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The Front Runner (2018)
"Scandal" that no longer seems so scandalous.
The Front Runner is based on the true-story of US presidential hopeful Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) and if you are NOT aware of the historical background (and have not seen the trailer) then you might want to skip the rest of this review - and all other reviews - so you can see the film first and let the history come as a surprise to you.
Hart was younger than most candidates: good-looking, floppy-haired and refreshingly matter of fact in his dealings with the public and the press. Any interviews had to be about his politics: not about his family life with wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and teenage daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever).
Unfortunately, Hart has a weakness for a pretty face (or ten) and his marriage is rocky as a result: "Just don't embarrass me" is Lee's one requirement. His "nothing to hide" line to an intelligent Washington Post reporter - AJ Parker (a well cast Mamoudou Athie) - leads to a half-arsed stake-out by Miami Herald reporters and incriminating pictures linking Hart to a Miami pharmaceutical saleswoman Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). As the growing press tsunami rises, and his campaign manager (J.K. Simmons) gets more and more frustrated with him, can his candidacy survive and will his (now very much embarrassed) wife stick by him?
Hugh Jackman is perfectly cast here; very believable as the self-centred, self-righteous and stubborn politician. But this central performance is surrounded by a strong team of supporting players. Vera Farmiga is superb as the wounded wife. Sara Paxton is heartbreaking as the intelligent college girl unfairly portrayed as a "slapper" by the media. The scenes between her and Hart-staffer Irene (Molly Ephraim), trying desperately to support her as best she can, are very nicely done. J.K Simmons as campaign manager Bill Dixon is as reliable as ever. And Alfred Molina turns up as the latest film incarnation of The Post's Ben Bradlee - surely one of the most oft portrayed real-life journalists in film history.
One of my biggest dissatisfactions with the film is with the sound mixing. Was this a deliberate act by director Jason Reitman, to reflect the chaotic nature of political campaigning? Whether it was deliberate or not, much of the film's dialogue - particularly in the first 30 minutes of the film - is drowned out by background noise. Sometimes I just longed for subtitles!
The screenplay, by Matt Bai (from his source book), Jay Carson (a Clinton staffer) and director Jason Reitman might align with the story, but the big problem is that the story is just a little bit dull, particularly by today's levels of scandal. This suffers the same fate as "House of Cards" (even before the Kevin Spacey allegations) in that the shocking realities of the Trump-era have progressively neutered the shock-factor of the fiction: to the point where it starts to become boring. Here, only once or twice does the screenplay hit a winning beat: for me, it was the scenes between Donna Rice and Irene Kelly and the dramatic press conference towards the end of the film. The rest of the time, the screenplay was perfectly serviceable but nothing spectacular.
A core tenet of the film is Hart's view that politics should be about the policies and not about the personality. Looking at the subject nowadays, it's clearly a ridiculously idealistic viewpoint. Of course it matters. Politicians need to be trusted by their constituents (yeah, like that's the case in the UK and the US at the moment!) and whether or not they slap their wives around or sleep with farm animals is clearly a material factor in that relationship. But this was clearly not as much the case in the 70's as it is today, and the suggestion is that the Hart case was a turning point and a wake-up call to politicians around the world. (An interesting article by the Washington Post itself points out that this is also a simplistic view: that Hart should have been well aware of the dangerous game he was playing.)
Do you think that powerful politicos are driven to infidelity because they are powerful? Or that it is a characteristic of men who have the charisma to become political leaders in the first place? Such was the discussion my wife and I had in the car home after this film. Nature or political nurture? I'm still not sure. It's worth pointing out that to this day both Hart and Rice (interestingly, an alleged ex-girlfriend of Eagles front-man Don Henley) stick to their story that they never had sex.
The film's perfectly watchable, has great acting, but is a little bit of a non-event. The end titles came and I thought "OK, that's that then".... nothing more. If you're a fan of this style of historical political film then you probably won't be disappointed by it; if not, probably best to wait and catch this on the TV.
(For the full graphical review please check out One Mann's Movies on the web or Facebook. Thanks).
The Favourite (2018)
A bawdy masterpiece
I'll just put it out there. "The Favourite" is a masterpiece of movie making on just so many different levels.
The story grips you from the off. The gout-suffering Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is being maniupulated from her bedchamber (both physically and mentally) by Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), wife of a war-hero General. Arriving at the palace (actually Hatfield House in Hertfordshire) is Sarah's cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), fallen on hard times. But although joining the court as a "dirty parlour maid", Abigail is more than a match for Sarah in terms of political scheming and sculduggery. The scene is set for a no-holds battle royale to gain the affections of the queen and be the power behind the throne.
First and foremost, the film presents a triumvirate of female star turns that would - I hope - immediately grab three of the slots for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscar categories.
We all know Olivia Colman as a UK national treasure, but with a movie past that has seen her primarily in smaller supporting roles, this should catapult her onto the worldwide stage. Colman is just unbelievably good as the mentally unhinged monarch Queen Anne. (If you look at the history of Queen Anne in relation to motherhood, referenced in the film, you can understand and sympathise with her mental state.) The camera spends leisurely periods focused on her features and many of these are just extraordinary. One such scene at a dance, with Anne unblinking and mentally deteriotating for what must be a good minute or two is so breathtaking that it made me giggle (inappropriately) with pure movie joy.
Equally good is Rachel Weisz as the incumbant favourite Lady Sarah. Her transformation from someone fully in control to someone seeing a yawning turn in her fortunes approaching is just brilliantly done. Helped by superbly scripted lines ("How did you sleep?" asks Abigail; "Like a shot badger" spits out Sarah), she delivers brilliantly on a role that was reminiscent to me of Glenn Close's turn in "Dangerous Liaisons".
Probably in 3rd place in the awards ranking, but not taking away anything from her excellent kick-ass performance, is Emma Stone as Abigail. We've seen similar performances from Stone before: indeed the film has a nice recreation of her "La La Land" audition breakdown at one point!
Excellent in supporting roles, but rather overshadowed by the ladies, is Nicholas Hoult fully be-wigged as the leader of the opposition and the ever-reliable Mark Gatiss as Lord Marlborough
Based on the strong UK-talent and the Oscar buzz, the film has received a widespread distribution into UK multiplexes, but I think it has more of an arthouse feel to it that might trigger some disatisfaction from the general cinema-going public. (Looking back, I made exactly the same comment about "The Lobster".)
But it is technically brilliant, and I'll call out some of the star turns in the technical department (since it's impossible to read any names from the crazily over-stylized end-titles).
I've already referenced that the script has some memorable whip-smart lines ("Look at me! How dare you! Close your eyes!") all the more impressive that this is the debut movie screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.
It is strikingly filmed, using fisheye lenses and to reflect an air of disquiet and paranoia. This always seem to be in use, but seem to be "more fishbowly" (not sure what the technical term is!) in some scenes than others. There are also some remarkable low-angle tracking shots: one of Rachel Weisz walking along a passageway is breathtakingly done. The cinematography is by Robbie Ryan, who did "I, Daniel Blake" and "American Honey" and I would approve of seeing it recognised in the awards season.
Also fantastic are the costumes on show, particularly those worn by Rachel Weisz which are just stunning. As such, there's a second shout-out in two films ("Mary Poppins Returns") for Sandy Powell here.
Also outstanding is the music composed and coordinated by Johnnie Burn. He's collaborated with the director on his previous films in various capacities as well as the surreal "Under the Skin". While the soundtrack comprises well-chosen period chamber music, there are also periods of intrusive and persistent electronic tones that reflect Sarah's rising crisis just beautifully.
Holding the whole thing together is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos is a bit of an acquired taste that to date I haven't fully acquired. My one criticism with the film is the same one I levelled at "The Lobster" - that it is a tad overlong. A comedy, particularly a black-comedy, can outstay its welcome, and for me I think it would have been a better film if cut down to nearer 90 minute than two hours. (The film is divided into different titled segments, and if you want to orientate yourself as to where you are there are 8 of them.)
I did appreciate though that Lanthimos managed to cheekily include a couple of lobsters into the script, along with his usual menagerie of rabbits and ducks! Having his work cut out then on this film was animal coordinator Gerry Cott!
This is marketed as a "bawdy comedy-drama" and be warned that it is very, VERY bawdy. It's a 15 certificate in the UK (R in the US) and for once I'd view it as quite a lenient rating. There are lesbian sex scenes in the film which although subtle (you see less than in "Colette") are still relatively strong. However, the language is decidedly on the fruity side with liberal use of the F-word and the C-word. As such, it will not be for the easily offended.
I don't bandy the word "masterpiece" around often, but in this case I think it's justified.
(For the full graphical review, please check out One Mann's Movies on the web or Facebook. Thanks).
"The hand that holds the pen writes history".
Colette is yet another tale of female empowerment: a woman with real talent trying to break out of the gilded cage she finds herself trapped in.
This is a true story, set in Paris in the late 19th Century. Colette (Keira Knightley), a beautiful country girl living in Burgundy is seduced by and then married to the much older Parisian 'literary entrepreneur' Willy (Dominic West). Willy is a "brand" in Paris: a well-known critic turned author. The only problem being that he does virtually no writing of his own but ghosts work out to his team. Colette exhibits a gift for writing slightly lascivious tales of her life (under the pseudonym Claudine) at her girl's school, where clearly nighttime swimming lessons taught more than back stroke! As a result, Willy fills a financial hole by publishing Colette's work in his name. The books fly off the shelves faster than the publishers can print them. But Willy has expensive habits and Colette gets locked into writing an ever-popular series but without a voice of her own.
If the "swinging 60's" started anywhere, it was probably in Paris during this time period! While Victorian England was staid and conservative, Paris - home of the Moulin Rouge - was a hot-bed of liberation. As a result, Colette and Willy's marital affairs are - erm - sexually 'fluid'. While Colette has to learn to live with her philandering 'Free Willy', he positively encourages the bi-sexual Colette to explore the other camp, as it were.
Keira Knightley turns in a truly cracking performance in the titular lead. No-one does 'brooding' better than Knightley, and she gets ample chance here to exercise that look, most notably in a train scene near the end of the film: if looks could kill.
Dominic West delivers as reliably a solid performance as you would expect from him, but he is such a despicable and loathsome character that it is difficult to warm to him.
Driving me mad (not sexually you understand.... although...) was the girl playing the American double-dip love interest Georgie: I knew her so well but just couldn't place her. It was the American accent that threw me: she is of course Eleanor Tomlinson, Demelza from TV's "Poldark", here showing a lot more flesh than she can get away with on a Sunday night on BBC1!
The film is obviously in English about one of France's literary greats (although curiously Colette writes in French). My guess is that the film will go down like a lead balloon in France as a result. A part of me would have liked this to be French language with subtitles, but maybe that's just me.
When you look at it objectively, Colette's story is quite remarkable: what a clever and determined woman.
Aside from Knightley, the other star turn in the film comes from cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (who also did "Hell or High Water"). The scenes, particularly the bucolic ones set in the French countryside, are simply gorgeously photographed. The framing of the shots is also exquisite with an impressive shot of the slog up a spiral staircase to the couple's flat being repeatedly used.
It remains curious to me how prudish both the UK and the US are still about sex on screen. In the UK the film is a 15 certificate; in the US the film is R-rated! Yes, there are some breasts on show, and a few mixed- and same-sex couplings (particularly during a frenetic 5 minute period in the middle of the film!), but they are artfully done and you don't get to see much more than the breasts. In comparison, the violence that would get meted out during a 15/R action thriller would typically makes my eyes water.
