career.

But back to 2018…

Bradley Cooper as Jackson and Lady Gaga as Ally feel completely equal in this version where in the Garland/Mason version they hadn’t so much.  They both have a huge story, both are beautiful, believable and they both break your heart.  I know Gaga divides opinion and I think you’d have a hard time watching this if you really don’t like her.  But if you like her even just a little bit, this can’t help but make you love her.

With Bradley Cooper, you’d think there was a risk in letting an actor not known for his  singing represent a character who’s meant to be Pearl Jam or Nirvana level famous, but there’s no risk here, he sings like he was born to it.   This movie shines when Cooper and Gaga are together on screen creating such chemistry that you miss them when the story temporarily shifts elsewhere.  When they both sing on stage, especially for the first time, you see a jaded star rekindle the joy he’d lost in performing next to someone tentatively reaching for that chance to shine having long since given up.  It’s incomprehensibly moving.

(I’d recommend watching the clip below after seeing the movie.  It isn’t a spoiler but may lessen the impact of the scene)

I was captured at how beautifully this movie is shot with some intensely intimate close ups that reflect the intimacy of the relationship; the view from the back of the stage out to the expanse of the audience giving us some sense of what the performer experiences; the wide open spaces of the Arizona desert that make even a wind farm look beautiful; the yellow sky and the palm trees of Los Angeles – this is how you want America to look in a movie.

The script must be sure to win awards; there’s very natural sense to the characters’ talking to each other, a lot of this is due to the skill of the acting but also to the deftness of the dialogue.  I was especially drawn to how you see the two leads get to know each other, as this often seems to be too quickly and clumsily done on screen.

In one of the scenes that shows the negative side of fame, we see Jack bundled into a car after a concert escaping a crowd who seem more like an angry mob than a group of appreciative fans.  Then later, we see him in a shop being photographed by a checkout assistant who basically says that she’s powerless to resist the urge to intrude.

Given that this movie is about two singer-songwriters, the music in this film is beautifully composed, written and performed.  Some of the songs belie the musical nature of the movie only in that they drive the narrative forward.  However, the songs stand alone as instant classics with ‘Shallow’ being the big hitter, to name some of the other songs would be a little spoiler-ish.  I’d recommend only listening to the soundtrack after seeing the movie.   Apparently, Lady Gaga compiled the album and included a lot of dialogue snippets; there’s a reason the album was released the same day as the movie.

I think any established director would be proud of what they’d achieved with this movie, but for Bradley Cooper’s first time in a dual role both behind the camera and in front, this is indeed something special.

StoryScreenplay by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters
Based on the screenplay of the 1937 film by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker & Alan Campbell
CastBradley Cooper, as Jackson Maine
Lady Gaga, as Ally Maine
Sam Elliott, as Bobby Maine
Andrew Dice Clay, as Lorenzo Campano
DirectorBradley Cooper
Running Time136 mins

An Italian vacation, farming up North, a weekend in Nottingham and coming out in Atlanta

Gay movies, or ‘movies on a gay theme’ have a lot of responsibility these days.  They can’t just be dramas or romantic comedies, they have to portray a variety of people who just happen to fall in love with folks of their own gender.   With a few exceptions, for decades we’ve been the funny best friend, the murder victim (or murderer) or die of an AIDS-related illness.  These portrayals exist in real life but so do many others and as the movies released recently go to show, there are as many different stories to tell as there are people.

Not intentionally, we saw four ‘gay’ movies in the space of a couple of weeks and really if this continues, we’ve seen a renaissance in the portrayal of how we’re represented on celluloid and long may it continue.

Call Me By Your Name

StoryScreenplay by James Ivory, based on the book by Andre Aciman
CastArmie Hammer, as Oliver
Timothee Chalamet, as Elio Perlman
Michael Stuhlbarg, as Samuel Perlman
Amira Casar, as Annella Perlman
DirectorLuca Guadagnino
Running Time132 mins

The first one was the much-lauded ‘Call Me By Your Name’, beautifully shot and impeccably scripted, this is delivered as a modern(ish) dream in the sense of a ‘Room With a View’ (unsurprising given the James Ivory connection).  This is a film that takes you on a holiday that you can relax and melt in to, nothing massively dramatic or contentious happens and everyone behaves pretty decently towards one another.  The bohemian family and environment make it so that it really doesn’t seem to matter what someone’s sexuality is, the only conflict appearing to come from within the individual, or ultimately when the holiday ends and you go back in to the world.  This is an important moment in gay cinema as it shows a very different side of itself than has been seen much before, or at least not seen with this level of praise and publicity. I must admit to feeling not very connected with the characters and while I enjoyed the movie, I wasn’t AS moved by it as I’ve found others to be.  Maybe as one friend said about my reaction to this movie, I’m heartless…

