Archive for February, 2019

Oscars 2019: The Favourite and Cold War

Posted on February 14th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

The Favourite

Going into this, my knowledge of both Queen Anne and Jorgos Lanthimos was a bit skimpy. I had seen and largely enjoyed The Lobster, although I felt it ran out of energy towards the end and began substituting sadism for ideas. The mannered performances also began to grate after a while.

The Favourite is built on much firmer foundations, with the peculiar dialogue and mannered delivery pared back, and sitting much more comfortably among the period costumes. This is the tale of lonely, wretched, sickening, petulant, childish Queen Anne, who malingers, surrounded by flunkies, toadies and lickspittles, but none quite so close or as cunning as the Duchess of Malborough. Into this febrile atmosphere is dropped Marlborough’s cousin, Abigail, who quickly sees that she can re-ascend society’s ladder via the monarch, with or without Marlborough’s cooperation.

Lanthimos has found some extraordinary locations to shoot in, and the costumes are absolutely wonderful. As the atmosphere of the court intensifies, whether it’s the bickering between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition; the hideous games played with humans, fruits and animals; or the pathetic and eccentric needs of the Queen, an enjoyably surreal mood takes hold. It rather reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, specifically the Jonathan Miller television production, in which he eschewed animal heads and let the actors’ faces be clearly seen – because for him the story was about Alice’s bemusement at the manic pointlessness of the adult world.

Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script deviates enthusiastically from what is historically certain, but whereas, as I’ve said, The Lobster ran out of steam, one of the most satisfying things about The Favourite is the way that the energy builds and builds and builds. The price one pays for this is a slightly sluggish opening half hour, but that is doing things the right way round after all.

And although he shoots with a lot of swooping Steadicam or hand-held camerawork, with super wide angle lenses, distorting the picture, this doesn’t feel like a tyro director who has rudely imposed his vision on the work. The story mainly speaks for itself (with possibly only the nigh-on unreadable credits and captions suggesting an indulgent director) and Lanthimos is obviously in love with his cast.

And what a cast! The boys don’t get an awful lot to do, but James Smith, Mark Gatiss and especially Nicholas Hoult are marvellous. No, it’s the central toxic trio of ambitious women who are the focus of this extraordinary film. Olivia Colman deserves all her praise, as the bellicose, pathetic, sentimental and possibly stroke-afflicted monarch. It’s a richly complex performance, never asking for sympathy and yet somehow managing to earn it. Emma Stone has a few accent wobbles, but she’s such a charming and winning performer that it scarcely matters and as her ambition erodes her few remaining morals, she’s compelling. But Rachel Weisz I thought nicked the film. Marlborough is probably the best part, and Weisz tears into it with compelling relish and won’t let go. She’s astounding.

Yet, I still think this is very good, rather than a masterpiece. The actors generate a great deal of complexity and sympathy, but we are still presented with a story largely about three ghastly people doing awful and selfish things to each other for the whole of the running time. That starts to become a bit deadening after an hour and a half. And although the shooting and acting styles are toned down, the lack of naturalism still creates a barrier between audience and characters which might have allowed for a little more compassion to creep in, if it had not been there.

Cold War

Less satisfying, but still very admirable is Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, included here because Pawlikowski is the surprise nominee for Best Director, despite the film not getting a Best Picture nod (even though there are up to ten slots). This is the story of a couple who meet at a sort of band camp in post-war Poland – she is the star pupil, he is one of the directors. Over the course of the next ten or so years, they defect, are separated, return to Poland and are reunited. This is very much a film of three halves.

In the first act, things move sluggishly, but Pawlikowski makes the details count. He is also immensely blessed with Joanna Kulig who is utterly radiant as Zula, and who lights up the screen whenever she appears. How she uses the auditions and performances to her advantage, the manner in which she hooks up with Wiktor, and her hopes and dreams for a better life are compellingly, if prosaically told.

When the action moves to Paris, and the lovers are separated, the movie begins to gather steam. As well as finding stars, Pawlikowski has a great feeling for time and space, and the world of post-war Paris seems incredibly real and exciting. But the story begins to fragment a little, sudden leaps in time become more frequent and it becomes harder and harder to keep track of who is where and who wants what.