This is one of those films that is worthy, beautifully done, well acted but for some reason it felt to me like a bit of a slog. At 111 minutes it certainly felt a lot longer than it was. The middle reel of the film in particular is rather pedestrian (and yes, I recognise the irony of the fact that I just said there was the frenetic 5 minutes of sex during that part!). Maybe on the night I was just not in the mood for this type of film.
The director is Englishman Wash Westmoreland, whose last film back in 2014 was the impressive "Still Alice".
I'm glad I've seen it, and it is a lot better than many films I saw last year. But in terms of my "re-watchability" quotient, its not going to rate that highly.
(For the full graphical review, please check out One Mann's Movies on the web or Facebook. Thanks).
Welcome to Marwen (2018)
Going against the trend by using more plastic.
It's unusual for me to go into a film knowing so little about it: no trailers other than a snippet that showed it was Steve Carell starring and appearing as a plastic figure of himself. That's it. Period. After watching the film this evening, I've been astonished to see that it has TOTALLY BOMBED at its opening weekend in the US. Because personally I really enjoyed it.
For once, I'm not going to go near the plot, since going into this movie cold was a genuine pleasure. All I'll do is set up the situation: that Steve Carrell plays Mark Hogancamp who is an artist who's constructed a model installation of a WWII Belgian town - Marwen - in his back-yard. Against this backdrop he is photographing epic WWII encounters between his plastic alter-ego, Captain Hogie, and various other figures, some friend, some foe.
It sounds completely bonkers. And indeed it is. For the first quarter of the film, I was really trying to grasp whether I should be reaching for a very low IMDB rating or not. But the screenplay, by director Robert Zemeckis and "Edward Scissorhands" writer Caroline Thompson, is clever in only disclosing its hand slowly and with the minimum of exposition. For me, the very best sort of storytelling. (Even at the end of the film there were some elements of the story still left unexplained... who, for example, was Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) based on? I can guess... but only guess). Gradually the pieces of the jigsaw came together and I started to warm to it more.
But then something odd happened. Steve Carell got in my head. I suddenly got 100% invested in what happened to Mark to the point where - with a car tyre involved... you'll know the bit - I suddenly realised I was sat bolt upright on the edge of my cinema seat. I don't get that level of emotional engagement that often.
Carell is without doubt a superb actor. We saw it with "Foxcatcher". I've seen it again in the (soon to be UK-released) "Beautiful Boy". Here he delivers what I think is an EXTRAORDINARY performance: and if it wasn't for the sniffy reviews, and the bad box office word of mouth I feel Carell should surely have been - no pun intended - a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination.
Elsewhere in the cast, most of the other characters - many female (it's certainly not the most on-trend politically correct movie!) - spend most of their time in plastic form, so it's difficult to comment on their performances. But the talented combination of Janelle Monáe, Gwendoline Christie, Eiza González (from "Baby Driver"), the statuesque Stefanie von Pfetten and Diane Kruger all turn up. Getting the most 'real world' screen-time though is Leslie Mann as Mark's new neighbour Nicol ("without the e"). And very good she is too.
The repeated and seamless flips between the real-world and Marwen are artfully done and the plastic characters are beautifully realised. Yes, it's CGI but its really cleverly done CGI. A delicate balance between the photo-realism of Pixar and the clunky puppetry of Team America.
We even dip in at one point to some full on Sci-Fi where Zemeckis can't help but delve into an aspect of his past filmography: scenes that made me laugh out loud.
One of the benefits of the model scenes is that they can get away with some pretty extreme puppet-on-puppet violence that would have definitely not got it a UK-12A certificate otherwise! A shout out also to Zemeckis-regular Alan Silvestri, who delivers a lovely soundtrack including a really cheeky Great-Escapesque little motif.
I've praised the screenplay for its reserve and intelligence, but on the flip-side there are a number of elements that don't sit well: There are a few extremely dodgy lines that jerk you out of the story (and I'm not talking about the deliberately tongue-in-cheek ones, as many of them are); some of the humour (and there are some good gags in here) seems somewhat misplaced within the overall tone of the film; the film verges towards the overly melodramatic at times, bringing to my mind the old Harrison Ford flick "Regarding Henry"; and a few of the characters seem to be messily discarded without further comment (Nicol's 'boyfriend' Kurt (Neil Jackson) for example).
I didn't pay much attention to the opening statement on the screen. Which made the closing caption, after so much fantasy, act as a stun grenade on me. Mark Hogancamp is a real American, and the film is based on real events! There is a 2010 documentary based on the guy called "Marwencol" which I haven't seen but would like to: many people on the internet rave about it. This seems to be part of the negative reaction: many who love the documentary don't want to see the memory sullied by a dramatic work of fiction.
But I really enjoyed this one. It has its flaws, sure, but my rating completely ignores the critics and the public view (which irritatingly seems to be largely based on "word of mouth" - what an evil phrase - rather than people who've ACTUALLY SEEN IT). My recommendation would be to ignore the bad press, go see it, get through the first quarter with your mouth agape ("We are not a codfish Michael") and then go to One Mann's Movies and tell me what YOU thought.
(For teh full graphical review, go to One Mann's Movies on the web or Facebook. Thanks).
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
A valiant attempt to recreate a masterpiece.
How do you repaint a masterpiece: the Mona Lisa of children's fantasy cinema? Some would say "You shouldn't try".
As I've said before, Mary Poppins was the first film I saw when it came out (or soon afterwards) at a very impressionable age.... I was said to have bawled my eyes out with "THE MAGIC NANNY IS GOING AWAY!!" as Julie Andrews floated off! So as my last cinema trip of 2018 I went to see this sequel, 54 years after the original, with a sense of dread. I'm relieved to say that although the film has its flaws it's by no means the disaster I envisaged.
It's a fairly lightweight story. Now all grown up, young Michael from the original film (Ben Whishaw) has his own family. His troubles though come not singly but in battalions since not only is he grieving a recent loss but he is also about to be evicted from 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Help is at hand in that his father, George Banks, had shares with the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. But despite their best efforts neither he, his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) nor their chirpy "strike a light" lamplighter friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) can find the all-important share certificates. With the deadline from bank manager Wilkins (Colin Firth) approaching, it's fortuitous that Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) drops in to look after the Banks children - John (Nathanael Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) - in her own inimitable fashion.
I know musical taste is very personal but my biggest problem with the film was that the songs by Marc Shaiman were, to me, on the lacklustre side. Only one jumped out and struck me: the jaunty vaudeville number "A Cover is not the Book". Elsewhere they were - to me - unmemorable and nowhere near as catchy as those of "The Greatest Showman". (What amplified this for me was having some of the classic Sherman-brothers themes woven into the soundtrack that just made me realise what I was missing!) Richard M Sherman - now 90 - was credited with "Music Consultant" but I wonder how much input he actually had?
Another issue I had with the film was that it just tried WAAYYY too hard to tick off the key attributes of the original:
'Mary in the mirror' - check 'Bottomless carpet bag' - check 'Initial fun in the nursery' - check 'Quirky trip to a cartoon land' - check 'Dance on the ceiling with a quirky relative' - check 'Chirpy chimney sweeps' - check ("Er... Mr Marshall... we couldn't get chimney sweeps... will lamplighters do?" "Yeah, good enough")
Another thing that struck me about the film - particularly as a film aimed at kids - is just how long it is. At 2 hours and 10 minutes it's a bladder-testing experience for adults let alone younger children. (It's worth noting that this is still 9 minutes shorter than the original, but back in the 60's we had FAR fewer options to be stimulated by entertainment and our attention spans were - I think - much longer as a result!)
But with this whinging aside, the film does get a number of things spit-spot on.
Emily Blunt is near perfection as Poppins. (In the interests of balance my wife found her bizarrely clipped accent very grating, but I suspect P.L. Travers would have approved!). Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda also does a good job as Jack, although you wonder once again whether the 'society of cockney actors' must again be in a big grump about the casting! I found Emily Mortimer just delightful as the grown-up Jane, although Ben Whishaw's Michael didn't particularly connect with me, .
Also watch out (I'd largely missed it before I realised!) for a nice pavement cameo by Karen Dotrice, the original Jane, asking directions to number 19 Cherry Tree Lane.
What the film also gets right is to implement the old-school animation of the "Jolly Holidays" segment of the original. That's a really smart move. Filmed at Shepperton Studios in London, this is once again a great advert for Britain's film technicians. The London sets and the costumes (by the great Sandy Powell) are just superb.
Finally, the aces in the hole are the two cameos near the end of the film. And they would have been lovely surprises as well since neither name appears in the opening credits. It's therefore a CRYING SHAME that they chose to let the cat out of the bag in the trailer. In case you haven't seen the trailer, I won't spoil it for you here. But as a magical movie experience the first of those cameos moved me close to tears. He also delivers a hum-dinger of a plot twist that is a genuinely welcome crossover from the first film.
Frank Marshall directs, and with a pretty impossible task he delivers an end-product that, while it didn't completely thrill me, did well not to trash my delicate hopes and dreams either.
But what we all think is secondary. Because if some three or four year old out there gets a similarly lifelong love of the cinema by watching this, then that's all that matters.
(For the full graphical review, please check out One Mann's Movies on the web or Facebook. Thanks).
Green Book (2018)
Vacation without Aggravation
The "Green Book" was a handbook (now, thankfully, out of print) for those of colour travelling in the southern states of the US , who want to stay in or dine at places they will be welcomed rather than abused. It is of course 1962 and Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General has racial equality strongly in his firing line.
The ever-flexible (and here, after piling a lot of weight on, almost unrecognisable) Viggo Mortensen plays Tony 'Lip' Vallelonga - a racist Italian-American living in The Bronx and working as a bouncer at "The Copacabana" club. Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali plays Dr Don Shirley - a black virtuoso pianist of high acclaim. How this odd couple meet and interact on a journey from Pitsburg to Birmingham is the heart of the film.
I'm actually loathe to say ANY more about the plot of this film. I saw this at a UK Cineworld "Secret Screening" and so went into the film completely blind about the content: which was just BRILLIANT! For this, for me, is as near a perfect road-movie as I am likely to see this or any other decade. To say it is a feelgood Christmas classic to approach "It's a Wonderful Life" is not - I think - putting it too strongly.
The film has apparently had Oscar buzz since winning the Toronto Film Festival's "People's Choice" award, and the chemistry that builds up between Ali and Mortensen is just fantastic. While I'm a fan of Mortensen ("Captain Fantastic" was a minor classic), it is Ali's performance as the gentle and mannered Shirley which impresses most, and would be my pick for the Oscar nomination if I had to choose between them.
Also truly impressive is ER's Linda Cardllini as Tony's wife Dolores: her reactions to "Tony's" letters home are just exquisite. I wonder whether a Supporting Actress nomination might be deserved here also.
The screenplay by Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga (Tony's son.... yes, this is based on a true story), sizzles with fantastic one-liners and wordplay. It breathes life into the 1962 setting by not shying away from using what, today, are highly offensive racial slurs: these might offend some, but they are essential for a film that lampoons racist behaviour so wonderfully.
Above all, it's a film with genuine heart. A story that lifts the spirit and paints onto the screen in technicolour glory the struggle (albeit you feel a rather sanitised one) that lifted America out of the dark ages in terms of equality.
It is perhaps this degree of "Oscar baitedness" - (if that's not a word then it is now) - that might be its biggest weakness in garnering support among the voters at Oscar time. It is though perhaps worth bearing in mind that it was "Driving Miss Daisy" - an odd-couple inter-racial chauffeur-based movie - that won the Best Film Oscar for 1989!
