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Good Time

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When you consider Cosmopolis, The Rover, Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, The Lost City of Z and now this, who would have guessed that some of the most interesting and original films of the last decade would come from the two leads of the Twilight series? Robert Pattinson’s come a long way since then, and Good Time further solidifies him as one of the most exciting actors working today.

Here, his physical and behavioural transformation is scary. He plays the kind of guy you never want to cross paths with; fearless, violent, and surprisingly charming when he needs to be. He somehow manages to be likable even after doing things that will utterly disgust you.

Writers Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie (who also directs with his brother Ben) waste no time setting up the narrative. Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, who along with his mentally-challenged brother Nick (also played by Ben Safdie), is in the business of robbing banks. Connie is protective and nurturing,  but also carelessly dragging his brother  down a very unsafe path for someone in his condition – and that’s where things go horribly wrong. Nick panics in front of police and gets himself caught, and the remainder of the film revolves around Connie’s desperate attempt to raise $10,000 in one night for Nick’s bail.

What the Safdie brothers (Heaven Knows What) have done really well is to construct an almost real-time feature that doesn’t lose momentum throughout its entire 100-minute runtime.

Despite his scumbag appearance, Connie is quick-thinking and highly resourceful, which allows the film to move from one scene to another in a believable manner. Sure, some of the supporting characters and plot devices aren’t introduced very subtly, but they do regularly shift the entire course of the film to keep you on your toes.

This is some of the most intense filmmaking you’re likely to experience this year, and much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, incorporates very clever audio and editing techniques to raise anxiety levels – most important of which is the penetrating score by Oneohtrix Point Never.

While it isn’t as stylish as Drive, clever as Run Lola Run or disturbing as Irreversible, Good Time is a remarkable feast for the senses.

 
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Marvel’s The Defenders

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And so after five seasons of Marvel Netflix superheroic shenanigans, from the highs (Daredevil Season 2, Jessica Jones) to the lows (goddamn Iron Fist), we come to the inevitable culmination: Marvel’s The Defenders, which sees our four street level vigilantes come together to take on – who else? – The Hand, the shadowy organisation of ninjas, zombies, and ninja zombies intent on taking over New York City.

The good news: it’s a damn sight better than the woefully misjudged Iron Fist. For one thing more care has gone into the production of The Defenders – it lacks the rushed, haphazard, undercooked feeling that marred poor Danny Rand’s first TV outing. For another, Danny (Finn Jones) is a much more appealing protagonist when he’s got other characters sharing the spotlight – especially when they’re a blind guy, a woman, and a black man who are all more than happy to tell the rich white kid when to check his privilege when the need arises.

It’s Danny who drives the plot engine, in fact; he and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) have been hunting down The Hand around the world, and it’s their crusade that brings them back to NYC and into the orbits of lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), private eye Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), and ex-con Luke Cage (Mike Colter), none of whom really want to get mixed up in any kind of shadowy back alley war. Murdock has given up his Daredevil persona (shades of The Dark Knight Rises there), Jones is content to drink and take the odd PI gig, and Cage is focused on tracking down a Harlem teen who has gone missing after taking a mysterious job (again, shades of DKR). It takes a bit of maneuvering to get them all in the same place and punching in the same direction, but it’s worth the wait.

In the blue corner we have Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, the face of The Hand, pursuing a mysterious but doubtless world-threatening agenda. Weaver’s no stranger to genre fare – she’s Ellen Ripley, for crying out loud – and she’s never less than watchable, but seems a little ill at ease with the often portentous dialogue she has to get her mouth around. She’s also ill-served by the glacial, repetitive way that we’re introduced to her character, a series of brief scenes, isolated from the main story, that are determined to drop veiled hints at a character trait we’ve all guessed long before the show deigns to tell us.