God’s Own Country

StoryScreenplay by Francis Lee
CastJosh O’Connor, as Johnny Saxby
Alec Secareanu, as Gheorghe Ionescu
Gemma Jones, as Deidre Saxby
Ian Hart, as Martin Saxby
DirectorFrancis Lee
Running Time104 mins

Next was ‘God’s Own Country’ and what could easily be Britain’s answer to ‘Brokeback Mountain’, though that movie didn’t include someone elbow deep in cow’s bum or two guys rolling round with their pants pulled down in the mud. Josh O’Connor as disaffected farmer Johnny inhabits the role perfectly; his skill as an actor is highlighted even more when you see how he creates characters so far away from Johnny as in ‘The Durrells’. I’m curious to see his take on Prince Charles in the third season of ‘The Crown’.  Johnny’s behavior rings true as he punctures his daily grind with random encounters and getting wasted at the pub whenever he can.  Who’s he ever going to meet in such a remote location and what prospects does he have other than what he already has.  Luckily, and in a pre-Brexit UK (would this story be possible after March 2019?) Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) enters Johnny’s world and things begin to change.  Alec Secareanu is perfect as Gheorghe, seemingly very laid back, quiet but emotionally free – the antithesis of Johnny.

Again, as with ‘Call Me By Your Name’, the relationship of the two leads doesn’t create a huge level of opposition (aside from a nasty encounter down the pub) and it’s more the conflict within Johnny than anything external.   Some of the most touching moments in the movie come from Johnny’s relationship with his Dad, two people both uncomfortable in expressing themselves freely.


StoryScreenplay by Andrew Haigh
CastTom Cullen, as Russell
Chris New, as Glen
DirectorAndrew Haigh
Running Time97 mins

By far, I felt the greatest connection with Weekend by Andrew Haigh; having loved Haigh’s TV show ‘Looking’ (2014-2016), I decided to get this movie on DVD.  As an aside, Andrew Haigh certainly seems one to watch having been consistently good in his choices of stories and their execution.  The connection I felt with ‘Weekend’ came partly through having spent my formative years away from home at university in the East Midlands but also from being of a similar age (then) and socio-economic background to the two protagonists.  The realism of the situations portrayed, the people they meet, the places they go, the feelings they have all came echoing through to me.   This would be impossible if it weren’t for an un-romanticized script and two very real performances from Tom Cullen and Chris New.  The filming being with pretty basic hand-held cameras also lends itself to a documentary feel and makes it easy for this to become believable.

Love, Simon

StoryScreenplay by Isaac Aptaker & Elizabeth Berger based on ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Albertalli
CastNick Robinson, as Simon Spier
Jennifer Garner, as Emily Spier
Josh Duhamel, as Jack Spier
Katherine Langford, as Leah Burke
DirectorGreg Berlanti
Running Time110 mins

Lastly, we saw ‘Love, Simon’ in the cinema. I knew director Greg Berlanti from his work as creator of ‘Flash’, ‘Arrow’ & ‘Supergirl’ and was always taken by how these shows would feature gay characters where their sexuality wasn’t that much of a big deal. ‘Love, Simon’ is the 21st Century answer to the John Hughes high-school movies of the 1980s (the look, the poppy soundtrack, the high-school setting, the comedic moments). In the 80’s, it would have been impossible to feature a positive gay character and I think it shows how far society has come that 30 years later we get to see someone like Simon in a mainstream teen movie.  Like the other three movies, the conflict is largely from within the main character coming to terms with the fact that they are different; but not only that, they are different in a way that is very easy to hide.

I think this movie is all about that conflicting desire to hide because of the shame bestowed by society and the overpowering urge to be free to live out your own story not set by the terms of others.  Again, this is a milestone in cinema where we see gay characters break away from traditional caricatures; for these four movies to come in relatively quick succession is very heartening.  The overriding sense that pervades these four movies is one of hope and to quote Harvey Milk, ‘you gotta give them hope’.