This is a film of subtlety and nuance that makes it all the more surprising that the director is Peter Farrelly. Yes, he of the Farrelly brothers of such crass, unsubtle and hilarious films like "There's Something about Mary" and "Dumb and Dumber" and such crass, unsubtle and totally awful films like "Me, Myself and Irene" and "Dumb and Dumber To"! It's like asking Mr Bean to direct a performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House! Yet, here it just plain works. The comedy injected into the film (and there are a number of times I laughed out loud) is perfectly balanced with the story.
What I wanted to say here was: "Go see this film. No, REALLY. It will leave you with a warm Christmas glow in your heart to last you through the holidays. Well, it should - it did me." However, although the States already had this for Thanksgiving, it looks as if the UK general release of this film is not set to happen until the 1st of February next year. Which is a great shame and a missed opportunity. (It's as if they made a Christmas film like "Die Hard" and then released it in July! #sarcasm #yesiknowtheydid).
Seldom have two hours flown by with such joy at the cinema. At this late stage in the year, my "Films of the Year" draft list is going to need another shake up!
(For the full graphical review, please check out One Mann's Movies on the web and on Facebook. Thanks).
Mortal Engines (2018)
At last, the hilarious Brexit comedy we've all been waiting for.
As comedy goes it's classic gold! London has been transferred, presumably via a futuristic huge forklift truck of some kind, onto a huge chassis and is now chugging its way across mainland Europe. Needing fuel, it has the capability to gobble-up (take that Barnier!) other towns and cities (also roaming the countryside) which London 'digests' (smoke that Tusk!). Curiously, the captured cities' inhabitants are not exterminated but integrated into the City's population: so much for any anti-immigration policy! (LOL).
But all doesn't go entirely smoothly for the UK capital. The Lord Mayor of London (Patrick Malahide) declares "We should never have gone into Europe. It's the biggest mistake we ever made". (Classic: how we SNORTED with laughter!)
Stuffing it squarely to the 'remainers', London makes its own future. "It's time to show the world how strong London can be". Having conquered most of Europe, it's time to set its sights on new markets to conquer: so London takes the Chinese on! (Now the tears of laughter are flowing freely!) Trade deals have never been more entertaining since "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace"!
OK, so in the interests of 'advertising standards', I'd better make clear before you rush out to the cinema expecting a comedy feature that my tongue is firmly in my cheek here. For "Mortal Engines" is the latest sci-fi feature from Peter Jackson. But when viewed from a Brexit perspective, it's hilarious!
In terms of plot, this (like "Waterworld") makes clever use of the Universal logo to set the agenda. The world has been decimated with a worldwide war - though clearly one that selectively destroyed bits of London and not others! - and the survivors must try to survive in any way they can. Settlements are divided between those that are 'static' and those (like London) that are mobile and constantly evolving: "Municipal Darwinism" as it is hysterically described. But London, or rather the power-crazed Londoner Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), wants revolution rather than evolution and he is working on development of one of the super-weapons that started the world's demise in the first place.
But Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), separated when young from her mother Pandora (yes, she has a box and we've seen it: wink, wink) is intent on stopping him, since she is on a personal path of vengence. Teaming up with Londoner Tom (Robert Sheehan) and activist Anna Fang (Jihae) they must face both Thaddeus and the ever-relentless Shrike (Stephen Lang) to try to derail the destructive plan.
Anna Fang declares "I'm not subtle" and neither is this movie. The film is loud and action-filled and (as a significant plus) visually extremely impressive with it. I'm not a great fan of excessive CGI but here it is essential, and the special-effects team do a great job. The production design is tremendous - a lot of money has been thrown at this - and the costume design inventive, a high-spot (again snortworthy) being the Beefeater guards costumes!
Where the film really crashes, like a post-Brexit stock market, is with the dialogue. The screenplay by Jackson himself, with his regular writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens contains some absolute clunkers, notwithstanding the unintended LOL-worthy Brexit irony. It's jaw-droppingly bad, believe me.
As for 'the turns', the only real "name" in the whole film is Jackson-favourite Hugo Weaving. Just about everyone else in the cast is pretty well unknown, and in many cases it shows. Standing head and shoulders though for me over the rest of the cast was Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, who strikes a splendidly feisty pose as the mentally and physically scarred Hester. I look forward to seeing what she does next.
Story-wise, there's not a sci-fi film that's not been looted, and a number of other films seem to be plundered too. (I can't comment on how much of this comes from the source book by Philip Reeve). The Londonmobile looks for all the world like Monty Python's "Crimson Permanent Assurance Company"; the teenage female lead is Sarah Connors, relentlessly pursued by The Terminator; the male lead is archaologist cum hot-shot pilot Indiana Solo, leather jacket and all; there is a Blade Runner moment; a battle that is a meld of "The Great Wall" and Morannon from "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"; a less sophisticated aerial location from "The Empire Strikes Back"; and another classic Star Wars moment (without the words being actually said!).
Now I'm loathe to say anything bad about director Peter Jackson, after his breathtakingly memorable "They Shall Not Grown Old". And the film has its moments of flair, most memorably a "life flashing before your eyes scene" that I found genuinely moving. But overall, as an actioner, it's a bit of a mess. It's a long way from being the worse film I've seen this year by a long stroke - it kept me interested and amused in equal measure for the running time. But I think given it's initially bombed at the Box Office, any plans Jackson had to deliver a series of these movies might need to be self-funded.
(For the full graphical review, please check out One Mann's Movies on the web or Facebook. Thanks).
Stan & Ollie (2018)
When the laughter has to end.
The problem with any comedy double act is that if illness or death get in the way (think Dustin Gee and Les Dennis; or Morecambe and Wise) the wheels can come off for the other partner. "Stan and Ollie" tells the story of the comic duo starting in 1937 when they reached their peak of global popularity, albeit when Laurel was hardly on speaking terms with their long-term producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston).
As you might guess from this, the emotional direction for the film is downwards, but not necessarily in a totally depressing way. The film depicts the duo's tour of Laurel's native country (he was born in Lancashire) and this has its ups as well as its downs.
Not knowing their life story, this is one where when the trailer came on I shut my eyes and plugged my ears so as to avoid spoilers: as such I will say nothing further on the details of the plot.
My wife and I were reminiscing after seeing this flick about how our parents used to crack up over the film antics of Laurel and Hardy. And they were, in their own slapstick way, very funny indeed. The film manages to recreate (impecably) some of their more famous routines and parodies others: their travel trunk gallops to the bottom of the station steps, mimicking the famous scenes with a piano from 1932's "The Music Box". "Do we really need that trunk" Hardy deadpans to Laurel.
There are four star turns at the heart of the film and they are John C. Reilly as Ollie; Steve Coogan as Stan; Shirley Henderson (forever to be referenced as "Moaning Myrtle") as Ollie's wife Lucille and Nina Arianda (so memorable as the 'pointer outer' in the 'Emperor's New Clothes' segment of "Florence Foster Jenkins") as Stan's latest wife Ida.
Coogan and Reilly do an outstanding job of impersonating the comic duo. Both are simply brilliant, playing up to their public personas when visible but subtly delivering similar traits in private. Of the two, John C. Reilly's performance is the most memorable: he IS Oliver Hardy. Not taking too much away from the other performance, but there are a few times when Coogan poked through the illusion (like a Partridge sticking its head out from a Pear Tree you might say).
Henderson and Arianda also add tremendous heart to the drama, and Arianda's Ida in particular is hilarious. Also delivering a fabulous supporting role is Rufus Jones as the famous impressario Bernard Delfont: all smarm and Machiavellian chicanery that adds a different shape of comedy to the film.
Overall it's one of those pleasant and untaxing cinema experiences that older audiences in particular will really enjoy. However, the film's far from perfect in my view: the flash-forwards/flash-backs I felt made the story bitty and disjointed; and ultimately the life story of the duo doesn't have a huge depth of drama in it to amaze or excite, the way that 2004's "Beyond the Sea" (the biopic of Bobby Darin) did for example. But the film never gets boring or disappoints.
I'd like to say that the script by Jeff Pope ("Philomena") is historically accurate, but a look at the wikipedia entries for the pair show that it was far from that. Yes, the tours of the UK and Europe did happen, but over multiple years and the actual events in their lives are telescoped into a single trip for dramatic purposes. But I think the essence of the pair comes across nicely. Laurel's wikipedia entry records a nice death-bed scene that sums up the guy: "Minutes before his death, he told his nurse that he would not mind going skiing, and she replied that she was not aware that he was a skier. "I'm not," said Laurel, "I'd rather be doing that than this!" A few minutes later, the nurse looked in on him again and found that he had died quietly in his armchair."
"Stan and Ollie" has a few preview screenings before the New Year, but goes on UK general release on January 11th 2018. Recommended.
(For the full graphical review, check out One Mann's Movies on the web and Facebook. Thanks).
Beautiful Boy (2018)
Trying to climb a slippery pole.
As John Lennon's lyrics go:
"'Cause it's a long way to go, A hard row to hoe Yes, it's a long way to go"
And so it proves for young Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet). For - based on a true story - Nic has progressively worked through the encyclopaedia of drugs until he has arrived at "C for Crystal Meth" where he is working through a recurring nightmare of addiction and attempted rehab.
What's harder... being the victim of drugs or being the caring onlookers desperately hoping that this attempt to climb the slippery pole to recovery will be a successful one? This is reflected as a key aspect of the film, and as a parent it makes for a very hard watch. The 'caring onlookers' in this case are Nic's father David (Steve Carell), his girlfriend Karen Barbour (Maura Tierney), the couple's natural children Jasper (Christian Convery) and Daisy (Oakley Bull), and David's ex-wife and Nic's mother Vicki (Amy Ryan).
This is only the 2nd English-language film from director Felix van Groeningen (after 2012's " The Broken Circle Breakdown") and the film has its fair share of impressive directorial flourishes such that Felix might need to get added to that elusive list of "famous Belgians"! Not least among them is the use of flashbacks. The film starts with a 12 month flashback, but then throughout the story David flashes back to scenes of his boy's childhood. Many of these reflect the regret in perhaps failing to identify ways he could have done things differently to avoid the current crisis.
While many of these flashbacks are sudden and unexpected, I didn't find them confusing to follow although I can see how they might annoy some viewers who prefer a more 'linear' storytelling approach.
Above all, it is the acting performances that make this film, and the four key cast members all turn in memorable turns. It's excruciating watching Carell's parental anguish and then (like a blast of light) his realization of a truth he'd been avoiding for a long time. It's Chalamet though who truly shines, delivering fully on the realization of the tortured and self-torturing Nic. Already nominated for a Golden Globe, I would have thought another Oscar nomination is assured for this. ER's Maura Tierney also excels in a quieter supporting role: something that generally seems to be her niche at the movies.
This is most definitely a gruelling movie from beginning to end - especially for parents of young teens - and as such it feels a lot longer than it's 2 hour running time suggests. But it is well worth the effort. A drama that really delivers on its message: "just say no". It rather frustrates me that the film is a UK 15 certificate. Not that I'm criticising the BBFC here, since with graphic drug taking, a lot of choice language and one (not overly graphic) sex scene, the rating is appropriate. However this would seem to me to be required viewing by every 13 year old, since if Chalomet's performance can't drill the message home to not climb onto that pole in the first place, then noone can.
(For the full graphical review, please check out One Mann's Movies on the web and Facebook. Thanks).
Lestranger than fiction
I'd really love to tell you about the plot. I really would! But I would struggle to pull all the multitude of strands together from J.K. Rowling's story and coherently explain them to anyone. If Rowling had put ten thousand monkeys (not a million - it's no bloody Shakespeare) into a room with typewriters and locked the door I wouldn't be surprised.
