A review of the new art house film “The Eternal Daughter”

November 28th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

Films made by British writer and director Joanna Hogg make for challenging – but ultimately rewarding – viewing. Following the critical success of her autobiographical works “The Souvenir” (2019) [for my review click here] and “The Souvenir Part II” (2021) [for my review click here] – both of which I admired – comes a work influenced by Hogg’s relationship with her mother (who died during the editing process and therefore never saw it). Like the classic art house movie, nothing much happens and it happens slowly and very little is said but every sentence is laden with meaning.

The minimal story concerns a stay at a deserted country house hotel in rural Wales where a middle-aged female filmmaker wants to celebrate her elderly mother’s birthday and craft the outline of her next film. Both the daughter Julie and the mother Rosalind are played by Tilda Swinton in a virtuous performance. Swinton is a lifelong friend of Hogg and played the mother figure in the two sections of “The Souvenir”, while daughter and mother in this latest work have the same names as those in “The Souvenir”, although “The Eternal Daughter” works as a standalone film.

This relationship movie takes the form of a kind of ghost story and many of the tropes of the ghost genre can be found here: whistling wind, creaking windows, swirling mists, empty corridors and unsettling sound. But it is not a scary film, rather a sad one in which a daughter is seen as endlessly trying to please her mother – an all too common affectation.

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A review of the film “Cold Pursuit”

November 27th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

A 2019 film starring Liam Neeson as a character seeking revenge for the death of his son – sounds like something along the well-trodden path of the “Taken” franchise (2008-2014), right? Well, no. This is actually a remake of a Norwegian film “In Order Of Disappearance” (2014) with the same director, Hans Petter Moland.

It’s a thriller as a kind of black comedy, but I didn’t find it either thrilling or comedic. Leeson is wasted in the role of a snowplough driver called Nels Coxman (in the original the character was named Nils Dickman) and Laura Dern is massively underutilised as his wife.

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A review of “The Future Of Geography” by Tim Marshall

November 26th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

Marshall has had outstanding success with two huge bestsellers: “Prisoners Of Geography” (2015) and “The Power Of Geography” (2021). Like the last chapter of the last book, this work is not really about geography but all about space. In his acknowledgements to this latest book, he thanks his publishers “for the freedom to write what I want”, but clearly the marketing guys insisted that he had to have the word ‘geography’ in the title.

Marshall attempts to justify the title: “Outer space is not featureless – it has regions of intense radiation to be navigated, oceans of distance to cross, superhighways where a planet’s gravity can accelerate spaceships, strategic corridors in which to place military and commercial equipment, and land rich in natural resources.” This is really an exaggeration of the analogy. As he admits towards the end of the book: “Space is very, very big. Take the area between low Earth orbit (starting at 160 kilometres above us) and geostationary orbit (35,786 km up). The volume between the two orbits is 190 times larger than the volume of Earth.”)

And how much of this work is really about the future? The first two chapters provide a neat history of the space race between the USA and the USSR. The next six chapters look at the present situation with detailed examination of the space programmes of the USA, Russia and China. Only the final two chapters deal with the future – the one entitled Space Wars’ concedes that “For this decade at least, a war in in space would primarily be about a war on Earth.”

Notwithstanding my quibbles about the title, this latest ‘geography’ work by Marshall is, like his earlier two books, immensely informative and attractively written. So, if you want to know the best place and manner to launch a satellite (near the equator and eastwards), the number of satellites currently up there (over 8,000), or the last time humans walked on the moon (14 December 1972) and if you are inquisitive about the position of the five Lagrange points of the Earth-Sun system, the risk of the Kessler Syndrome, or the reasons why we should go to the Moon and Mars, this is the text for you. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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A review of the new blockbuster movie “Napoleon”

November 26th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

Veteran British director Ridley Scott is now 85 and “Napoleon”, his 29th work, is a fine addition to a wonderful canon that stretches in time-setting from “Gladiator” to “Alien”.

This is a hugely ambitious production, stretching from the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793 to the death of Napoleon in i821. In that time period, he fought some 70 battles (winning about 60 of them) and this film concentrates on just four: Toulon, Austerlitz, Borodino, and of course Waterloo. The story is seen through the prism of his relationship and correspondence with wife and then ex-wife Josephine. This is a good deal to cover in just over two and a half ours (we are promised a four hour version on Apple TV+) – and that is without any significant coverage of Napoleon’s statecraft which still underpins the France of today.

