The Pitch: “One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite – that particular peach is but a detail.” — Pablo Picasso
The Review: I’ve been writing this blog for seven years now. I say writing, I used to churn out a thousand words of incisive wit every other day and now I spend most of my time talking about films on radio rather than writing on them here. Foolishly, because I’m clearly so good at committing to writing, I’d love to start a food blog at some point, having developed a love of cooking that finally matches my love of eating over the past twenty years. When I went to university twenty-five years ago my entire repertoire consisted of cottage pie with tinned mince, roast potatoes and a passable apple crumble. Now my love of cookery is almost as well travelled as my love of cinema: these days I’ll attempt food from almost as many cultures as those from which I sample films.
One particular fondness I’ve developed is for Italian cuisine. Forget sloppy spag bols with sauce out of a jar or last night’s reheated pizza, the best Italian food uses a handful of ingredients but makes sure they are of the highest quality. Clearly you can guess where I’m going with this food-based metaphor, but it’s a perfect fit for Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, an adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel. Originally due to be co-directed by James Ivory, famous for his British period dramas produced by Ismail Merchant, Ivory instead sold the script to Guadagnino to keep the financiers happy, and it’s allowed CALL ME BY YOUR NAME to retain a simple, pure focus.
The film is built around two central performances, both of which are revelatory in their own ways. Timothée Chalamet has so far had a career of small parts, including MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN and INTERSTELLAR, while Armie Hammer is best known for his literally two-faced role in THE SOCIAL NETWORK and for being the unfortunate sidekick in the lead role in the underrated THE LONE RANGER. Here, Chalamet is teenager Elio, spending the summer with his family at their Lombardy villa but displaced from his bedroom by Hammer’s visiting student Oliver. Elio is immediately in awe of the standoffish Oliver, but doesn’t know how to process his initial feelings and finds different outlets for his frustrations – including a stunted flirtation with local girl Marzia (Esther Garrel) – before his and Oliver’s facades gradually lower.
It’s difficult to know which of the two performances is better, but that’s a nice dilemma to have for any film. Chalamet is wiry and slippery, a buzz of teenage energy driven by a keen mind but with his musical talents the only outlet for his passion until Oliver’s arrival. Oliver, direct and abrupt almost to the point of insolence in Elio’s eyes, still has a magnetism that won’t let Elio’s gaze alone. It’s the beauty of the way that their relationship is developed, the occasional brush of human contact here, a knowing gaze there, every moment believable and compelling. The two unite over their common interests and their heritage, closeted Jews in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and first their minds and then their bodies are drawn together. Oliver’s cautiousness is understandable; Elio is only seventeen, and while mature in many ways childish in others, but as his adolescence flowers it’s nurtured comfortingly by Oliver’s gradually revealed warmth.
The warmth isn’t just in the performances of the two leads, but in everything that Guadagnino’s brought together. While his previous films such as I AM LOVE and A BIGGER SPLASH have certainly had moments of warmth and tenderness, they’ve often been mixed slightly more with brusqueness and cynicism. Here, Ivory’s script is a masterclass in human emotion, slowly peeling away the layers of the two leads and drawing you into their intimacy. It’s backed up by Guadagnino’s direction, but also by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography, capturing the lushness of the Italian countryside and giving the film the feel of a faded memory of summers past, and by songs from Sufjan Stevens on the soundtrack. Even the Eighties setting of the film is layered on gracefully, with a Talking Heads T-shirt and a Walkman feeling redolent of the time but unobtrusive in the northern Italian landscape.
In a way, the film saves one of its greatest assets for last. Chekov’s Gun is a dramatic principle that you shouldn’t put a gun on the wall if you’re not going to fire it later, and it’s the parents (Amira Cassar and Michael Stuhlbarg) who observe for the majority of the film from the sidelines, occasionally giving dramatic impetus but mainly making us envious of summers in the countryside. But a climactic scene between Stuhlbarg and Chalamet raises the emotional intensity of the film to almost achingly beautiful levels, possibly giving us the first instance of Chekhov’s Stuhlbarg committed to film and hopefully not the last when he’s as good as he is here.
Even from our more enlightened 21st century position it feels strange that so few films still deal in non-heterosexual relationships without characters or the film ever sitting in judgement. For that alone CALL ME BY YOUR NAME should be applauded, but for the fact that it presents itself as one of the most realistic, tender and honest films about relationships and maturity ever made it should be cherished.
Why see it at the cinema: The best way to immerse yourself in the experience and to fully embrace the pleasures of Guadagnino’s stunning film are to sit in the largest, darkest room you can find, ideally one where the film is being projected onto the walls.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong sex, although there’s been much stronger on screen. Blue Is The Warmest Colour or 9 Songs this is not.