Let me try at a high level..... The arch-criminal wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is being tortured in 'Trump Tower', but manages to escape and flees to Paris in pursuit of a mysterious circus performer called Credence (Ezra Miller) and his bewitched companion Nagini (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) played fetchingly by Claudia Kim. Someone needs to stop him, and all eyes are on Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). But he is unable to do so, since he and Grindelwald are "closer than brothers" (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). So a reluctant and UK-grounded Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is smuggled into the danger zone... which suits him just fine since his love Tina (Katherine Waterston) is working for the ministry there, and the couple are currently estranged due to a (topical) bout of 'Fake News'.
Throw in a potential love triangle between Newt, his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and old Hogwart's schoolmate Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) and about a half dozen other sub-plots and you have... well... a complete muggle - - sorry - - muddle.
Above all, I really can't explain the crux of the plot. A venerable diarrhoea of exposition in a crypt, during an inexplicably quiet fifteen minutes (given 'im-who-can-be-named is next door with about a thousand other people!) left me completely bewildered. A bizarre event at sea (no spoilers) would seem to make absolutely NO SENSE when considered with another reveal at the end of the film. I thought I must have clearly missed something... or I'd just not been intelligent enough to process the information.... or.... it was actually completely bonkers! Actually, I think it's the latter: in desperation I went on a fan site that tried to explain the plot. While it was explained there, the explanation aligned with what I thought had happened: but it made no mention of the ridiculousness of the random coincidence involved!
The film's a mess. Which is a shame since everyone involved tries really hard. Depp oozes evil very effectively (he proves that nicely on arriving in Paris, and doubles-down about 5 minutes later: #veryverydark). Redmayne replays his Newt-act effectively but once again (and I see I made the same comments in my "Fantastic Beasts" review) his character mumbles again so much that many of his lines are unintelligible.
I also complained last time that the excellent actress Katherine Waterston was criminally underused as the tentative love interest Tina. this trend unfortunately continues unabated in this film.... you'll struggle afterwards to write down what she actually did in this film.
Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol, looking for all the world in some scenes like Rachel Weisz) reprise their roles in a sub-plot that goes nowhere in particular.
Of the newcomers, Jude Law as Dumbledore is a class-act but has very little screen time: hopefully he will get more to do next time around. Zoë Kravitz impresses as Leta.
As you would expect from a David Yates / David Heyman Potter collaboration, the product design, costume design and special effects are all excellent. Some scenes are truly impressive - an 'explosion' in a Parisian garret is particularly spectacular. But special effects alone do not a great film make. Many reviews I've seen complain that this was a 'filler' film... a set-up film for the rest of the series. And I can understand that view. If you analyse the film overall, virtually NOTHING of importance actually happens: it's like the "Order of the Phoenix" of the prequels.
I dragged myself along to see this one because "I thought I should". The third in the series will really need to sparkle to make me want to see it. If J.K. Rowling were to take me advice (she won't - she NEVER returns my calls!) then she would sculpt the story-arc but leave the screenwriting to someone better. The blame for this one, I'm afraid, lies at Rowling's door alone.
The Girl in the Spider's Web (2018)
Would the last straight woman in Stockholm turn off the lights?
You've gotta love a Scandi-thriller. Well, that was until last year's hopeless Michael Fassbender vehicle "The Snowman" which devalued the currency better than Brexit has done to the pound! The mother of them all though was the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy (in Swedish) in 2009. Although subject to a wholly unnecessary English remake two year's later by David Fincher (with Mara Rooney and Daniel Craig) it was Noomi Rapace who struck the perfect note as the original anarchic and damaged Lisbeth Salander: a punk wielding a baseball bat like an alien-thing possessed (pun well and truly intended!).
Now though we have "A New Dragon Tattoo Story" (as the film's subtitle clumsily declares) based on the book by David Lagercrantz, who took over the literary franchise after the untimely death of Stieg Larsson. Picking up the reins as Salander is that most British of actresses Claire Foy.... which seems an odd choice, but one which - after you get past the rather odd accent - she just about pulls off.
Lizbeth Salendar (Claire Foy) has an interesting hobby. She is a vigilante, like a lesbian Batman, stalking the streets of Stockholm putting wrongs right where abusive boyfriends/husbands are concerned.
She is also a hacking machine for rent. And Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) has a problem. He has invented a software program that allows its user to control every nuclear warhead in the world from a single laptop (cue every other Bond/24/Austin Powers script ever written). But he has had second thoughts and wants it back from its resting place on the server of the NSA's chief hacker, Ed Needham (Lakeith Stanfield). Balder recruits Salander to recover it, but when things go pear-shaped Salander finds herself on the wrong side of both the law and the encircling terrorist "spiders".
Scandi-dramas work best when they exploit the snow; maintain a sexual tension; and go dark, gritty and violent. On the plus side, "The Girl in the Spider's Web" ticks most of those boxes adequately. Foy's Salandar is smart, sassy and sexy, outwitting the best of the best, and only once finding her intellectual match. (If you're a lesbian, Stockholm is most definitely the place to be: there only seemed to be one hetero-female there, and she was an adulteress).
But Salander also has a Bond-like invincibility that unfortunately tests your incredulity at multiple points. Contributing to the excitement is the stunt team, who keep themselves busy with some great car and bike chases.
So, the movie has its moments and is great to look at. But the film ends up a sandwich or two short of a smorgasbord, thanks largely to some totally bonkers plot points and more than a few ridiculous coincidences. There are without doubt an array of well-constructed set pieces here, but they fail to fully connect with any great conviction. An example of a scene that infuriates is a dramatic bathroom fight in a red-lit gloom with identical protagonists that is cut together so furiously you would need a Blu-ray slo-mo to work out what the hell is going on... and then I fear you might fail.
So it's an A- for the Production Design (Eve Stewart, "The Danish Girl") and the Cinematography (Pedro Luque, "Don't Breathe"), but a C- for the director Fede Alvarez (also "Don't Breathe").
I will save my biggest source of wrath though for that major bug-bear of mine: trailers that spoil the plot. I've asked before, but for a film like this, WHO EXACTLY PUTS TOGETHER THE TRAILER? I'd like to think it's some mindless committee of marketing execs somewhere. Because I HONESTLY CAN'T BELIEVE it would be the director! (If I'm wrong though, I would point my finger at Mr Alvarez and chant "shame, shame, shame"!). For the trailer that I saw playing in UK cinemas does it's level best to not only drop in the key spoilers of the plot (including the climactic scene), but also spoils just about every action money-shot in the movie. It's all so pointless. If you've by any chance managed to get to this point without seeing the trailer, then SAVE YOURSELVES and AVOID IT!
As I mentioned earlier, Claire Foy again extends her range by playing Salander really well. She is the reason to go and see the film.
The Daniel Craig part of Blomkvist is played here by Sverrir Gudnason, who was in "The Circle" (which I saw) and was Borg in "Borg McEnroe" (which I didn't). Blomkvist really is a lazy ****, since he works for the publication "Millenium" but writes absolutely nothing for years. It must be only because the boss (Vicky Krieps) fancies him that he keeps his job. Gudnason is good enough, but has very little to do in the movie: its the Salander/Foy show. Slightly, but only slightly, more involved is Lakeith Standfield as the US intelligence man.
Stephen Merchant is an odd casting choice for Balder. Not withstanding that he was brilliant when almost unrecognisable in "Logan", here he looks far too much like his "Ricky Gervais sidekick" persona to be taken seriously: and it's not even remotely a comedy (there is only one humorous moment in the film, a nice "clicker" gag in a car park).
I had high hopes for this film from the trailer, but I was left disappointed. It's not classic Scandi-noir like the original "Tattoo"; and it's not going for the black comedy angle of "Headhunters" (which I saw again last week and loved... again!). It falls into a rather "meh" category. It's not a bad evening's watch, but perhaps worth leaving for a DVD/cable showing.
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A fantasy that's glossy and beautiful to look at.
Before the heavyweight juggernaut of "Mary Poppins Returns" arrives at Christmas, here's another Disney live action feature to get everyone in the festive spirit.
It's Victorian London and Young Clara (Mackenzie Foy) lives with her father (Matthew Macfadyen), her older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and her younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet). It's Christmas and the family are having a hard time as they are grieving the recent death of wife and mother Marie (Anna Madeley). Like her mother, Clara has an astute mind with an engineering bias and is encouraged in this pursuit by her quirky inventor godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). At his fabled Christmas ball, Clara asks for his help in accessing a gift Clara's mother has bequeathed to her. This leads Clara on a magical adventure to a parallel world with four realms, where everything is not quite peace and harmony.
This is a film that visually delights from the word go. The film opens with a swooping tour of Victorian London (who knew the Disney castle was in the capital's suburbs?!) via Westminster bridge and into the Stahlbaum's attic. It's a spectacular tour-de-force of special-effects wizardry and sets up the expectation of what's to come. For every scene that follows is a richly decorated feast for the eyes. Drosselmeyer's party is a glorious event, full of extras, strong on costume design and with a rich colour palette as filmed by Linus Sandgren ("La La Land"). When we are pitched into the Four Realms - no wardrobe required - the magical visions continue.
The film represents a Narnia-esque take on the four compass-point lands of Oz, and on that basis it's a bit formulaic. But the good vs evil angles are more subtley portrayed. Of the Four Realms leaders, Keira Knightley as Sugar Plum rather steals the show from the others (played by Richard E. Grant, Eugenio Derbez and Helen Mirren). Mirren in particular is given little to do.
What age kids would this be suitable for? Well, probably a good judge would be the Wizard of Oz. If your kids are not completely freaked out by the Wicked Witch of the West and the flying monkeys, then they will probably cope OK with the scary bits of the "Realm of Entertainment". Although those who suffer from either musophobia or (especially) coulrophobia might want to give it a miss! All kids are different though, and the "loss of the mother" is also an angle to consider: that might worry and upset young children. It is definitely a "PG" certificate rather than a "U" certificate.
Young people who also enjoy ballet (I nearly fell into a sexist trap there!) will also get a kick out of some of the dance sequences, which are "Fantasia-esque" in their presentation and feature Misty Copeland, famously the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. (I have no appreciation at all for ballet, but I'm sure it was brilliant!)
As for the moral tone of the film, the female empowerment message is rather ladled on with a trowel, but as it's a good message I have no great problem with that. I am often appalled at how lacking in confidence young people are in their own abilities. Here is a young lady (an engineer!) learning self-resilience and the confidence to be able to do anything in life she puts her mind to. Well said.
The story is rather generic - child visits a magical other world - but the screenplay is impressive given its the first-feature screenplay for Ashleigh Powell.
The film is credited with two directors. This - particularly if there is also an army of screenwriters - is normally a warning sign on a film. Here, there clearly were issues with the filming since Disney insisted on reshoots for which the original director, Lasse Hallström, was not available. This is where the "Captain America" director Joe Johnston stepped in.
I really enjoyed Mackenzie Foy's performance as Clara. Now 18, she is a feisty and believable Disney princess for the modern age. (If, like me, you are struggling to place where you've heard her name before, she was the young Murph in Nolan's "Interstellar"). Another name I was struggling with was Ellie Bamber as her sister. Ellie was excellent in the traumatic role of the daughter in the brilliant "Nocturnal Animals", one of my favourite films of 2016. (Hopefully the therapy has worked and Ellie can sleep at night again!).