Indeed, pacing remains an issue with The Defenders, even though it runs at a cut down eight episodes rather than the usual Marvel/Netflix 13 episode season. As has been the case with every series so far, there’s simply not enough story to stretch comfortably over the allotted hours. Happily, the character interactions are enough fun to keep you interested – at last we get the Luke Cage/Iron Fist meet-cute/punch up we’ve been waiting for (it’s a thing), and streetwise Jessica Jones telling Matt Murdock his secret identity isn’t much of a secret is never not funny.

We also get cameos from the supporting casts of every preceding series, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, and Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson (Cage marveling that Foggy lets people call him that is a riot). However, the key returning players are from Daredevil’s neck of the woods: Elektra (Elodie Yung), now a living weapon wielded by The Hand, and grumpy old ninja master Stick (Scott Glenn), who remains a curmudgeonly delight in every scene he’s in.

The action, when it hits, is pretty great – and certainly an order of magnitude better than Iron Fist‘s disappointing choreography. Part of the fun in these sort of things is seeing how the different characters’ power and abilities compliment or contrast with each other, so we get to see what happens when Iron Fist’s, er, iron fist, meets Luke Cage’s unbreakable skin, and how martial artists match up against opponents with super strength. For all that, the feeling remains that Marvel/Netflix are still chasing – and falling short of – the high watermark that is Daredevil Season 1’s hallway fight, but not for want of trying.

Perhaps inevitably, it lacks the thematic and narrative cohesion that defines the better works in the overall series, but based on the four episodes released for review, The Defenders does exactly what was promised, delivering the requisite action, quips and character interplay, but not quite managing to push into any new territory. Everyone already on board will be well satisfied, and newcomers should find enough to keep them engaged, too.

 
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The Dark Tower

Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower book series is epic in every sense of the word. The eight volumes span time, dimensions, other worlds and close to 5,000 pages. It’s strange, majestic and occasionally infuriating, but it makes an unforgettable impact. It’s puzzling then that The Dark Tower movie adaptation is so bland that a mere 24 hours after watching it you may find you struggle to recall any of the details.

The story revolves around 11-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man with a powerful “shine” aka psychic power. He dreams and draws pictures of a tower, a sinister Man in Black, Walter (Matthew McConaughey) and a heroic Gunslinger, Roland (Idris Elba). Jake believes his dreams are real, but his mother, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) fears for his sanity.

Leaving aside its bastardisation of the source material, this isn’t a bad set up for a fantasy movie. The problem is that before your bum has had time to settle into your cinema seat, and certainly before an effective tone can be established, Jake whisks himself off through a portal into Mid-World and meets Roland with minimal audience engagement. This, sadly, is a recurring theme in The Dark Tower. Stuff just seems to happen in a blur of murky CGI and underwritten characters.

Director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) directs the film with scant flair and absolutely zero atmosphere, delivering a product that manages to make monsters wearing human skins and concentration camps full of psychic teens dull. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey try valiantly to breathe some life into Akiva Goldsman’s shallow, derivative script but are defeated at every turn by wince-inducing dialogue and baffling character decisions.

Ultimately the best thing that can be said about The Dark Tower is that it’s short. At a mere 95 minutes including credits you won’t have to endure it for long, but one can’t help but feel the sting of wasted potential and misused actors. Stephen King fans will be disappointed, obviously, but it’s hard to imagine even the most forgiving general audience finding something to love in this disjointed, inspiration-free enterprise.

The Dark Tower is a bad film, certainly, but even worse it’s a profoundly ordinary one. An utterly generic take on one of fiction’s more unique tales? Thankee-sai, but no thankee-sai.

 
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Hello Goodbye (MIFF)

Festival, Review, This Week 1 Comment

Hazuki (Sayu Kubota) and Aoi (Minori Hagiwara) are Japanese high school students. Despite attending the same classes, they may as well live in different worlds. Hazuki is in the popular crowd of bitchy queen bees, although her position there is wavering after she has a pregnancy scare and her ex-boyfriend hooks up with one of her friends. Aoi is class president, but is widely ignored by everyone – including her parents, whose inattention has become so miserable that she has taken to shop-lifting in the hopes of getting caught.