My cinema experience: The one particularly odd artistic choice made by Guadagnino was the sound of heavy drilling which he chose to add as a constant to the soundtrack. How did anyone ever relax in 1980’s Italy with all of that drilling going on? Took me a good ten minutes to realise that the drab, depressing surroundings of the Odeon Leicester Square had been supplemented by construction work elsewhere in Leicester Square. It didn’t seem to affect the general enjoyment of the assembled press and industry throng at the BFI press screening, as the film got a solid ovation at the end.
The Score: 10/10
The Pitch: Fifteen-love. (In other words, I’ll get fifteen grand, you get us a drink, love.)
The Review: Despite loving to watch all kinds of it – I’ve taken two weeks off work to watch the Olympics before now – I was terrible at sport at school. In seven years of grammar school I played rugby matches for my house’s C-team, one match for my house’s D-team at cricket before I was substituted at half time and never played again, and was so bad at athletics I once finished a race to discover the teacher had given up and gone in. We did have tennis courts but I never came close to picking up a racket, knowing that I would have comfortably been the worst in my year, or possibly any year. Serve and volley? I’d be happy to accomplish 50% of that. Once. Of course, I went to an all boy’s school, so maybe I’d have had a match at a mixed school.
Don’t worry, I’m not a raging chauvinist, clearly all of the girls would have beaten me as well. (A one-armed monkey with one arm tied behind its back could have given me a decent game, but let’s not go there.) But these were the attitudes prevalent in tennis back when I was born in the Seventies. It’s been an ongoing struggle for women since then to get to parity with their male equivalents. Take, for example, the view that “… our men’s tennis world, the ATP world, should fight for more, because the stats are showing we have more spectators” and that “…[Ladies’] bodies are much different than men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through… You know, hormones and different stuff.” That would be depressing enough coming from the mouth of a misogynist Seventies tennis pro, but it was actually said by former world number one Novak Djokovic in 2016.
The new film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS) takes us back to the dawn of a revolution in tennis. Billie Jean King was at the top of her game, five-time Grand Slam winner and world number one, but when her frustration at the gap in tournament pay became too great, she and eight other tennis professionals broke away to form their own tournament. When hearing of this, retired champion Bobby Riggs, now in his fifties and addicted to gambling, challenged King to a winner-takes-all match to prove even an older man could comfortably beat a top woman. When King refused, fellow professional Margaret Court stepped in but after being handed a thrashing by Riggs, King had no choice but to step up to defend the honour of all women on the court.
Whether you’re male or female, BATTLE OF THE SEXES represents excellent value for money as it’s three films rolled into one. The first of those is the gender inequality battle, pitching Emma Stone’s King against Steve Carell’s Riggs. This film is broadly comedic, playing to Carell’s strengths as hustler Riggs becomes emboldened by his seemingly effortless superiority. Stone has to butt heads with chauvinist-in-chief of the tennis tour Jack Kramer (a typically smarmy Bill Pullman) while supported by Gladys Heldman, who gets sponsorship for their new ladies’ tour and backs King’s activist impulses. The only real quibble is that Stone’s King feels oddly passive at times, undoubtedly committed to her cause but the fervour never really rising to the surface.
It’s the second of the three films mixed in here that’s the most compelling, where King explores feelings for her hairdresser Marilyn, despite being on the surface happily married. It’s a time when taboos of gender can easily be confronted, if not so easily broken down, but those of sexuality have to remain firmly in the closet in service of the greater cause. Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn and hers and Stone’s relationship is tender and their moral dilemmas sketched out believably. The film makes the most of the Seventies setting, from costumes to cinematography, and the warm visual glow afforded to their more private moments justifies pushing the aesthetic as far as possible. Again, if there’s one quibble it’s that King’s husband Larry feels little more than a plot cipher.
The third and final film is the one where we have the biggest problems. For as much as BATTLE OF THE SEXES seems embarrassed by it, it’s a film about tennis, and it’s the sports elements that are by far the weakest. Don’t get me wrong, sports films can sometimes feel desperately predetermined in their dramatic arc, especially when many viewers will already know the result, but the best of them can still give you a thrill and the sporting elements have the feel of someone who’s only ever watched sport on TV and most likely under duress. There’s never any sense of the tactical nous King employed or seemingly any interest in making the tennis more than a distraction; at some points it’s not even readily apparent who’s winning, sucking any excitement from the spectacle served up.