A newcomer with a big role is Jayden Fowora-Knight as the Nutcracker soldier: Jayden had a bit part in "Ready Player One" but does a great job here in a substantial role in the film. He stands out as a black actor in a Disney feature: notwithstanding the Finn character in "Star Wars", this is a long-overdue and welcome approach from Disney.
British comedians Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehouse turn up to add some light relief, but the humour seems rather forced and not particularly fitting.
I wasn't expecting to enjoy this one much, but I did. Prinicipally because it is such a visual feast and worth going to see just for that alone: I have a prediction that this film will be nominated for production design, costume design and possible special effects.
I think kids of the right age - I would have thought 6 to 10 sort of range - will enjoy this a lot, particularly if they like dance. Young girls in particular will most relate to the lead character. For such kids, I'd rate this a 4*. The rating below reflects my rating as an adult: so I don't think 'drag-a-long' parents in the Christmas holidays (if it is still on by then) will not be totally bored.
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They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
We DO remember them.
"Trapped in a Charlie Chaplin World". So says director Peter Jackson in a post-screening discussion with Mark Kermode, describing early black and white documentary footage. Whereas modern film runs at 24 fps, most of the old footage is hand cranked, with speeds as low as 12 fps which leads to its jerky nature. Jackson in this project with the Imperial War Museum took their WW1 footage and put it through a 'pipeline process. This cleaned-up and restored the original footage; used clever computer interpolation to add in the missing 6 to 12 frames per second; and then colourised it.
The results are outstanding. Jackson wisely focuses the film on the specific slice of WW1 action from the trenches. And those anonymous figures become real, live, breathing humans on screen. It is obviously tragic that some (and as commented by Jackson, many in one scene) are not to be breathing humans for much longer.
These effects take a while to kick in. The early scenes in the documentary are in the original black and white, describing the recruitment process, and how many of the recruits were under-age. (To explain the varied comments in the film, they should have been 18, although officially shouldn't have been sent overseas until 19).
It is when the troops arrive in France that we suddenly go from black-and-white to the fully restored and colourised footage, and it is a gasp-inducing moment.
All of the audio commentary is from original BBC recordings of war veterans recounting their actual experiences in the trench. Some sound like heroes; some sound like rogues; all came out changed men. Supporting music of WW1 ditties, including the incredibly rude "Mademoiselle from Armentières" over the end credits, is provided by Plan 9.
But equally impressive is the dubbing of the characters onscreen. Jackson employed forensic lip-readers to determine what the soldiers on-screen were saying, and reproduced the speech using appropriate regional accents for the regiments concerned. Jackson also recounts how the words associated with a "pep-talk" speech to troops by an officer he found on an original slip of paper within the regimental records: outstanding. Added sound effects include real-life shelling by the New Zealand army. It all adds to the overall atmosphere of the film.
The film itself is a masterpiece of technical innovation that will change in the future the way in which we should be able to see this sort of early film footage forever. As a documentary it's near-perfection. But if I have a criticism of the cinema showing I attended it is that the 3D tended to detract rather than add to the film. Perhaps this is just my eyesight, but 3D always tends to make images slightly more blurry. Where (like "Gravity") there are great 3D effects to showcase, it's worth the slight negative to get the massive positive. But here, there was no such benefit: 2D would have been better. For those in the UK (and possibly through other broadcasters worldwide) the film is being shown on BBC2 tonight (11/11/18) at 9:30: I will be watching it again to compare and contrast.
Jackson dedicated the film to his grandfather. And almost all of us Brits will have relatives affected by this "war to end all wars". In my case, my grandfather was shot and severely wounded at Leuze Wood on the Somme, lying in the mud for four days and four nights before being recovered... by the Germans! Fortunately he was well-treated and, although dying young, recovered enough to father my father - else I wouldn't be here today writing this. On this Rememberance Sunday, 100 years on, it is a time for us to truly remember the sacrifice these men and boys gave to what, all in the film agree, was a pretty obstinate and pointless conflict.
Death becomes her
If you are considering "inheritence planning" there are probably a number of things you might be toying with: what happens to your house; how to best transfer your investments; who gets the dog; etc. But probably "a grudge" is not on the list. But that's the problem faced by teacher's union rep Veronica (Viola Davis). As you might presume from the film's title Veronica, together with fellow widows Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Amanda (Carrie Coon), are left in a tight spot when a gang's robbery of a local black hoodlum's stack of cash goes badly wrong. The leader of the gang, and Veronica's husband, is Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), and his certain set of skills are not enough to save him.
The victim of the robbery, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), is running for local office in the upcoming elections against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), trying to take over the role as part of a long dynasty from his grouchy father Tom (Robert Duvall). Where Jamal might be better with words, Jamal's brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, "Get Out") has a more physical approach to resolving issues.
What Harry has left behind for Veronica is a notebook containing the details of their next job, and Veronica gathers the female group together to carry out the raid to help save them from a "bullet in the head".
I really enjoyed this film. It's the ying to the yang of the disappointing "Ocean's 8" from earlier in the year. Yes, it's YET another film that focuses on female empowerment and with a strong black presence within the cast. But what for me made it stand out above the crowd was the quality of the writing and the assuredness of the directing.
Although based on the ancient UK TV series by Lynda La Plante, the script is written by "Gone Girl" screenwriter Gillian Flynn, and is excellent. It really doesn't EXPLAIN what is going on, but shows you a series of interconnected scenes and lets you mentally fill in the blanks. While you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand the overall story arc, I must admit that even now I'm not 100% sure of some of the nuances of the story. Harry, for example, seems to be a hardened career criminal, and yet he seems to be revered by the political leaders on both sides, even though he seemed to have loyalty to noone. The script cleverly uses flashbacks and has enough twists and turns to keep you on your mental toes.
The characters also worked well for me, with each having a back story and motivations that were distinctly different from each other. Alice (helped by Debecki's standout performance) is particularly intriguing coming out of an 'interesting' relationship. Is she just following the path of her unpleasant mother (Jacki Weaver)? Some of the actions might suggest so.
As for the direction, Steve McQueen (he of "12 Years a Slave"), delivers some scenes that could justly be described as "bold". A highpoint for me was a short drive by Jack Mulligan and his PA Siobhan (an excellently underplayed Molly Kunz) from a housing project, in a neighbourhood you might worry about walking through at night, to the Mulligan mansion in a leafy and pleasant street. McQueen mounts the camera on the bonnet (hood) of the car, but you can't see the interior other than occasional glimpses of the chauffeur. All you can hear is Mulligan's rant to his Siobhan. I thought this worked just brilliantly well. The heist itself well done and suitably tense with an outcome that continues to surprise.
If there's a criticism then the ending rather fizzles out, leaving a few loose ends flapping in the breeze.
As for the performances, it's only been a couple of weeks since my review of the excellent "Bad Times at the El Royale" and I named as my second film of the year for my (private) "Ensemble Cast" award. And here hot on its tail is the third. There are such strong performances across the cast that it's difficult to pull out specifics: as you start looking at the list you pull out more and more and more names...
- As referenced above, I loved Elizabeth Debecki's performance. Both vulnerable and strong all in one package.
- Colin Farrell, for me, gives his best performance in years as the son caught within the shadow of his overpowering father. A confrontational scene between Farrell and Robert Duvall is particularly powerful.
- Daniel Kaluuya is truly threatening (possibly slightly OTT) as the psycho fixer.
- For the second time in a month Cynthia Erivo stands out as a major acting force, as the hairstylist cum gang member Belle.
- Jon Michael Hill, excellent as a fire-breathing reverend with flexible political views.
It would not surprise me to see Best Supporting Actor nods for any combinations of Debecki, Farrell, Kaluuya and Erivo for this.
I must admit that I'm not the greatest fan of Viola Davis: I find her performances quite mannered. But there's no doubting here the depth of her passion and with this lead performance she carries this film.
Final Thoughts: I loved this as an intelligent action movie that's a cut above the rest. Which is a surprise, since from the trailer I thought it looked good but not THAT good! It comes with my recommendation for an exciting and gripping two hours at the cinema.
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Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)
Form-Prefect of the Dead
Meredith Houseman (Simon Pegg) is housemaster of Sparta house in Slaughterhouse school: an ancient public school establishment steering England's future greats to greatness (which probably explains a lot about the current Brexit mess!). Houseman is not in a happy place, given that his girlfriend is now in deepest darkest African doing "good works" with handsome French doctors, and particularly that she is played by Margot Robbie: I would be also be sad... #punching!
New school starter Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is equally unhappy as he is a northern teen dragooned into attending the school by his well-meaning Mum (Jo Hartley). His strange room-mate Willoughby (Asa Butterfield) seems to be a chronic depressive; he is being picked on by the prefect-bully Clegg (Tom Rhys Harries); and his bed was previously occupied by a Viscount, since deceased under unpleasant circumstances that no-one wants to talk about. At least he has the distraction of the upper-sixth school goddess Clemsie Lawrence (Hermione Corfield) to take his mind off his woes.
All this washes over "The Bat" - the school's headmaster (Michael Sheen) - since he is engrossed in some shady deal with an evil corporation doing fracking in the school grounds. The fracking though seems to be doing more than just causing a few minor earth tremors, as ancient forces are unleashed.
The movie is positioned as a "comedy/horror", along the lines of "Shaun of the Dead". The film also has Frost and Pegg as executive producers and they also have starring roles in the film. But there the similarities really end: this is a "Cornetto film" without a cone of solid chocolate lurking at the bottom to enjoy.
The script (by director Crispian Mills and first-time screenwriter Henry Fitzherbert) is nowhere near as sharp as the Frost/Pegg scripts or their famous collaborations. The story overall makes precious little sense: it's a hodge-podge of elements from many Harry Potter films (especially "The Chamber of Secrets"), Lindsay Anderson's "If..."; and Roy Boulting's "The Guinea Pig"; with also a sprinkling of the anarchic essence of Michael Palin's classic "Tomkinson's Schooldays". The whole thing never manages to gel into a cohesive whole.
After the second reel, the film completely loses sight of the plot: there's a whole lot of running, screaming and dying going on but there's little logic behind any of it that I could fathom. What didn't help my comprehension of what was going on were some 'Cornetto-esque' sequences of manic editing. Images were thrown onto the screen so subliminally that any clever nuance was lost. I'm sure at one point there was a droll (if gross) segue at a "Roman orgy" of a girl receiving oral sex before being 'eaten out' in an entirely different way. But you would need a Blu-ray and a frame-by-frame pause function to get the joke.
That's not to say that I didn't laugh a few times along the way. There are some sight gags - for example, Wooten (Kit Connor) as the lad at the bottom of the bullying pecking order, chained to a U-bend - that made me laugh, and some running jokes - for example, Frost as the head of the anti-fracking camp offering the kids drugs at every encounter - that mildly amuse. But once again here's a British comedy that, like the atrocious "The Brits are Coming", thinks that "funny" largely revolves around swearing a lot - how useful that "frack" sounds so similar to another word - with added bodily dismemberment.
As for 'the turns', Pegg and Frost ham it up with their usual comedy schtick well enough, and it was quite fun to see Sheen try a comedy role for a change as the conniving and supercilious headmaster. Elsewhere all the young cast put their hearts into it, but it's again Asa Butterfield that your eyes gravitate to, due to his striking features. I last saw Asa in the excellent if harrowing WW1 drama "Journey's End", and he here proves again that he is a One Mann's Movies 'name to watch for the future'.