In the final third, the performances and the mise-en-scène are just as strong, but the cutting forward in time becomes almost ADHD in nature – and this is not a long film at only 83 minutes. By the time the lovers are reunited, both suffering greatly, the decision-making process has been so little examined that it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they are both simply the victims of their own poor choices, and so the supposedly tragic ending left me cold.

Just two to go now – Vice and BlackKklansman which I’m still hoping to catch at a cinema somewhere.

Oscars 2019: Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book

Posted on February 11th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Bohemian Rhapsody

Another year, another biopic.

My views on biopics have been extensively aired on this blog and elsewhere. There are two different issues. One is that the cradle-to-grave approach almost always results in a piece of filmmaking which is very diligent at recording facts about a person’s life, but often rather poor at shedding any real light on who they were, and as a result fairly unengaging and uninvolving. See for example Chaplin, The Theory of Everything, Behind the Candelabra and so on. Even limiting the scope of the storytelling to a more pertinent and manageable timeframe doesn’t always rid the piece of the stench of animated Wikipedia entry – step forward Darkest Hour, but better biopics do tend to dramatize key events and trust that enough light will be shed to illuminate a whole career – Stan & Ollie manages this quite well for example.

Then there’s the issue of accuracy. A movie is not a text book. It’s not required that a biopic be fanatically faithful to the source material. Argo is largely a figment of the writers’ imaginations, but it’s a splendidly entertaining piece of cinema entertainment. The Death of Stalin is surprisingly accurate but will move events around if it makes the story more compelling. What’s always frustrating is when the true facts are ignored, but the new version is less interesting than the truth – or in the case of the wretched The Imitation Game, the story as presented makes little to no actual sense.

Bohemian Rhapsody might have done better to zero in on some key moments. The recording of Queen’s first studio album and their signing with EMI, or the writing of their seminal Night at the Opera album which included the title song, could easily have filled two hours. As it is, neither is on screen for longer than about two minutes, while the band’s entire 20 minute Live Aid set is forensically recreated at the end of the film.

But while it does often suffer from the rapidly moving from event to event malaise detailed above, when it does pause for breath, there are some effective scenes, and there is an arc of sorts to Freddie Mercury’s life. But while some significant events have been moved around to try and accommodate this, it still doesn’t quite cohere as a story. I won’t go through the whole film, but let me pick two scenes to show you what I mean.

After spending weeks writing and recording A Night at the Opera, in relative seclusion, the band present their work to (fictional) EMI chief Ray Foster, improbably played by Mike Myers, and they insist that Bohemian Rhapsody be released as the single. We’ve seen the band have a few minor squabbles during the recording, but we’ve seen much more of them working together as a unit, and in front of their record exec, they present a united front. This might sound less than dramatic, but the creative process is an interesting one (if sometimes hard to recreate on screen) and I greatly prefer it to the cliché of the band torn apart by creative differences. However, this scene appears only to allow Mike Myers to tell Queen that no-one will be headbanging in their car when listening to this song. Freddy Mercury storms out, telling Myers he will be the person who lost Queen.

Did the band members blame Mercury for this? Did they have to get a new record deal? Who with? Was Ray Foster forced to come crawling back on bended knee? None of these questions is ever addressed. Why have a scene in which a band quits their record label if you aren’t going to follow it up? Mercury slips the single to Kenny Everett who plays it on Capital Radio and the screen fills up with negative reviews it got in the press. Did this affect Mercury? Sap his confidence? We have no idea, because the next time we see him, he’s on-stage performing the songs to thousands of screaming fans. I know this film switched directors in mid-stream, but it seems to have been edited almost at random.

Later, with Live Aid looming, the band has a tense meeting in their lawyer’s office. Freddy Mercury’s solo career is not proving to be fulfilling, and he loves the idea of performing at Wembley. But the band hasn’t played together in over a year, and there’s no trust left between Mercury and the other three. Now, let’s just ignore the fact that not a single word of the foregoing actually happened. Does it work as drama? Well, not really. Mercury is forced to confess that going solo didn’t work because he hired good people, told them what to do and they did it. He didn’t get any pushback from Brian, Roger and John, like he used. Fine. But as I’ve said, we basically didn’t see that ever. We generally saw the band collaborating and embracing each other’s ideas.