So Dayton and Faris’ film ticks plenty of boxes, satisfying as a human drama, entertaining as a comedy but serving up a double fault when it comes to the actual sport. That said, it should still drive the point home about the continuing disparity in the pay in professional sport; despite the Grand Slam tournaments now paying women and men equally, the top women will still earn about half of their male equivalents, which means that this battle is one that still needs to be fought, and it can just about consider BATTLE OF THE SEXES a worthy ally in that struggle.
Why see it at the cinema: The comedic elements of the film undoubtedly work better with an audience for company, and seeing it on a large screen helps to follow the tennis because it’s all shot statically from above as if on TV.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent moderate sex. (Don’t worry, the only balls you see are on court.)
My cinema experience: The joys of press screenings at the London Film Festival mean that this film started at 8:15 a.m., for me, when it’s a two-hour journey into London, that’s an early start. Always nice to know that you have the leopard print seats and awkwardly angled screen of the Odeon Leicester Square to look forward to at the end of your epic trek. In particular, the sound can get very muffled at points; it’s a shame that London’s largest showcase for film (with over 1,600 seats) isn’t also its best.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Choose life.
The Review: If you’re looking for a film to open Britain’s leading film festival then as soon as someone offers you more British acting talent than a bonnet full of Jane Austen adaptations, most of them with finely honed RP accents and with an opening scene culminating in a cricket ball smashing a tea cup, then you’d probably bite their hand off. You’d probably also expect that a hard-working British film would be stiff upper lips, struggles against adversity and as grim as Ken Loach’s kitchen sink. Breathe serves up two out of three in a reasonable debut for Andy Serkis, but suffers from never quite being sure what it wants to be.
With a list of British talent longer than your arm, some in blink-and-miss roles (Diana Rigg’s screen credit may get more time than she does), Serkis has certainly assembled a talented acting roster, but the only two who really have the opportunity to do more than reading their lines are Andrew Garfield as polio patient Robin Cavendish and Claire Foy as his supportive wife Diana. When stricken with the illness at a young age, Robin can’t face living a life staring at the hospital ceiling, but Diana takes on the medical profession and enlists the help of a creative friend or two to give Robin a new lease of life.
There’s plenty that works here, with Garfield and Foy putting in strong performances. The script also brings out British qualities you wouldn’t necessarily expect from such a film, with stoicism and determination supplemented by inventiveness and eccentricity. For large parts this is less a grim slogfest, more a vibrant celebration of life and its possibilities, with a handful of satisfyingly off-kilter moments thrown in. While Robin gradually escapes the confines of his hospital bed, the depictions of those less fortunate give the opportunity for some bizarre, discomfiting images, particularly at a clinical hospital that thinks it’s cutting edge.
Serkis has worked on this in down time of his Jungle Book adaptation, and his direction style could be damned with faint praise as fine. He does get chance for a little special effects wizardry with Tom Hollander portraying both of Diana’s twin brothers, but other than that he’s content never to stray from the confines of a chocolate box lid picture, and the film is sometimes as sweet when it desperately needs more courage in its convictions. Society still hasn’t found equality for disabled people in many areas and films highlighting this struggle are as important as those exploring divides of gender, race and orientation but Breathe calls attention to human frailty and meaningful questions of existence without ever suggesting it truly wants to engage with them.
This is particularly noticeable in the final stretch, when questions of Robin’s right to life become flipped on their heads. The last act aims to engage the heart and squeeze the tear ducts when a more confident director would have tapped at your mind and soul as well. It’s a shame, for while Breathe should play well to anyone in the the middle-aged art house crowd who prefers their films with the rough edges sanded off, the material had the potential for a truly great British film and the aftertaste here is one of squandered opportunity. Hopefully as Serkis hones his craft, he’ll be willing to encourage a degree more boldness in his screenwriting collaborators.
Why see it in the cinema: Enjoy the view, from sweeping Kenyan vistas to the rolling English countryside, and see if you can hold back the tears at the end when your neighbour is struggling.
What about the rating? This one’s a 12A for infrequent bloody images, mainly when Robin is struggling in later life (although the old age make up Garfield’s sporting is perhaps more horrific).
My cinema experience: After two weeks of pre-festival screenings at the well-appointed BFI Southbank, this was the first trip the Odeon Leicester Square (and my first visit there since seeing Armageddon over twenty years ago). The uncomfortable leopard print seats and terrible viewing angle from the stalls didn’t convince me I’d missed much. That was all forgiven when director Serkis appeared to give the film a five minute intro.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Fears Of A Clown.