Overall, there's a lot to irritate in this film. From the "z" in the title to... well... about 80% of the film. There is no nuance or subtlety to either the writing or the direction. I think that's a great shame. The film has a good premise hidden in there. An adult comedy set around the ridiculous rules and rites of public schools (away from the light nonsense of "St Trinians") is overdue. And the whole subject of fracking, and the conflicts surrounding the controversial techniques, hasn't yet - to my knowledge - been explored in a fictional movie. The film does have a few very funny moments. But as a whole I left the cinema with that "wasted two hours" feeling. Not recommended.
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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
"Fame and fortune and everything that goes with it"
Sometimes a trailer generates a bit of a buzz of excitement with a cinema audience and the first showings of the trailer for "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a case in point. But would the film live up to the potential?
Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), born in Zanzibar to Indian parents, is a shy boy with a dramatic singing voice. At a concert he meets Mary (Lucy Boynton) who becomes the "love of his life". When a space for a lead singer becomes available in a college band, Farrokh leaps at the chance and onstage becomes an exuberant extrovert. The band, of course, changes its name to Queen and with Farrokh assuming the name of Freddie Mercury they are set for global success. But Freddie is a complex character, and the demands and temptations of global super-stardom take a terrible toll.
Wow! What a great film on so many different levels. As a biopic of Mercury and a history of one of the greatest ever rock bands, the film is highly entertaining. But I wasn't prepared for how emotional I would find it. Mercury's life is befitting of a Shakespearian tragedy: an estrangement from his 'conservative' father (Ace Bhatti); a public extravert, but privately an insecure and needy bi-sexual, constantly searching for his perch in life; a meteoric rise and an equally spectacular and historic fall.
The film culminates in a recreation of the band's spectacular 20 minute set for 1985's Band Aid concert at Wembley. It's a spectacular piece of cinema and one that - for me - puts the much hyped concert scenes from "A Star is Born" back in its box. Aside from a few niggles (the sound engineers in the booth were, if I'm not mistaken, all the size of Hagrid!) it's a spectacular piece of CGI work.
If I'm being critical, there are a few bits of the movie that are a tad tacky and twee. A whizz around the world of tour locations is composed of some pretty ropy animations that didn't work for me. And a few of the 'creations' of classic songs - particularly "Another One Bites the Dust" - are a bit forced. Countering that though, the "Bohemian Rhapsody" is mesmerising.
As for the cast, I'll just put it right out there: Rami Malek is just sensational as Mercury! I first called out Malek as someone to watch in "Need For Speed", but since then he's gone on to major fame in the TV series "Mr Robot". Here he is a force of nature on the screen and you literally can't take your eyes off him. Every nuance of Mercury's tortured soul is up there. I would love to see the performance recognized in the Awards season, with the showreel clip being a brilliant standoff in the rain with Paul Prenter ("Downton's" Allen Leech).
The rest of the band - Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor; Gwilym Lee as lead guitar Brian May; and Joseph Mazzello (yes, young Tim from "Jurassic Park"!) as bass guitarist John Deacon - all work well together, with Lee looking more like Brian May than Brian May! Lucy Boynton, so great in "Sing Street", gets a meaty dramatic role to sink her teeth into, and the ever-reliable Tom Hollander is great as the band's legal rep/manager Jim "Miami" Beech: his 'knowing looks' near the end of the film are brilliantly done.
The surprise piece of casting though was the very welcome return of Mike Myers as the exec Ray Foster: only seen spasmodically on screen since 2009's "Inglorious Basterds". It's a role that reminded me of Tom Cruise's turn in "Tropic Thunder"! But it's well done. After making "Bohemian Rhapsody" famous again in "Wayne's World", how could he have refused? I say "Welcome back Mr Myers": you've been missed.
And a final shout out to Paul Jones, my son-in-law's brother, who gets a full screen appearance in the crowd, arms outstretched, during the "Fat Bottomed Girls" set! (I must admit, I missed it, so will have to go and see it again!)
This is a film that grabs you and propels you through the story at a fast lick. It's a surprisingly moving story, with a well-known and tragic finale. It's not a perfect film, but it is up there wih the year's best as a high-energy cinema experience. If I still gave half-marks this would be a 4.5.
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"He's waited for me; I've waited for him".
There's such a familiarity with the content of these films that it's difficult to put yourself back in 1978 for Jamie Lee Curtis's original battle with Michael Myers when the teen-slasher genre was in its infancy. Arguably "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" four years earlier booted the 70's/80's genre; but thanks to its huge success John Carpenter's "Halloween" opened the flood-gates... or should I say, blood-gates.
40 years after the terrifying events of Halloween night in Haddonfield, Illinois, Michael Myers is still mute and incarcerated in a psychiatric unit being studied by Dr Sartain (Haluk Bilginer). He is joined by two investigative journalists - Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Basingstoke's-own Rhian Rees: "Where are your loos?"... classic!). They are keen to reunite Myers with his nemesis Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) to watch the fireworks.
Strode is unfortunately damaged goods: still mentally traumatised and with failed marriages and a child taken into care, she lives in a fortified home in the middle of the woods. But she knows she has a date with destiny. As Halloween 2018 approaches, an 'incident' puts Myers on a collision course with Haddonfield's teenage population all over again.
Wow... you forget what an effective actress Jamie Lee Curtis is and here she absolutely owns every single scene she's in, bringing enormous energy to the screen as the paranoid but ever-prepared hunter-in-waiting. The original Halloween was Lee Curtis's movie debut and the film that made her a household name, and it almost feels like this is a passion-project for her to say "thanks for all the fish" for her career. Impressive.
As her eye-rolling daughter, Judy Greer rather pales in comparison (I found her character is a bit whiny and annoying), but the acting stakes pick up again with Andi Matichak as the granddaughter Allyson.
Of the other teens, Virginia Gardner is particularly effective as Vicky: the cute "favourite" babysitter who you can't help but empathise with.
It's very easy to make a very bad slasher movie, but this isn't such a movie. Although having a wonderfully retro feel (when is the last time you saw "traditional" opening titles like this?) and despite mining every horror cliché known to man (ALWAYS look in the back seat when you get in a car!) it's all obviously been done with loving care by the director David Gordon Green.
Above all, the director knows that what's more scary than seeing violent murders is what your imagination can visualise happening off-screen. Don't get me wrong, there is some SERIOUS gore meted out, with a few 'cover your eyes' moments. However, a good proportion of the violence is not shown, and very effective that is too, supported by Carpenter's classic and insistent theme and some kick-ass foley work to add spice to your imagination!
The script (by the writing team of David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley) also wickedly plays with your darkest fear of where the plot *could* go if it wanted to: in a brilliant piece of misdirection (you'll know the scene) your "OMG surely not" nerves twang and then un-twang with relief.
The script also works well to help you care about the teens on the menu, in much the same way as "Jaws" did with the tourists to Amity Beach.
Where the plot nearly lost me was in a rather daft twist before the final reel (which actually made more sense of what happened in the first reel, but was still hugely improbable). The ship rights itself fairly quickly (if messily) and normal order is resumed for the finale it deserves.
I'm not really a "horror nut" but this was popcorn horror of the best sort and I enjoyed it. Reverential to the original classic, it made for some entertaining reactions in the sparsely populated showing I attended: I imagine if seen in a packed auditorium on a Saturday night (or perhaps tomorrow night!) it would literally be a scream.
One's thing for sure: when I got into my car in the dark cinema car park, I did take a sneaky look into the back seat!
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Johnny English Strikes Again (2018)
Spy spoof caper that's only passably amusing.
It's a HILARIOUS concept. It's Bond but not as we know it: a suave, sophisticated, well-dressed hero but someone who's a complete klutz when it comes to the spy business. Rowan Atkinson is perfect in the role: because when he plays his face ''straight" he IS strangely good-looking and certainly pulls off the air of confidence, intelligence and sophistication well.
So it was that 2003's Johnny English was a refreshing novelty. Roll forwards 15 years (via 2011's "Johnny English Reborn") and the concoction needs... you know... actual JOKES.
For "Johnny English Strikes Again" is unfortunately a pretty lame affair.
Johnny English (Atkinson) is retired from MI7 and living life as a Geography teacher at a public school. Aside from teaching them about sheep farming in Australia and magma, English delights in teaching his young pupils the tricks of the spy trade: "You're looking particularly beautiful tonight", with a twinkle and a vodka martini in hand. "You're looking particularly beautiful tonight" repeats the class.
But the quiet life of English is about to end, since a cyber-attack has exposed all of MI7's current agents and the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) needs to re-hire a retired agent who is currently 'off the grid'. But noone - friend or foe - is safe when the bumbling English and his faithful helper Bough (Ben Miller) go back into the field.
As UK comedy professionals, Atkinson and Miller deliver their English/Bough schtick serviceably enough. The brilliant Emma Thompson though is woefully underused as a straight-woman, being asked to do little more than an exasperated Theresa May impersonation.
If you need a sexy and sophisticated femme fatale for a Bond spoof, what better than a real ex-Bond girl? So the extremely sexy and sophisticated Olga Kurylenko (Camille from "Quantum of Solace") plays Ophelia Bhuletova, which sounds much funnier when pronounced by Atkinson. And a very good job she does too.
To emphasise the positive for a moment, the film is suitably glossy, which are table stakes for a spy caper like this or Austin Powers.
But the script by William Davies (who did the previous Johnny Englishes, but nothing much since "Reborn") doesn't deliver any real laugh-out-loud moments. My hopes were raised when the "pensioner interviews" happened and Charles Dance, Edward Fox and Michael Gambon turned up. Great, I thought... having the old timers play off Atkinson will be fun. But unfortunately they were nothing but cameos and (although one of the film's comedy highlights) they came and went in the blink of an eye.
Elsewhere the film relied too much on a few running jokes: ostensibly the need for health and safety in MI7, where guns are rather frowned upon, given their potentially to caused injury or worse. A 'virtual reality' training mission also delivers smiles but outstays its welcome.
The film is a first-time feature for TV-comedy director David Kerr.
There are films which are wildly offensive. There are films that are just plain bad. This is neither: it is as Douglas Adams might have described it as "Mostly Harmless". But to get any more than the rating I have given it, a comedy film has to make me laugh and this one failed miserably. It's a watchable TV film for a rainy afternoon, but not worth heading out to the cinema to watch.
A film that leaves you in two minds.
Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a San Franciscan investigative reporter who is engaged to hot-shot lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle WIlliams). Brock is a bit of a maverick and always tends to push things a bit far, both at work and at home. Brock targets for his latest investigation Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed): a billionaire space pioneer (I hope the producers got WELL lawyered up!) Drake is a Bond-style megalomaniac who is intend on saving mankind by merging humans with aliens to create a symbiotic organism. Not wishing to go through all the nampy-pamby clinical trials stuff, he is doing live research on vagrants and others who "won't be missed"... with generally negative results. Infected accidently with the symbiont called Venom Brock's future hangs in the balance: the meld will either kill him or else a new superhero will be born.
For anyone with one foot already in the Spiderverse, Eddie Brock and his alter-ego Venom have appeared before, in the convoluted and pretty poor Tobey Maguire sequel "Spider-Man 3". In that film Eddie (played by Topher Grace) was the boyfriend of Gwen Stacey (then played by Bryce Dallas-Howard) who was similarly infected by an alien symbiote and was transformed into Venom.
This new Venom incarnation is a Sony Pictures production "with" Marvel Studios, and although featuring a Stan Lee cameo it never quite feels like a Marvel picture. Posher critics have described it as "tonally inconsistent".... which is posh-critic language for "it's all over the place"! And they are right. It veers suddenly from high drama and sci-fi action to plodding dialogue and Deadpool-style wisecracks with clutch-smoking rapidity. As such, the film never feels like it's decided whether it wants to be at the po-faced Captain America end of the Marvel specturn or at the wise-cracking Deadpool/GotG end.