The other three agree to the reunion, but they insist that this time all the songs they write are to be credited just to Queen, not to any individual. But again, we haven’t witnessed any credit wrangles, and we don’t see them writing any more material after this. The whole film is like this. Bits and pieces of story material that sounds as if it ought to have some kind of dramatic power but it doesn’t hang together properly.

Amongst it all, Rami Malek is outstanding. His large head makes him look rather slight and stocky compared to the rangy and athletic Mercury, but in fact they are nearly the same height, and in all other ways, he absolutely personifies Mercury’s energy, performing chutzpah and unique take on the world. Gwilym Lee also makes an impression as the ever-patient, wryly long-suffering Brian May, but there’s little Ben Hardy and Joe Mazzello can do to elevate Roger and John beyond the level of “the other two”.

Lucy Boynton does what she can with Mary, Freddy’s girlfriend, and it’s always a pleasure to see Tom Hollander. Bryan Singer or Dexter Fletcher or Newton Thomas Siegel or John Ottman or someone has made it always interesting to look at with some bravura shots that don’t feel too distracting, and – as mentioned – the Live Aid recreation at the end is spectacular, if a little light on story – and of course the music is amazing. But this is pretty sloppy work to be getting a Best Picture nomination ahead of If Beale Street Could Talk or, for that matter, the far more interesting Sorry to Bother You.

Green Book

Improbably directed by Peter Farrelly, of Dumb and Dumber fame, this is another true story but this time taking place over just a couple of months in the winter of 1962. Bronx-born Italian bouncer Viggo Mortensen takes a job driving cultured black piano player Mahershala Ali on a near-suicidal set of engagements through America’s Jim Crow southern states.

While lacking the gross-out humour of Farrelly’s earlier work, this is still fairly light and breezy stuff for the most part. Mortensen, all laconic Bronx vowels and paunchy physicality, gives a little welcome depth to a fairly limited character, while Ali cleverly lets a little bit of “Doc” Shirley out at a time, as his prissy guard is slowly lowered by his deepening affection for crass but capable Tony Lip.

So far, so Midnight Run, Planes Trains and Automobiles or Rain Man. But this isn’t simply the well-told and witty tale of a pair of men who begin as opposites and eventually learn to trust and even like each other. This is an examination of America’s racist past, and one assumes an attempt to shed a light on its still fairly racist present. Part of Tony’s arc is “wow, racism in the South is really a thing” (much less “wow my own racism is really dumb”, although there is a tiny element of that, it’s nothing like as profound as Rod Steiger’s journey in In the Heat of the Night for example). But it’s hard to escape the suspicion that white director Farrelly is also telling us “Hey, guys, racism in America is really a thing.” Yes, we know, but do we really want to hear it from you, Pete?

As if being posh, black, and isolated from his family wasn’t enough, Ali’s character also has a gay encounter in a YMCA for which he is almost arrested. Mortensen is able to use his street smarts and command of bullshit to make the problem go away, but it’s immensely striking that he isn’t shocked or revolted even for a second. Could this be true? I suppose it’s possible, and there is a single line of explanation later, but it did seem highly unlikely. Of course, to a 2019 audience, homophobia is revolting and it’s likely that we would instantly lose sympathy for the Mortensen character, which gives Farrelly and cowriters little option. But the reality is that in 1962, homosexuality was seen by almost everyone as a perversion and something to be feared and disgusted by. In this context, Mortensen’s blithe reaction makes very little sense.