They collide on the street with an elderly woman (Masako Motai), who appears to be suffering from dementia. After some work – and a meal together – they eventually track down her home and family. Aoi, however, is intrigued by the love letter the old woman was fiercely protecting, and convinces Hazuki that they should return and attempt to get the letter to its intended recipient.

Hello Goodbye is the second feature film from director Takeo Kikuchi. It is not a particularly innovative or arresting film drama. It has a modest storyline to match its brief running time, and is shot and paced in a very traditional and matter-of-fact fashion. Within those narrow confines, Kikuchi absolutely nails the film: the performances are engaging and lifelike, the emotions are warm but never cloying, and the story moves to predictable but surprisingly restrained places. In short: if you are the sort of viewer that enjoys Japanese teen dramas, then this is ‘one of the good ones’.

Minori Hagiwara and Sayu Kubota are both strong and easily identifiable leads. They both have emotional problems to face, but they are problems with which a lot of teenage viewers can likely identify. Even when plot developments appear to indulge in clichés – Hazuki announcing to her ex-boyfriend that she may be pregnant sets off some pretty loud alarm bells – those developments are resolved in very grounded ways.

Masako Motai is charming as Etsuko, the elderly neighbour who brings the two girls together. She delivers an often-times slightly painful performance as a woman whose memories – both long and short term – have scrambled in her head and mostly evaporated. It gives the film an underlying sense of tragedy and regret, particularly when Hazuki and Aoi sees old photographs of Etsuko and her friends as teenagers; notably not too different from the girls themselves. There is a gentle element of social commentary to the film, regarding Japan’s growing aged care crisis and the difficulty of families keeping frail and ailing relatives at home. Kikuchi does not press this element, which is a smart move. It gains much more power by simply being there.

There is a danger than Hello Goodbye will get overlooked in the wash of Japan’s seemingly endless train of superficially similar teen melodramas. That would be a deep shame, since it does such a quiet, elegant job. It feels genuinely insightful within a well-worn framework.

 
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Ancien and the Magic Tablet (MIFF)

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Kokone (Mitsuki Takahata) is a teenager living two lives. When she is awake, she is a Japanese schoolgirl on the run after her father was arrested and a mysterious tablet computer was shoved into her hands. When she sleeps she is Ancien, a captive magician princess in a dystopian steampunk-themed kingdom. As her waking adventure unfolds, the events in her sleep begin to take on an unexpected significance.

Ancien and the Magic Tablet is an anime feature riding on an awful lot of expectations through sheer pedigree alone. The film marks the feature debut of noted anime director Kenji Kamiyama, whose television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Eden in the East have made him one of the most acclaimed and feted anime directors working today. To a large extent Ancien delivers exactly what his fans are likely expecting: a well-developed world (in this case two of them in parallel) loaded with social comment, and a strong protagonist whose mission weaves deftly through it.

Kamiyama appears to have his eye on automation and the dehumanising effect on technology. Ancien lives in a fantasy kingdom that manufactures 1950s-style automobiles on a 24-hour-a-day basis, leading to gridlocked streets, pollution and a sort of loose Orwell-esque oppressive government. In the waking world Kokone’s path draws her to a large car manufacturer and its plans to debut self-driving cars at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony. Through this car motif the two worlds get immediately tied together, although it is a little questionable over how effectively Kamiyama ties the knot.

Technically the film is gorgeous, combining CGI and hand-drawn elements very subtly to create some outstanding and immense vistas. The character and technology design is inventive and, in the case of the steampunk dream world, very charming. Kokone’s ‘real’ world is similarly well crafted and presented, although in this case Kamiyama and his crew develop a very evocative and authentic depiction of Okayama in Japan’s south. There seems to be a tendency in contemporary anime to showcase regional Japan in rather attractive ways. I suspect there may be an element of actual tourism funding involved; after all, every anime has to get its funding from somewhere.