The battle sequences are simply stunning and I was pleased that I chose to see the movie in IMAX on Britain’s biggest screen (the BFI in London). The sex is hurried and selfish – like his battle victories – but there is no doubt that Josephine had a genuine hold over his emotions. The French couple are portrayed by the American Joaquin Phoenix (a masterly and brooding performance) and the English Vanessa Kirby (coquettish and captivating). The costumes and sets are splendid and the locations (mainly England and Malta) glorious.

Some historians and the French have criticised the film for its inaccuracies, of which there are plenty (for instance, Napoleon and Wellington never met), but this is a work of entertainment, not a documentary, and a degree of artistic licence is permissible. “Napoleon” may not have have the emotional tug and memorable tunes of “Gladiator”, but it is a magnificent epic, the like of which we see very rarely these days.

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Trump could be back in the White House

November 22nd, 2023 by Roger Darlington

“Public opinion polls in the United States are the stuff of nightmares. The website RealClearPolitics aggregates all the major polls. The eight most recent polls regarding the 2024 elections — from respected pollsters including NBC News, the Economist, Reuters and others — all show the same thing. Trump defeats Biden.

In one of those polls, Trump has a 53 – 47 lead, which could mean a landslide — and the Republicans capturing both houses of Congress. Thanks to Trump’s previous term in office, the Republicans already control one branch of the federal government (the judiciary). If Trump wins decisively, they could control all three.”

This is an extract from a thoughtful, but scary, blog posting by my American friend Eric Lee.

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A review of the new film “May December”

November 19th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

At the heart of this ambitious and ambiguous movie from director Todd Haynes are two enigmatic and ultimately unsympathetic female characters. There is Gracie Atherton-Yoo (a wonderful Julianne Moore), who 24 years earlier went to prison for having sex with a teenage boy whom she later married, and Elizabeth Berry (an outstanding Natalie Portman), an actress carrying out research for her portrayal of the younger Gracie in a sensitive, independent film.

As Haynes has put it in an interview: “You keep shifting back and forth between trusting and mistrusting one or the other”. Caught in between these two women, who are in their different ways both manipulative, is Gracie’s young husband Joe Yoo (an impressive Charles Melton).

The story is loosely based on the actual case of Mary Kay Letouneau, a teacher who seduced her very young pupil. This exploration of the ethical dilemma is an immensely stylish work.

Set in Savannah, Georgia, the play of light through windows and on caterpillars is truly captivating. The music – an adaptation of the Michel Legand theme from “The Go-Between” – is striking and disturbing. Two of the most memorable scenes are when Gracie applies make-up to Elizabeth and when Elizabeth gives a soliloquy direct to camera.

This is almost as far from blockbuster material as you could imagine but, if you want to see a character-driven movie with two actresses at the top of their game, this is highly commended.

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A review of the new Netflix offering “The 355”

November 18th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

I’m all in favour of female action figures and there’s some thespian talent in this espionage thriller, but this is a thinly-plotted effort that all too obviously is contrived to appeal to the widest possible audience on television screens.

So we have no less than a quintet of leading actresses: Jessica Chastain for American viewers, Diane Kruger for European viewers, Bingbing Fan for Chinese viewers, Lupita Nyong’o for black viewers, and Penélope Cruz for Latino viewers.

American Theresa Rebeck is responsible for the story and co-writer of the script which has the female five chasing a small device that can hack and control any part of the Internet and any electronic network (yeh ….) while racing around exotic locations ranging from Morocco to China (actually Taiwan).

It is a non-stop smorgasbord of running, fighting and shooting with twist after twist, making it something of a bubblegum movie, sweet and chewy but instantly forgettable. And only an American would come up with the contrived title which is a reference to Agent 355, the codename of an unidentified female spy who fought for the Patriots during the American Revolution.

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As we await the new blockbuster movie “Napoleon”, a reminder of who he was and how he met his Waterloo

November 18th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

The end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century witnessed nearly a quarter of a century of almost continuous war in Europe. The French Revolutionary Wars of 1793-1802 and the Napoleonic Wars of 1803 -1815 embroiled all the great European states and caused the death of between five and six million combatants and civilians. No one did more to perpetuate these wars than the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and no one did more to oppose and defeat Napoleon’s forces than the British Duke of Wellington.

These two commanders never met, never corresponded, and only faced each other in battle once, but were frequently in the other’s thoughts and communications.

Napoleone Buonoparte and Arthur Wellesley – as they were called at the time – were born in the same year of 1769, although controversy exists in both cases as to the exact day. Both were born on islands – Napoleon on Corsica and Wellington on Ireland – although neither was keen to emphasise the association. If ever they had met or even corresponded, no doubt they would have used French which was the second language of each. In both cases, they lost their father while young and were brought up with four brothers and three sisters in straitened circumstances by formidable mothers.