And this lack of willingness to really engage with the complexities of the issues under discussion is this film all over. It’s warm and witty, and solidly constructed, with every character serviced, and every set-up properly paid off. The leads are both great, with good support from Linda Cardellini (someone give her a lead role again please), but it’s a feelgood family film about racial segregation in the 1960s. That’s a very odd cocktail indeed. Maybe most symptomatic of the film’s inability to handle its own setting is the scene where the car breaks down amid a field of sharecroppers. Mortensen and Ali just stare at the sight of the black people breaking their backs doing manual work for little or no pay. They don’t know what to do in the face of this spectacle, and neither do the filmmakers.

2018/2019 award season round-up

Posted on February 5th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Okay, here are some capsule reviews of a bunch of other movies I’ve seen this awards season.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coen Brothers go to Netflix where we find them on rather frustrating form. The opening story of this anthology includes some marvellous effective moments, but judders to a half with one of those Joel-and-Ethan-what-the-hell endings. This malaise affects most of the stories to a greater of lesser degree. The third episode, Meal Ticket, works best as a traditional Roald Dahl or O Henry short story, but suffers from significant pacing problems. The largely plotless final segment might just be the best as it’s the one with the clearest idea of what it is supposed to be. It is nominated for its screenplay, costume design and original song.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? Lee Israel’s story is fascinating as her own best-selling memoir proved. This project began life as a Nicole Holofcener film with Julianne Moore in the lead. Although still credited for the screenplay (with Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty) Holofcener has yielded the director’s chair to Marielle Heller. What Julianne Moore would have done with Lee Israel is impossible to say, but what is certain is that Melissa McCarthy is wonderful in the part, bringing her prodigious comic energy to the role, but nevertheless creating depth and pathos deep in the soul of this spiky, broken woman. Richard E Grant is enormous fun and if nothing very much happens beyond: she’s broke, she’s a forger, she’s sorry (not sorry), then who cares when the film is this well made? Both leads are nominated (Grant in the supporting category) and for its screenplay.

If Beale Street Could Talk. I found Moonlight slightly unfulfilling on first viewing but it nevertheless grew on me and at first glance I could tell that here was a filmmaker using every tool at his disposal. Beale Street is much less formally ambitious, but still darts nimbly around the timeline as it fleshes out the seemingly slight story (from James Baldwin’s novel) of pregnant Tish, boyfriend Fonny and their two families. If their predicament is a prosaic and familiar one, that’s by-and-large the point – that this or something like it is happening to millions of Americans every day. But an amazingly strong cast give it real texture, depth and warmth, and Jenkins’ fluid and confident direction knits it all together powerfully. Using lenses, cuts, sound and music to extraordinary effect, Jenkins is a real talent. He even finds a new way to film a birth scene and manages not to make it seem like showboating. It’s a real crime that this wonderful film is not nominated for Best Picture and utterly confounding that Jenkins was overlooked as Best Director. It is nominated for its screenplay, its score and Regina King has a good shot at picking up Best Supporting Actress.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse. Geniuses of animation (and beyond) Lord and Miller have done it again, with this incredibly ambitious, eye-poppingly rendered and genuinely exciting slab of comic book mayhem. With vocal performances from such as Nicholas Cage, John Mulaney, Lily Tomlin and Chris Pine, this is a real treat and will no doubt walk off with Best Animated Feature (its only nomination).

Stan & Ollie. Showbiz biopic done right, focusing in on a manageable period of time, with just a few glimpses of happier times. Coogan and Reilly are exemplary, delineating the men and the characters they played and never straying into parody. Equally good – and well served by Jeff Pope’s witty script – are Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel respectively; and Rufus Jones is having the time of his life as Bernard Delfont. Ultimately, this paints an affecting and affectionate portrait of two men who have spent a lifetime as professional buffoons, attempting to end their career with a little dignity. It doesn’t have any ambitions beyond that, but it achieves that goal admirably. No Oscar nominations, though, not even for Best Make-up.

The Wife. This is a conundrum, and a full review would have to include significant spoilers which even this paragraph won’t entirely spare you from. What’s really going on in this literary marriage only becomes truly clear in the last third, which makes some of the early material a bit so-what and prevents us from getting inside the head of our ostensible lead, Glenn Close’s Joan Castleman. In the final act, when the film stops being a detective story and commits to being a family melodrama it works better, and it’s the details in the script (by Jane Anderson, from Meg Wolitzer’s novel) that generally make it work, although there are some clunky lines here and there. Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater (yes really!) and especially Glenn Close grab the material with both hands and give it tremendous passion and sincerity, but it’s rather an odd, broken-backed experience as a whole. Glenn Closes’ nomination for Best Actress is its only mention.

