“When you try to bend the ways of the world, I will cheer for you, Birdy, but I fear for you.”
Lena Dunham’s adaptation of Karen Cushman’s YA novel is mirthful medieval mischief, a fresh coming-of-age story that should entertain families beyond its direct target of adolescent girls. This is a feminist tale, with Birdy rebelling against attempts at marrying her off to solve the family’s financial woes. The novel was written in the form of a diary and that is the conceit for Birdy’s voiceover, essentially extracts from the book. The script is recognisably Dunham’s work, frank but generally approaching female hardship with a light touch, aided by a period setting that has no pretence at historical accuracy. The anachronistic soundtrack is also notable, creating an unusually cohesive backdrop through a series of pop covers by London singer Misty Miller. Bella Ramsey is wonderfully expressive as the impetuous Birdy, backed by Andrew Scott’s characteristic blend of comedic charm and emotional depth as Birdy’s profligate father, and an almost unrecognisable Billie Piper as her supportive but concerned mother. The 12A certificate seems appropriate primarily for an intense birthing scene — this is not House of the Dragon, but Dunham does not sanitise it either as the experience leaves an impression on Birdy, catalysing her changing view of her parents. Rebellious girls are likely to love Catherine Called Birdy; others should find it an enjoyable diversion.
“I do worry sometimes I might just be entertaining myself while staving off the inevitable.”
Reuniting writer-director Martin McDonagh with In Bruges leads Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin is at its core a drama about a rift between two lifelong friends. Colm’s realisation of his mortality has left him desperate to create something that might be remembered — he is convinced that Pádraic, described as “one of life’s good guys”, is destined to be forgotten like most on the island. As the rejected Pádraic, Colin Farrell is palpably heartbroken, his eyebrows permanently crestfallen. Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan’s superb supporting performances are easily the match of the leads. Despair hangs over the island’s population through a lack of stimulation and McDonagh has commented that an underlying theme is that depression is something that has long existed in humans, even if we only now accept it (“he could push it down like the rest of us” Pádraic opines). War is literally on the horizon, sporadic explosions on the mainland reminding islanders of the world beyond and contrasting Colm’s search for a sense of peace. The Banshees of Inisherin is the most fable-like of McDonagh’s films to date, reminiscent of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, not only in its Irishness (and Gleeson’s presence) but the sense of impending doom, personified here by the portentous witchlike figure of Mrs McCormick who seems almost plucked from The Northman. McDonagh’s work unfailingly elicits emotion, and The Banshees of Inisherin succeeds in provoking frequent laughter through its often unexpected darkly cynical humour, whilst leaving a profound sense of melancholy behind.
“Here at Capitol Pictures, as you know, an army of technicians, actors, and top notch artistic people are working hard to bring to the screen the story of the Christ. It’s a swell story.”
Even when the humour is broad, the sensibilities of Coen brothers movies tend to appeal to a niche audience. Hail, Caesar! is predominantly an excuse for the brothers to use 1950s Hollywood as a playground, producing their own homages to the era’s musicals, Westerns and epics, evoking humour less through parody than authenticity. With their frequent cinematographer Roger Deakins, creating Hail, Caesar! must have been a rewarding exploration of bygone filmmaking technique, and the film is most enjoyable when viewed as a series of loosely connected vignettes, like Channing Tatum tap dancing through a Gene Kelly number or George Clooney channeling Charlton Heston. There is little weight to the story woven through them, as studio head Eddie Mannix fixes problems that vary from the realistic (an studio star pregnant out of wedlock) to the absurd (an actor kidnapped by Communist writers), all while deciding whether he even wants to stay in the industry. Hail, Caesar! may not be particularly memorable but for those with at least a passing familiarity with 1950s cinema, there is much to appreciate, particularly if you also enjoy the Coens’ verbose and offbeat humour and their stellar ensemble casts they attract.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.”
That Joel Coen’s first solo outing is a Shakespeare adaptation is something of a surprise, given that his brother and longtime collaborator chose to step away from movies in order to focus on theatre. Coen’s approach is anachronistic, retaining the original setting and dialogue, but adopting a visual style that evokes 1920s cinema, stark black and white with an almost square 1:1.19 aspect ratio from the end of the silent era, replete with rounded corners to the frame. The staging is similar with minimalist shallow-depth sets against smoky, eerily projected backdrops. This is a film that prizes atmospherics above all else, clearest perhaps from Katherine Hunter’s haunting performance as the prophesying witches, contorted in bird-like garb and movements. Denzel Washington delivers a thoughtfully low-key Macbeth, whilst Coen regular Frances McDormand is excellent in the early scenes as the instigating Lady Macbeth, but her role feels slightly sidelined in a script that compresses the play into under two hours. Brenden Gleeson stands out amongst a supporting cast which at times is overshadowed by Coen’s preoccupation with atmosphere. This is Shakespeare designed for a modern audience but not for mainstream appeal.
“They’re so easily taken when they are distracted, people are.”
There is a level of sleight of hand in selling six short films as a feature length release when they are essentially unconnected beyond their Western setting. Eccentric characters in farcical situations are a Coen Brothers staple but brevity leaves them feeling more like caricatures from Tim Blake Nelson as the titular crooning gunslinger of the opening tale to Tom Waits’ gold prospector to James Franco’s ill-fated bank robber. The exception is the penultimate tale, The Gal Who Got Rattled, which stands out as the best segment by some margin — its greater length allows its key players to develop so that we actually come to care about the events that befall them. The otherworldly final tale, in which strangers converse during a journey in a station wagon (with longform dialogue reminiscent of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight but with none of the tension), hints at intended depth behind these dark morality plays that is never properly conveyed. The Coens’ signature style — aided by several strong performances — is still enough to sell the collection, butit falls short of the mark.
“My daughter Angela was murdered 7 months ago. It seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes.”
Based on the talent involved, I expected to like this but I had no idea just how much. Starting with a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter by calling out the local police department, this is really a journey through multiple characters dealing with grief and exploring the effect of tragedy upon our relationships, emerging as anger, love and fear. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are stellar in portraying richly nuanced characters, and are accompanied by an excellent supporting cast. Many scenes are soaked with such powerful emotion, whilst avoiding sentimentality through use of raw drama and dark humour, that watching the film is a cathartic experience. Of particular note, it is rare and refreshing that we see a female character whose grief is expressed through violent, misplaced rage. Martin McDonagh proved his talent with In Bruges but has seriously upped his game.