Napoleon’s rise to power could hardly have been more meteoric and, by the age of 35, he was Emperor of France. Yet some suggest that such speed of promotion left Napoleon with an Achilles heel because he never handled infantry in combat at regimental level, a lack of experience which was to cost him dear at Waterloo. By contrast, Wellington spent seven years learning his military craft in India, before he joined the British expeditionary force opposing Napoleon’s armies in Portugal and Spain. For Napoleon, Waterloo was the end of his career and he died on St Helena, aged 51, whereas Wellington went on to become British Prime Minister (twice) and lived to the ripe old age of 83.

Napoleon won 60 of his 70 battles; Wellington fought far fewer (14 in the Iberian peninsular), but won them all. For both men, Waterloo – fought on Sunday 18 June 1815 – was their last. Napoleon had 71,947 men to Wellington’s 67,660, but the French had 246 cannon to the Allies’ 156. Wellington was aged 46, Napoleon 45, yet Wellington acted as energetically as a man in his 20s, Napoleon as lethargically as someone in his 60s (possibly because of piles).

In a fiercely-fought battle, Wellington held out long enough to be joined by the Prussian forces led by Blücher, so that the French collapsed. Interestingly Blücher wanted to call the battle La Belle Alliance after the farmhouse where he met Wellington; the French called the conflict the battle of Mont St Jean after the place where it was in fact fought; but it was Wellington who decided to name it after his own headquarters some two and a quarter miles away.

Napoleon was hoping to retire to the United States. The Prussians wanted to execute him, but Wellington refused to allow this and a British civil servant came up with the idea of exile on St Helena. Here the former emperor had plenty of time to come up with a host of different reasons why he failed to defeat Wellington.

Napoleon and Wellington tended to be small-minded about each other: the Frenchman referred to Wellington as “the sepoy general” (a reference to his role in India), while Wellington insisted on spelling the Emperor’s name the Italian way (Buonoparte). Following Napoleon’s first exile to Elba, Wellington contrived to sleep with two of the former emperor’s mistresses.

Napoleon had a growing regard for Wellington’s abilities as events led them to the battlefield at Waterloo, but afterwards came to loathe the British general, in part because he believed that Wellington was responsible for the execution of Marshal Ney and for his exile to St Helena (neither of which was true). For his part, before Waterloo, Wellington was publicly contemptuous but privately admiring of Napoleon, several times averring that the presence of the French Emperor on a battlefield was worth 40,000 men, but later he came to despise the man, not least because Napoleon left a gift in his will to a man who had attempted to assassinate the British leader.

Let’s see how British director Ridley Scott tells the story in his epic film. Of one thing we can be sure: the French won’t like it. But I’ll be viewing it in IMAX on the day of release.

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If you were going to launch a rocket into space, which direction would you do it? East or west?

November 17th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

Most countries launch space rockets eastwards because the Earth spins west to east and launching eastwards gives rockets a boost from the Earth’s rotational speed.

But Israel, with its Shavit space launch vehicle, launches due west against the planet’s spin. This ensures that the rockets fly over the Mediterranean Sea and not over Israel and then neighbouring Arab countries, some of which remain hostile to it.

This is done for the protection of populations and because Israel does not want its Arab neighbours mistaking a space launch for a missile attack.

This is one of many facts which I discovered while reading “The Future Of Geography” by Tim Marshall.

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A review of the new film “Past Lives”

November 11th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

At a time when so many films are sequels, prequels or remakes, it’s so refreshing to welcome an original story told in an original way.

I’m reminded of “The Farewell” (2019) which was written and directed by a Chinese-American, set largely in China, with most of the dialogue in Mandarin. “Past Lives” (2023) is written and directed by a Korean-Canadian (a wonderfully-assured Celine Song in her debut feature film), alternates between Seoul and New York, with use of Korean most of the time. Both works are semi-autobiographical and explore cultural differences between Asia and America.

A key theme in this movie is the Korean concept of inyeon which is the notion that fate determines how relationships form over many lifetimes. In the case of this story, the two intersecting lives are those of Na Young aka Nora (a captivating Greta Lee) and her childhood friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). A complication is Nora’s New York Jewish husband Arthur (John Magaro).

There is not so much dialogue, so the city scenes and the haunting score (from composers Danial Rossen and Christopher Bear) can be enjoyed as the characters gently interact. Told in three segments 12 years apart, this is an achingly tender tale of love and loss that is highly commended.

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