The only two key drawbacks of the film are its length and its binary set-up. At almost two hours in length, Ancien does ultimately outstay its welcome a little. A bigger problem is the manner in which the two parallel narratives intersect. It is difficult to dwell on it too closely without beginning to reveal a few too many plot threads, but suffice to say the film ultimately felt a much messier and undisciplined affair than the opening set-up had suggested. Anime fans – particularly followers of Kamiyama – will be entertained, as well any lovers of Japanese-style animation. This is not a film to break beyond that crowd, however; it is a solid mid-range animated feature, and should have no difficulty finding itself a comfortable niche in that regard.

 
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Logan Lucky

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What if Steven Soderbergh directed The Dukes of Hazzard? That thought exercise doesn’t map precisely onto the brisk, brash crime caper that is Logan Lucky, but it should give you a good idea of the tone of the thing, which sees the eponymous down-on-their-luck Logan siblings plotting to rob the home of NASCAR, North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, during the biggest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600.

So, it’s a heist movie, something Soderbergh knows a thing or two about, having called the shots on Ocean’s 11 through 13, not to mention the classic Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight. What sets it apart from his previous endeavours in the field are two things: the setting and the characters. For one thing, this is a flyover state piece of pulp fiction, set in the deep red states of backwoods America, not the coastal metropoles we’re used to seeing on the big screen. For another, our cast are, for the most part, not professional criminals, but down on their luck working class heroes who wouldn’t need a big score if there was any such thing as a steady job in modern America.

Our mastermind is former miner Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), his football career killed by a bad knee, who needs the cash to keep seeing his daughter, who’s in the custody of his estranged wife (Katie Holmes). His brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), tends bar with his one good arm, having lost the left in Iraq. Sister Melly (Riley Keough), works in a downmarket beauty salon. They’re all underachievers, labouring under what Clyde thinks is a family curse – they’re all, as the title says, “Logan lucky”.

Bringing much needed criminal expertise to the exercise is Joe Bang, a safe cracker and explosives expert played by a peroxide-haired, tattooed Daniel Craig, clearly having a blast being free of the 007 yoke and oozing dangerous sexuality and down-home charm. Unfortunately, Bang is himself banged up at the time of the planned robbery, but that’s not much of an obstacle for the Logans, who are considerably more canny than anyone expects them to be.

What proceeds is a nimble, footloose sting on what is, as far as the world of the film is concerned, the beating heart of America – the home of NASCAR. It’s here that Soderbergh tips his hand a bit, briefly unmistakably demonstrating a deep distrust of this element of American culture, with its flag-waving patriotism and militarism, its roaring engines and roaring crowds, its conspicuous consumption and crass commercialism. It’s a case of “hate the sin but love the sinner”, though, as Logan Lucky has ample affection for its cast of hangdog heroes. Imagine a Coen Brothers movie that actually liked its characters – to be fair, there have been a few – and you’re on the right track.

Ultimately, it’s all about the little people sticking it to the Man, but the film is smart enough to know that the Man is often clothed in the things we think we love: NASCAR, energy drinks, fried chicken, Jesus and Coca-Cola. That Soderbergh manages to revel in the spectacle of it all while giving us something to chew on is quite a feat. Those deeper themes never overwhelm the action, though; you’ll find no pontificating on the American condition here. Still, for a fast and funny crime flick, Logan Lucky has plenty of grunt under the hood.

 
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Terminator 2: Judgement Day 3D

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In 1991 director James Cameron unleashed Terminator 2: Judgement Day on an unsuspecting world. If you weren’t alive – or just too young to be aware of films at the time – you should know the effect on cinema was seismic and indelible. T2 redefined what action movies were capable of, set a new standard for storytelling in genre cinema and showcased a director (Cameron) and actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton) at the height of their powers.

Cut to 2017 and cue the limited release of Terminator 2 in 3D. While you may question the need for the re-release there’s no doubt time has been extraordinarily kind to the movie. Time and James Cameron remastering the film for a crisp 4K print, that is.