The Review: What is it about clowns? Thankfully I’ve never been a sufferer of coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns – I suffer from the much more rational mottephobia, the fear of moths, with their freakish, armless brown bodies and insanely quick, oversized flapping wings that bring you the tortuous death of a thousand butterfly kisses – but there are a few theories as to what causes people to be freaked out by them. (Clowns, that is, not moths.) The uncanny valley is one idea mentioned, that the faces of clowns are just far enough outside the realms of realism to disturb us. It’s also suggested that they push logic to breaking point, thus becoming associated with danger and fear, that their unpredictability or unusual physical characteristics give us the willies, or that the mask they wear hides their true emotions.
There could be a much more specific reason, particularly for people of my generation, given that coulrophobia seems to have first become a thing around the time of the mid-Eighties. It was, funnily enough, when professional clown / serial killer John Wayne Gacy had gained notoriety and when Stephen King dropped a thousand-page beast about a killer clown preying on the children of a town in Maine. So the latest adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most loved novels – and I use that term loosely, given its power to reduce grown adults to whimpering wrecks – has a lot to live up to in the scare stakes.
Andy Muschietti’s film adaptation certainly doesn’t hide its true emotions, wearing its pulsating heart on its ruffled sleeve right from the outset. It starts almost identically to the book that spawned it, with six-year-old George chasing a boat into a storm drain and coming face-to-terrifying-face with Pennywise The Dancing Clown. From there we move into scene setting and establishing, as we meet the seven children who make up The Losers Club, all destined to have run-ins with the local bully, to be tormented by manifestations of their worst fears and to come face to face with Pennywise.
Pennywise has a lot to live up to, with the previous embodiment (Tim Curry) having become something of a horror icon since his appearance in the 1990 TV miniseries. Bill Skarsgård is tasked with filling the oversized, floppy red shoes and does an admirable job, his appearance helped by a forehead the size of Devon and two red swishes of make-up that run past his eyes and draw your attention to it inexorably. Couple that with ruby red lips and buck teeth that make him look like the offspring of Jessica Rabbit and Bugs Bunny from the nose down, and it’s undoubtedly a disturbing appearance; thankfully Skarsgård has the mannerisms and delivery to back it up, too.
What helps him are the performances of the child actors, which are so grounded as to make Pennywise’s mere presence that much more skin-crawling. They are such perfect depictions of Eighties film children that you’d happily believe the film has been dredged up in film canisters from a storm drain where they’ve lain untouched for three decades. The film’s original writer and planned director, Cary Fukunaga, said he was aiming for a Goonies meets horror film vibe, and by stripping away the adult sections of King’s colossal opus the script achieves this brilliantly; you may be unprepared for quite how funny it is.
For it doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve, but on its bedroom walls, with posters for Gremlins, Beetlejuice and New Kids On The Block adorning the children’s rooms. They’re good reference points, for while IT succeeds in delivering a few effective jump scares and some nightmarish imagery, it’s the laughs which would be most likely to pull you back for a second viewing. As with Joe Dante and Tim Burton’s classics, it’s the laughs that bind you to the characters and make you care about their plight. (Even if, thanks to the setting pre-dating post-modern horrors such as Scream, the kids don’t have the common sense to avoided the dilapidated house that looks more haunted than the dreams of a dozen Ghostbusters.)
There are changes to the source material; the setting has been transplanted to the late Eighties, rather than the late Fifties, meaning the necessary sequel will bring us almost to the present day. But other changes have been necessitated by a lack of budget, and possibly a lack of confidence. Gary Dauberman, writer of the Annabelle movies, rewrote the Fukunaga script and by all accounts has steered it much closer to both the novel and conventionality. That will certainly give it a better shot at lasting mainstream success, but the lack of the novel’s more outré elements, for better and for worse, ground this adaptation in logic and predictability.
It’s a thrill ride that doesn’t skimp on the blood, reminiscent of bloody Eighties slashers such as A Nightmare On Elm Street in more ways than one, and it certainly ticks a number of horror movie boxes, but the real test will come when these kids grow up and humour can’t be the default fall-back position. For now, Muschietti has crafted an adventure, maybe lacking a true cutting edge or something radical or innovative but with just enough jump scares and buckets of humour, which does the first half of King’s work proud. At least there aren’t any moths in it.
Why see it at the cinema: Muschietti does conjure up some memorable imagery, and the laughs and the occasional scares will work better with a large audience.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong horror, violence, language. The Insight mentions that “scenes of horror include sustained threat from monsters, including a killer clown.” Well, duh.
My cinema experience: Watched it with a packed, younger, audience on opening night, and there were at least two satisfying occasions of half the audience leaping out of their skins, followed by the thirty seconds of nervous laughter as audience tries to recompose itself. It’s fairground ride scary, but it sure is effective.
The Score: 8/10
And one last thing…