Tom Hardy actually gets to spend a lot of this film without a mask over his face, which is certainly a novelty! And he gives it his all acting wise which will please his army of fans. But his pairing with the Oscar-winning Michelle Williams never feels comfortable: there seems little chemistry between the pair given that they are an "item". None of this is helped by the grindingly turgid script which gives the pair, plus Reid Scott ("Dan" from "Veep") as the third corner in the love triangle, some truly dire dialogue to spout at each other.
An act I did like in the film was Riz Ahmed as the "really bad guy" Drake. I found Ahmed extremely annoying in "Rogue One", but here he slides into the smarmy evil role perfectly. A better script, like a future Bond film, would have benefitted from the turn!
Woody Harrelson also turns up in a mid-credit "monkey" a "well-known" supervillain: which meant nothing to me but certainly does to comic-book fans.
A technical shout-out should go to Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson (who's previously done "Black Panther" and "Creed"): an unusual soundtrack with odd electronica, eerie electric-guitar riffs for Eddie's theme interspersed with exciting fast-paced action beats.
This is not a classic Marvel flick, but for me it wasn't nearly as bad as some of the critical reviews have made it out to be. I saw this alone: and we were quite entertained.
First Man (2018)
He captured a feeling. Sky with no ceiling.
I am a child of the 60's, born in 1961. The "Space Race" for me was not some historical concept but a pervasive backdrop to my childhood. I still recall, at the age of 8, being marched into my junior school's assembly hall. We all peered at the grainy black-and-white pictures of Neil Armstrong as he spoke his famously fluffed line before stepping onto the lunar surface. The event happened at 3:54am UK time, so clearly my recollection of "seeing it live" is bogus. (I read that the BBC stayed on air until 10:30 in the morning, so it was probably a 'final review' of the night's events I saw). It is probably lodged in my memory less for the historical event and more due to the fact that there was TELEVISION ON IN THE MORNING! (Kids, ask your grandparents!)
But back to Damien Chazelle's film. We start early in the 60's with America getting well and truly kicked up the proberbial by the Russians in the space race: they fail to get the first man in space; they fail to carry out the first spacewalk. So the Americans, following the famous JFK speech, set their sights on the moon. It's the equivalent of making a mess of cutting your toenails but then deciding to have a go at brain surgery. NASA develop the Gemini programme to practice the essential docking manoevers required as a precursor for the seemingly impossible ('two blackboard') mission that is Apollo. But the price paid for such ambition is high.
Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong as a dedicated, prickly, professional; altogether not a terribly likeable individual. Claire Foy plays his long-suffering wife Janet, putting her support for her husband's dangerous profession ahead of her natural fears of becoming a single mother.
There is obviously little tension to be mined from a film that has such a well-known historical context. Those with even a subliminal knowledge of the subject will be aware of the key triumphs and tragedies along the way. The script (by Josh Singer, "The Post"; "Spotlight") is very well done in developing a creeping dread of knowing what is shortly to come.
Even with these inherent spoilers, Chazelle still manages to evoke armrest-squeezing tension into the space flight sequences. A lot of this is achieved through disorientating camera movements and flashing images that may irritate some but I found to be highly effective. (Did anyone else flash back to that excellent "Mission Space" ride at Epcot during the launch sequences?) This hand-held cinematography by Linus Sandgren (Chazelle's "La La Land" collaborator) is matched by some utterly drop-dead gorgeous shots - beautifully framed; beautifully lit - that would be worthy of a Kaminski/Spielberg collaboration.
Those expecting a rollercoaster thrill-ride of the likes of "Apollo 13" will be disappointed. The film has more of the slow-and-long-burn feeling of "The Right Stuff" in mood and, at 141 minutes, some might even find it quite boring. There is significant time, for example, spent within the family home. These scenes include turbulent events of which I wasn't previously aware: events that form the cornerstone of the film's drama. For me, the balance of the personal and the historical background was perfectly done. I found it curious though that with such a family-oriented drama Chazelle chose to ditch completely any cuts away to the earthbound onlookers during the tense lunar landing sequence. (Compare and contrast with Ron Howard's masterly inter-cutting in the re-entry scene of "Apollo 13"). With the outcome foretold, perhaps such tension building was considered unnecessary? I'm not suggesting it was wrong to 'stay in the moment' with the astronauts, but it's a bold directorial move.
Overall, the foolhardiness of NASA trying to do what they did with the 60's technology at their disposal is well-portrayed. If you've been lucky enough, as I have, to view the Apollo 11 capsule in the National Air and Space museum in Washington you can't help but be impressed by the bravery of Armstong, Aldrin and Collins in getting in that bucket of bolts and putting their lives on the line. True American heroes.
On that topic, the "flag issue" has generated much self-righteous heat within the US media; that is regarding Chazelle not showing the American flag being planted. This seems fatuous to me. Not only is the flag shown on the moon, but the film ably demonstrates the American know-how and bravery behind the mission. If Clint Eastwood had been directing he would have probably gone there: but for me it certainly didn't need any further patriotism rubbed in the viewer's face.
Are Oscar nominations on the cards for Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy? For me, it would be staggering if they are not: this film has "Oscar nomination" written all over it. I'd also certainly not bet against Foy winning for Best Actress: her portrayal of a wife on the edge is nothing short of brilliant. And perhaps, just perhaps, this might be Gosling's year too.
Elsewhere there are strong supporting performances from Kyle Chandler (as Deke Slayton), Corey Stoll (as the 'tell it how it is' Buzz Aldrin) and Jason Clarke (as Ed White). It's also great to see Belfast-born Ciarán Hinds in another mainstream Hollywood release.
For me, another dead cert Oscar nomination will be Justin Hurwitz for the score which is breathtakingly brilliant, not just in its compelling themes but also in its orchestration: the use of the eerie theremin and melodic harp are just brilliant together. I haven't heard a score this year that's more fitting to the visuals: although it's early in the Oscar season to be calling it, I'd be very surprised if this didn't walk away with the statuette.
In Summary: loved this. Damien Chazelle - with "Whiplash", "La La Land" and now "First Man" - has hit all of three out of the park in my book. It's not really a film for thrill-seekers, who might get bored, but anyone, like me, with an interest in the history of space exploration will I think lap it up: for this was surely the most memorable decade in space history... so far.
On leaving the cinema I looked up at the rising moon and marvelled once more at the audacity of man. My eyes then drifted across to the red dot that was Mars. How long I wonder? And how many dramatic film biographies still to come?
The Hate U Give (2018)
It's a turf war on a global scale.
I saw this as part of a "Secret Cinema" event by Cineworld cinemas in the UK. That's where you go to see a pre-release movie without knowing what it is going to be. It's an interesting litmus test for a) a movie's upfront marketing appeal (how many people get up and walk out when the BBFC title appears) and b) the "grab 'em early" appeal of the movie itself (how many people get up and walk out during the first 20 minutes of so).
I'm afraid this movie didn't do very well on either a) or b) at my showing: about 20 people left immediately, and more tellingly about another 20 people left in the first half hour. There's a reason for that: the first half hour of this film is plain awful!
Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a sixteen year-old resident of Garden Heights, a black neighbourhood in a US city, where she lives with her younger brother and step-brother. Their parents Maverick (Russell Hornsby, "Fences") and Lisa (Regina Hall) are devoting all of their energies to "break the cycle" and get their kids out of the neighbourhood and off to college and better futures. As such, the kids attend not the rough-house local school but a much more upper-class establishment: there Starr has to play a different role, with links to her origins being kept hidden even from her white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa).
But all that changes when her boyhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) is shot and killed in a police stop-and-search. As the only witness, and with Khalil linked to local gang lord King (Anthony Mackie), Starr's anonymous world is about to get a national focus shone onto it.
Man... I hate voiceovers in films and always have. So I really hated the start of this film which has Starr narrating ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING ("Blah, blah, blah.."): no audience discovery is required. It also starts with a sort of highschool romance vibe, but not one that's well done with kissing ("Blah, blah, blah..") while the local Mean Girls look on ("Blah, blah") then with Starr's friends trying to act street ("blah, blah") while Starr tries not to be street, all to the constant droning of Starr's voiceover ("Blah, blah, blah.."). (I never walk out of movies.... but I can kind of understand the rationale of those who did).
Fortunately the voiceover then largely recedes (it only pops up with occasional staccato "thoughts", before storming back for a "blah, blah" finale). And with the shooting, the film takes on a much more interesting slant, giving Amandla Stenberg a chance to really shine.
I have commented on Ms Stenberg before: she was the only really good thing in the recent "The Darkest Minds". Here she exhibits a tremendous range from the delighted (her smile is radiant and seems astonishingly unforced) to the heartbroken and furious. There's also a really strong supporting cast with great turns from Hornsby, Hall, Mackie and Smith. Hornsby in particular I found great as the Dad desperately tutoring his kids in military (but loving) fashion to avoid his mistakes.
For me, this seemed to be a surprisingly atypical view of a black ghetto-living family. A scene set in a diner is genuinely touching at emphasising the loving and close-knit nature of the Carter family.
Where I will struggle here is in trying to interpret my overall feelings about the film. As a white, older male person I have three degrees of separation from Starr's perspective. And these are undoubtedly difficult issues to juggle with. The riots that happened recently in towns like Ferguson ape the activities on screen uncomfortably. Your sympathies might lie to some degree with the unfortunate white police officer (Drew Starkey); sympathies supported by the views of Starr's police officer uncle Carlos (Common): until Starr points out via a punchy question that you REALLY shouldn't feel like that... and your views are brought up with a jolt.
Aside from the rights and wrongs of the incident, there's a frustrating dichotomy at play in the film with black and white communities wanting to be treated equally but never wanting to be treated the same. "You don't SEE me" wails Starr. "I see you" replies Chris (as if James Cameron was directing!) But does he really? Without colour, I do not consider myself to be remotely capable of fully understanding Starr's perspective on life. It made me want to read the source novel by Angie Thomas to try to get better insight.
Directed by George Tillman Jr., it's undoubtedly a mixed bag, but I came down in the end on the side of it being good rather than bad... it has certainly had me thinking for a couple of days. The clumsy voiceovers and story elements in the opening and closing scenes mask a number of parallel and interesting story strands that generate conflicting thoughts about the state of race relations in today's America. Jackson sang "It doesn't matter if you're black or white": and it really shouldn't, but actually in some quarters, it clearly still does.
A Star Is Born (2018)
This story has been filmed three times before: in 1937 (with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March); 1954 (with Judy Garland and James Mason) and 1976 (with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). In all of these films the story has been the same: an alcoholic and over-the-hill actor (or with Kris Kristofferson, rock star) finds a young talented ingenue to love and develop into a superstar.
The modern day remake is a little different in that Jackson Maine, our older star (now played by Bradley Cooper), is a stadium-filling mega-rock-star, recognised and idolised in every bar he goes into.... and he frequents a LOT of bars. Maine mixes the cocktail with drugs in this version meaning that as one star is ascending, his seems destined to be heading into a black hole.
At its heart, this is a good story of having self-confidence in your own abilities, no matter how people around you try to put you down. Gaga's Ally is one such person; a waitress who is constantly being told, especially by her blue-collar dad and his boozy friends, that although she has a great voice she's "never going to make it" because of the way she looks. In chilled fashion she meets Jackson Maine, who hears her sing and thinks she might be on the edge of glory. Not worried about her big nose, he appreciates she was born that way: in fact he likes her so much he wants to poke her face. (Sorry... couldn't resist it).