The plot may not have the dark poetry of the original The Terminator (1984), but the story of young John Connor (Edward Furlong), his damaged but fearless mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and reprogrammed, protector T-800 aka “Uncle Bob” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) remains engaging and surprisingly layered. The screenplay contains not one single wasted beat – which is impressive for a movie that clocks in at a hefty 137 minutes – and the action is of a quality that’s damn near timeless. In fact the only jarring moments that occur are with the use of then-groundbreaking CGI, which looks like a low res screensaver now, and “cool” 90s slang, which was always a bit rubbish to be honest.

The one dud note in the whole enterprise is the 3D, which isn’t bad per se, but doesn’t add much to the proceedings – except in the future war opening and Sarah Connor’s still-harrowing nuclear strike dream. Still, if 3D is the price that needs to be paid to get a stone cold classic like T2 back in the cinema, it seems a small one.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a great film when it was released 26 years ago and remains a great film today. If you’ve never seen it on the big screen, or want to experience it properly again, head to the cinema in the week starting August 24. Before Skynet becomes sentient.

 
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Sleeping Beauty (MIFF)

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Egon (Niels Schneider) is crown prince of the modern-day European kingdom of Letonia. Instead of applying himself to courtly duties, Egon spends much of his time drinking, smoking and loudly playing the drums. When he learns of the fabled kingdom of Gentz, whose territory lies within Letonia’s borders, and whose people are frozen asleep until a prince goes and wakes their princess with a kiss, he becomes fixated on finding Gentz and performing the kiss himself.

Adapting so well-worn a story as a fairy tale is a task with enormous creative risks. There needs to be an interesting angle found for the material, or a particularly lavish and attention-grabbing aesthetic, or simply a careful attention to detail and a respectful attitude to the source. Sleeping Beauty, a new French adaptation by Spanish director Ado Arrietta achieves none of those things. It feels bored and perfunctory. It feels lazy. While there are occasional laughs that stem from a playful, self-aware take on the material, those laughs come much too sparsely to give the film any merit. It is a colossal misfire in almost every respect.

The actors seem genuinely disinterested in their performances. The screenplay feels as if Arrietta could barely bring himself the enthusiasm required to write it. It is remarkably short as well, barely scraping past 80 minutes including its opening and closing titles. The film introduces Egon, who is a remarkably irritating protagonist, before leaping into a flashback that essentially re-tells the fairy tale without much creativity or energy. To her credit, Tatiana Verstraeten is relatively heartfelt and engaging as the titular ‘sleeping beauty’. Everyone else looks as if they have one eye on their paycheque and another on a clock.

Stand back and squint and you can sort of see the film that Arrietta was attempting to make: a self-aware absurdist comedy, taking the traditional story and re-telling through a very cynical and deadpan lens. Whether due to poor direction, or simply a completely misguided strategy to achieve that goal, Arrietta never gets close. There is a glimmer of fun towards the film’s climax, as a curious Egon wanders through Gentz Castle, idly taking photographs of the various frozen courtiers with his iPhone. It does not last for long, and the film ends with its audience likely wondering when it was going to begin.

This is, when all is said and done, the worst kind of festival film: the kind that where those looking for an interesting and fresh take will come away disappointed and mildly resentful, and those less familiar with arthouse cinema will leave worrying that they were not sophisticated enough to get the point. Relax: it’s not you. Sleeping Beauty is a dreadful waste of time.

 
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Jungle (MIFF)

Festival, Review, This Week 3 Comments

After years of terrifying international audiences via the Wolf Creek films and TV series (along with similarly horrific detours like Rogue, The Darkness, and The Belko Experiment), Australian director, Greg McLean, takes a hard-left out of genre filmmaking with Jungle, but crafts something just as unsettling as his previous cinematic bloodbaths. While there are no serial killers or supernatural entities, this internationally-flavoured local production boasts a truly dangerous “villain” in the form of the eponymous wilds of Bolivia, a place of unrivaled savagery that McLean can’t help but apply his horror filmmaker’s instincts to. The results are chilling, harrowing, and occasionally near puke-inducing.