Oscars 2019 – Here are the runners and riders

Posted on February 5th, 2019 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Okay – so the nominations have been out for a while and the dust has settled, but nevertheless here’s my take on what Academy voters came up with.

Let’s start with the Best Picture nominees. Eight of them this year, and there are a couple of striking omissions. Let’s start with the three I’ve seen…

Black Panther. Very serviceable and well-made movie in the professional Marvel style. If more movies like this had had better representation sooner, this would seem rather less remarkable. Compared to the dementedly ambitious Infinity War, the elegantly-structured Spider-Man: Homecoming or the bananas Thor: Ragnarok, this seems a bit ho-hum until you take the wider social context into account. Sadly, no nominations in any other major categories makes this look a bit token, even if the total number of nominations (seven) is quite impressive.

Roma. Reviewed here. Transcendently wonderful. Intimate and personal without being even remotely self-indulgent, it’s a magnificent achievement and deserves to win everything it’s nominated for. And in a world in which the Academy gives its top prize to fare such as Moonlight and The Shape of Water, it just might.

A Star is Born. Reviewed here. The safer bet for Academy voters and if The Favourite and Roma divide the “quirky” vote, this one might just slip through the middle (although preferential voting ought to solve that issue, it isn’t guaranteed).

And now the five I haven’t seen (at the time of writing).

BlackKklansman. This one didn’t appeal, and I’m not quite sure why. I’ve nothing against Spike Lee and it’s a juicy premise. Sadly, I’ll probably end up watching this on iTunes now as it’s almost gone from London cinemas.

Bohemian Rhapsody. And I was hoping to spared this one too. I’m not fond of biopics, I have no interest in Queen and the troubled production history does not bode well. Rami Malek is amazing, by all accounts, so I imagine it will be worth seeing for his performance.

The Favourite. In a neat bit of nominative determinism, Jorgos Lanthimos’s film looks like the one to beat, although as noted, it will have to get past Roma and A Star is Born first.

Green Book. The backlash has started, so I don’t think this one is going to triumph, but Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are surely worth the price of admission.

Vice. Ugh. Looks a bit Saturday Night Live to me, and I wasn’t a huge fan of Adam McKay’s ADHD style on The Big Short.

Reviews of all of these will follow. Best Director meanwhile throws up a bit of an oddity, with a nod for Pawel Pawlikowski whose film Cold War wasn’t worthy of a Best Picture nomination. Surely Cuaron has this one nailed on though, even if he can’t get over the line for Best Picture?

Best Actor will probably go to Rami Malek, although I don’t imagine Bohemian Rhapsody will get anything else. Best Actress I imagine will go to Glenn Close (this is her seventh nomination without a win) but I would be delighted to see Melissa McCarthy pick it up, and thrilled if it went to Yalitza Aparicio. Sorry, Olivia Colman, I think the competition is too fierce.

Best Supporting Actor is a toss-up between two lifetime achievement awards. I was previously nervous about Sam Elliot getting it, but Richard E Grant is so damn good in Can You Ever Forgive Me? that I’m now tilting back in that direction.

For Best Supporting Actress I think again the two nominations for The Favourite will split the vote and that should allow Regina King to nab it, although there is a lot of love for Amy Adams and like Glenn Close she’s racked-up a lot of nominations without a win (six).

The Favourite presumably will win Best Original Screenplay (even if it wins nothing else). The Best Adapted Screenplay of the year is almost certainly If Beale Street Could Talk, but I suspect A Star is Born has this one wrapped up.

Further down the list, I expect Best Animated Feature to go to Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and deservedly so. Best Foreign Language Film will obviously go to Roma.

Meanwhile, I have been catching up with a bunch of films not nominated for Best Picture – some of which deserved to be. For more on those, see the next post…