I appreciate from the IMDB rating that I am probably in a minority here. (At the time of writing this is (imho) a ridiculously high 8.3). But for me, I found the whole thing a dull affair. I can't remember the last time I went to a film when I actively looked at my watch... but 1 hour 45 into this, I did (it had another 30 minutes to run).
For one thing, I just didn't believe Bradley Cooper as the rock star character. He just came across as totally false and unbelievable to me. I had more resonance with Gaga's Ally. Even though she is a novice actor (and it showed at times) in general I thought she did a creditable job. But given these two factors together, there are long and indulgent exchanges between the pair that seemed to me to go on in-ter-min-ably. Best actor in the film for me was Sam Elliott as Jackson's brother Bobby. The mellowing of the brothers is a scene that I found genuinely touching.
I'd also like a glance at the original script, since there are some passages (the "boyfriend/husband" lines is a case in point) where it felt like one of them made an script mistake and, instead of Cooper (as director) shouting "cut", they kept it going as some sort of half-arsed improv.
What is impressive is that they got to film at live concerts (including at Glastonbury), although most of this footage is of the hand-held nausea-inducing variety. There is zero doubt that Gaga can belt out a song better than anyone. But I didn't get that same feeling about Bradley Cooper's singing: like a lot of this film (with Cooper as co-producer, co-screenwriter AND director) it felt to me like a self-indulgent piece of casting.
I know music is extremely subjective, and "country" isnt really my think anyway. But the songs by Gaga and Lukas Nelson were - "Shallow" aside - for me rather forgetable.
Overall, in a couple of years that have brought us some great musicals - "La La Land"; "Sing Street"; "The Greatest Showman" - here's a film about the music industry that did nothing for me I'm afraid.
Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
Why is everyone not raving about this movie?
Imagine a ménage à trois of Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino at the Overlook Hotel with a banging 60's soundtrack. Got that unpleasant vision in your mind? Good! You're halfway there to getting the feel of "Bad Times at the El Royale". And they really are bad times!
It's 1969 and an oddball set of characters arrive at the faded glory of the El Royale hotel at Lake Tahoe: "a bi-state establishment" straddling the Nevada/California border: so describes the manager-cum-bellhop-cum-bartender-cum-cleaner Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman, soon to appear as Maverick in the "Top Gun" sequel). The motley crew include Laramie Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm); Father Daniel Flynn, an oddly-acting priest (Jeff Bridges); Darlene Sweet, a struggling Motown-style singer (Cynthia Erivo); and Emily Summerspring, a rude and abrupt hippy-chick with attitude (Dakota Johnson). But noone is quite who they seem and their twisted and convoluted lives combine in a memorable night of surprise and violence at the El Royale.
This is a truly great ensemble cast. But out in front of the pack are the simply brilliant Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo, an actress new to me who has a great voice and made a big impression. Scenes between the pair are just electric. Jon Hamm is as quirkily great as ever and Dakota "not Fanning" Johnson is far better in this film than any recent stuff I've seen her in. Another standout was another newcomer to me - young Cailee Spaeny as Rose, looking for all the world in some scenes like a young Carey Mulligan. While we're on lookalikes, Lewis Pullman (best known to me for "Battle of the Sexes") looks very like Tom Holland in some scenes. One star name not yet mentioned is Chris Hemsworth. He actually does a great job in his demanding Messianic role of Billy Lee, but I just had trouble equating the "Thor" star as being "all kinds of bad": this felt like a slight misstep in the casting to me.
I found this film to be just enormously entertaining. It is very Tarantino-esque in its claustrophobic nature (compare it with "The Hateful 8" in that respect) and with its quirky episodic flash cards (compare with "Pulp Fiction" or "Kill Bill") but for me was much more appetising since - although very violent - it never stooped to the queasy "blow your face off" excesses of Tarantino, that I personally find distasteful. Where it apes Hitchcock is in its intricate plotting: the story regularly throws you off-balance with some genuinely surprising twists and turns that you never see coming. And the interesting time-splicing and flashbacks also keep you on your mental toes. To say any more or to give any examples would be a spoilerish crime, so I will refrain. This is a dish best served cold (so avoid the trailer if you can).
The film has a marvellous sense of place and time and key to establishing that is some superb set design; some brilliant costumes; and - most of all - an exquisitely chosen song catalogue. The great Michael Giacchino is behind the music, and he does a truly fabulous job, not just with the song selection but also with the background music. This never seems to intrude noticeably until the end titles, when you realise it's been insistently working on you all the time: the best sort of soundtrack.
There are some films that make you marvel how someone sat at a keyboard and got a screenplay down on paper so satisfyingly. While it could be accused of aping Tarantino somewhat, for me this is still one such film. The writer/director Drew Goddard has come from the J.J. Abrams stable of "Alias" and "Lost", and has previously written the great screenplays for films including "Cloverfield", "The Martian" and "World War Z". His only previous directorial feature was "The Cabin in the Woods" (which I've not seen), but after this he is definitely on my movie radar: his next film will be "X-force": a "Deadpool 2" follow-on with Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin and Zazie Beetz, and I can't wait to see that.
If there's a criticism it's that at 141 minutes its a tad long. It never to me felt like a film that long, such was the entertainment value, but while I just loved the development of character just a few of the scenes felt a little leisurely and superfluous. Trim 10 minutes off the running time - no more - and it might have felt tighter still.
This film is without a doubt going to storm into my Top 10 for the year. It's an entertaining delight, full of twists, turns, deliciously wordy dialogue and a satisfyingly open ending. I can't believe this film hasn't been top billing in multiplexes up and down the country for WEEKS on end. If you get the chance, my advice would be to seek this out before it disappears.
The Meg (2018)
Fins ain't what they used to be
I feel like a bit of a traitor, since I was very scathing about this film's trailer when it came out. But - do you know - as a brainless piece of popcorn entertainment, I quite enjoyed it!
Jason Statham plays our hero Jonas Taylor. (Jonas? Surely some sly joke?). Jonas is drinking his life away in Thailand after being traumatised by an underwater rescue mission in which he was 90% successful. (Yeah, I know.... perfectionists.... hate 'em!). But he is needed again, since his cute ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) is stuck at the bottom of the sea being terrorised by a terrifying creature: no, not Spongebob Square Pants... the titular prehistoric shark.
Lori is working at an undersea research station - Mana One - off the coast of China, funded by the annoyingly brash billionaire Morris (Rainn Wilson, from "The Office"), who you just HOPE HOPE HOPE will get munched at some point!
Running the station (in the most shameless Hollywood/Chinese market crossover since "The Great Wall") is Zhang (Winston Chao) assisted by his cute daughter Suyin (played by the gloriously named and very talented Bingbing Li) and his even cuter granddaughter Meiying (Sophia Cai). The race is on to use their brains and Taylor's brawn to stop the monster from reaching the seaside resort of Sanya Bay for lunch.
The action is, of course, absurd with so many near misses for Jonas from gnashing teeth that he could be The Meg's registered dentist. There is a really nice dynamic though built up between Jonas, his potential cross-cultural love interest Suyin and young Meiying. Suyin is a classic TimesUp heroine for 2018, with an assertive attitude and not remotely giving an inch to Statham's hero.
But it's young Sophia as Meying who really steals lines and steals hearts with a truly charming performance, and would get my 'man of the match' were it not for... research assistant Jaxx (Australian model, Ruby Rose). She has an absolutely extraordinary look in this film. Chiselled and tattooed, she literally looks like she has stepped out of a Final Fantasy video game... and acts well too: the complete package.
As referenced above, the Hollywood/Chinese crossover is quite striking in this film, with the Chinese beach location looking like Amity Island on steroids! (Cue the overweight Chinese kid as the Jaws "Alex" replacement... who knew that they also have 'Zoom' ice lollies in China!) Unusually for a mainstream Western film, a significant number of lines in the film are in Chinese with English subtitles.
In the league table of shark movies, it is far nearer to "Deep Blue Sea" than it is to "Jaws", the reigning league champion, and all are far in excess of the ridiculous "Sharknado". But compared to "Deep Blue Sea", and even compared to "Jaws" - now, astonishingly, 43 years old! - it's a curiously bloodless concoction, presumably to guarantee it's 12A certificate. I have seen far bloodier and more violent 12A's, and if anything I think director Jon Turteltaub ("National Treasure") rather overdid the sanitisation.
It's not going to win many gongs at the Oscars, but it is a slice of movie fun nonetheless.
King of Thieves (2018)
No honour among thieves.
What a cast! Micheal Caine; Jim Broadbent; Tom Courtenay; Michael Gambon; Ray Winstone; Paul Whitehouse.... Just one look at the poster and you think yes, Yes, YES! But would this be a case where my expectations would be dashed?
Having seen the film at a nationwide preview showing, I'm pleased to say no, it's not. I was very much entertained.
The film tells the ridiculous true story of the "over the hill gang" - the bunch of largely pensioner-age criminals who successfully extracted what was definitely £14 million - and could have been up to £200 million - of goodies from a vault in London's Hatton Gardens jewellery district over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend in 2015. The gang is led by the "king of thieves" - Brian (Michael Caine) - highly regarded as an 'elder statesman' among the London criminal scene.
"King of Thieves" nicely follows the well trodden story-arc of the "Heist" movie, but - for me - does it with significantly greater style than the norm.
Yes, it's very much a "Brit-flick", and I'm not sure how it will play outside of the UK. But the film's script, penned by Joe Penhall ("The Road", "Enduring Love"), plays beautifully to the extreme age of its cast - the average age of the actors playing the gang is over 67... and that includes the 35-year old Charlie "Stardust" Cox (who is actually very good as the young foil for the older blades)! There is lots of laugh-out-loud dialogue relating to bodily deficiencies and ailments and the tendencies of old-folk to nod off at inconvenient times! However, its not very deep stuff, giving little background to the characters. And if you are of a sensitive disposition, the language used in the film is pretty extreme: F-bombs and C-bombs are dropped in every other sentence.
The film is delivered with visual style by "The Theory of Everything" director James Marsh. He cleverly reflects that all of the older leads have past records: the film nicely interweaving tiny snippets of past British crime movies to illustrate the career exploits of the now-creaky old folks. (If in the epilepsy-inducing opening titles you thought you caught a subliminal shot of the gold from "The Italian Job" - the superior 1969 version - then you were right!) As well as "The Italian Job", the snippets also includes "The Lavender Hill Mob" and (if I'm not mistaken) the late George Sewell in "Robbery".
It's all delivered to a deafeningly intrusive - but in a good way - jazz-style soundtrack by the continually up-and-coming Benjamin Wallfisch. But it is the acting of the senior leads that makes the film fly for me. Caine is just MAGNIFICENT, at the age of 85 with the same screen presence he had (as featured) stepping out of that prison in "The Italian Job"; Winstone is as good as ever in playing a menacing thug, and even gets to do a Michael Caine impression!; Gambon is hilarious as the weak-bladdered "Billy the Fish". But it is Broadbent that really impresses: he generally appears in films as a genial but slightly ditzy old gent in films like the "Potter" series; "Paddington" and "Bridget Jones". While he has played borderline darker roles ("The Lady in the Van" for example), he rarely goes full "Sexy Beast" evil.... but here he is borderline psycho and displays blistering form. A head-to-head unblinking confrontation between Broadbent and Caine is a high-point in the whole film... just electrifying. I'd love to see BAFTA nominations for them both in Acting/Supporting Acting categories.
In summary, it's a sweary but stylishly-executed heist movie that has enough humour to thoroughly entertain this cinema-goer. The film is on general release in the UK from September 14th and comes with my recommendation.