Based on the true life book by Yossi Ghinsberg, this gut-churning tale of survival is worthy of placement next to the highly impressive likes of Into The Wild, Deliverance, Wild, 127 Hours, and Alive. In a richly physical and immensely sympathetic performance, Daniel Radcliffe (whose continuing quest for challenging roles doesn’t receive nearly as much praise as it should) is superb as Ghinsberg, a young man travelling the world in the early 1980s, against the better wishes of his strict parents.

In the insular backpacking community of Bolivia, he meets two new friends in robust American, Kevin Gale (an excellent Alex Russell) and sensitive Swiss teacher, Marcus Stamm (a fine turn from rising Aussie star, Joel Jackson). Thirsty for adventure and new experiences, they take up the unlikely offer of enigmatic adventurer, Karl Ruprechter (played with an imaginative streak of the unpredictable by Thomas Kretschmann), to head into the jungle in search of a lost tribe of Indians, and perhaps a little gold along the way. But once in the wild, the three travelers soon start to question the credentials of their guide, and then realise how enormous and truly horrifying the jungle that surrounds them truly is.

Just as nervous urban-bound horror filmmakers have found treachery and evil in the backwater towns of America and the dark unknown of Europe (and, of course, the Australian outback), Greg McLean locates terror in the jungles of the Amazon. Yes, we’ve seen this winding, tangled river used as the backdrop for the gruesome likes of Cannibal Holocaust and The Green Inferno, but the nightmare of Jungle is much more real and far less sensationalist. Never have bug infestations, starvation, dehydration, pounding rain, wild river rapids, fire ants, and blistered feet registered with such force and fury – McLean grinds the gore here with admirable aplomb, giving Jungle the kind of kick that a non-genre filmmaker wouldn’t even have considered. But he’s in touch with his characters too, and as we endure the horrors of the jungle with them, the film soars in strange and unexpected ways. A survival film that marches to the delirious beat of its own hallucinogenic drum, Jungle bows inventively before the bad guy to end all bad guys: Mother Nature.

 
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Hampstead

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Feeling a little lost after her late philandering husband leaves her struggling with debt, London-dwelling American Emily Walters (Diane Keaton) is adrift. Her well-meaning son (James Norton) tries to get her to simplify her life, while her coterie of “ladies who lunch”, all residents of the same upmarket Hampstead apartment house, underwrite her crisis, because what’s five thousand pounds between frenemies?

Emily finds her focus when she stumbles across Donald (Brendan Gleeson), a hermit living in a handmade shack on wooded Hampstead Heath. As it eventuates, the land he’s been squatting on is of considerable value and is due for development, and Emily resolves to help the curmudgeonly but wise Donald keep his ramshackle castle. But could the pair ignite a spark in each other they both long thought had winked out?

Well yes, of course you know going in what kind of movie this is, and you’ve got a fair idea that the end result is probably not going to map exactly onto the real life story of Harry Hallowes, which inspired the film (for one thing, there is no Emily). Hampstead is a strong but somewhat bland hybrid between Notting Hill and the gray market Autumn romance of your choice – call it The Best Exotic Tumbledown Squat, if you like.

Which is not to say it’s without charm. Keaton remains as watchable as ever, even if she is just playing a late-life variation of Annie Hall, complete with kooky fashion sense and whimsy. Putting her next to the ursine Gleeson turns out to be an inspired choice, the latter’s broad, rough-hewn charisma pairing nicely with Keaton’s quirkier appeal.

Hampstead is never quite sure what it’s actually about, though. There’s some lip service paid to notions of class division, gentrification, and self-determination, but it’s all a bit woolly – feel-good platitudes rather than anything actually thought through with any degree of clarity of discernment. Still, it’s a pleasantly enjoyable amble up the gentle slope of rising action to a fairly familiar destination.