Archive for the ‘At the cinema’ Category

Joker

Posted on October 29th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It seems everyone has to have an opinion about the new movie Joker, and so here’s mine.

I didn’t like it.

To begin with, I didn’t like the idea of it. I don’t really like the idea of Todd Phillips, whose recent comments about his move away from comedy smear a patina of cynical self-interest over what is already a pretty lazy and cynical piece of filmmaking.

I don’t really like the idea of Joaquin Phoenix either, who often reminds me of those tortured Hoffman performances of the 1970s, full of effort but lacking in charm. He’s fun in Gladiator (opting simply not to be in the same film as Russell Crowe but to join Oliver Reed’s team instead – and quite right too) and he’s a fine match for Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master even if that film ultimately doesn’t find anywhere interesting to go. But I had deep misgivings about his ability to portray the clown prince of crime as anything other than an introverted sociopath.

And I don’t really like origin stories, particularly not for well-established characters. Why do we have to laboriously build up who this person once was when the reason we like them (or at least are interested in them) is because of who they became? And when one filmmaker has scored such a huge success creating a version of The Joker whose origins are obscure, it seems downright perverse to spend two hours providing a definitive one.

And I don’t really like the idea of a Joker movie without Batman. The Joker is defined as the mirror-image of the Dark Knight Detective – chaotic and improvisational where Batman is ordered and methodical, venal and selfish where Batman is noble, and yet both hide their true identities behind elaborate costumes and exhibit signs of mental distress.

This idea is made pretty much explicit in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, one of many obvious antecedents which feed into this magpie’s trove of a movie. While drawing on yet earlier origin stories (The Joker’s first appearance is in 1940, just one year after Batman himself) Alan Moore’s story is pretty much patient zero for the modern conception of the character. The plot is brilliantly simple. The Joker’s thesis is that the only difference between him and Batman is one bad day. As we flash back to the bad day which turned a struggling stand-up comedian into a crime lord, we watch him inflict the worst of all possible days on Commissioner Gordon, including crippling his daughter Barbara – a nasty piece of sadism which was retained in the main comic continuity.

This story, elevated by wondrous art from Brian Bolland, was a big influence on Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman where Jack Nicholson was essentially asked to reprise his performance from The Witches of Eastwick while wearing a rather limited prosthetic that makes him look like he has a nut allergy when he tries to relax his face. Heath Ledger’s version is many people’s favourite, his facial scars alluding to the “Glasgow Smile” which may have been the original inspiration for the character, and as noted he has no need of a coherent origin story.

So what can Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver add to this rich legacy? Their version of the character has a rather muddled career as a party clown / sign-twirler / stand-up comedian. He’s also afflicted with a neurological condition which makes him laugh inappropriately and a number of other ill-defined mental illnesses which do little other than perpetuate the myth that mental illness = violence. So here’s problem number one with the construction of this movie. Rather than taking an earnest sad-sack with whom it’s possible to feel some sympathy and turning him into a supervillain (as in The Killing Joke) or taking an ambitious career criminal and releasing a flamboyant theatricality as in the Tim Burton film, here we take a dangerous mental patient and make them a bit more unstable. It’s just not that interesting.

The universe rains trouble down upon Arthur Fleck. He gets beaten up; he loses his job; he’s humiliated on TV by his idol, chat-show host Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro, essentially playing a 70 year old Rupert Pupkin); his mother is lying to him about his paternity. But quickly it becomes apparent that the transformation from Arthur to Joker is going to take the full running time of the movie. This is not a half hour origin story and then a ninety minute Joker movie. We’re just going to watch a sick man suffer until finally he snaps.

Now, that’s a structure that could work. It instantly calls to mind another far superior movie, Taxi Driver, not just because of the presence of de Niro but because of the journey of the central character. But it’s noteworthy that Travis Bickle’s explosion of violence occurs at the very end of the film, whereas Arthur Fleck shoots three improbable musical-theatre fans to death about a third of the way in, and it turns out not to be a defining moment in his transformation, but a mere detail along the way.

I have other grumbles about the structure. There’s a hint at the end of the movie that possibly an incarcerated Fleck imagined the whole thing, but the fact that he appears to have fantasised his relationship with his next-door neighbour (Zazie Beetz) muddies those waters pretty fatally. And I desperately couldn’t give a shit about Penny Fleck and Thomas Wayne, nor do I have any interest in seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents shot yet again (and the meeting of a 45 year old Joker and a 10 year old Bruce Wayne creates some fairly unmanageable problems for the wider DC Universe).

But it’s the spirit of the thing which finally ground me down. Firstly, the movie has no interest in any of the victims of Fleck’s crimes. As noted, the three chorus boys on the subway are essentially never mourned and their execution is treated as an amuse-bouche when surely it should have been the main course. Neither Fleck nor anyone else misses his mother after he smothers her and although Fleck’s colleague Gary has the good grace to look shocked and scared after Fleck plunges scissors into another clown’s eye, again there’s no sense of loss, grief or anything other beyond the orgiastic excitement of seeing the blood flow.

And so there’s a queasy sense – totally unlike Taxi Driver – that the city and his misfortune is not so much corrupting and degrading Arthur Fleck, but that he is self-actualising through this process. Phoenix’s part-awkward part-graceful cavorting on those now-famous steps is probably the highlight of the movie as far as performances go – that theatricality which the character rests on is finally becoming visible – but there is no moral context given to this transformation. And at the end, when he becomes almost a messiah for an angry and violent populace, this ascension to greatness is made to seem all the more noble because it is clear that Fleck never wanted it. My hero.

Unimaginably dull for much of its running time, frequently chasing its own narrative tale and shot through with a sadistic and cynical worldview, this is a one-note film whose occasional bright spots can’t save it from its own self-loathing.

I didn’t like it.

Oscars 2019 – the aftermath

Posted on February 25th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Well. That didn’t go according to plan at all.

Of course, some of it did. Congratulations Rami Malek, Regina King, Alfonso Cuarón (twice) and Spider-Man. Well-deserved if predictable wins. Mahershali Ali was my pick for Best Supporting Actor, not just because Green Book is such a lavishly crowd-pleasing film, but also because Ali’s performance is the best thing about it, intricately peeling back the layers of the character as the story progresses.

So, while I’m disappointed for Richard E Grant, I was whooping with delight when Olivia Colman nicked Best Actress off of seven-time nominee Glenn Close. That’s the real feel-good story of the night. What a win. What a part! What a film!

But for Yorgos Lanthimos’s ironically-named movie, ten nominations only turned into a single award. And Roma, which also started the night with ten nominations, and did well to get Cinematography, Directing and Best Foreign Language Film, couldn’t quite get over the line for Best Picture. Maybe asking the Academy to give its highest honour to a black-and-white, non English language film about poverty and pain was too much to ask.

So, Green Book winning the big prize (but only three awards overall) was a surprise at first, but with the benefit of hindsight, the win looks if not just then at least explicable. It made a lot of money, it is anchored by two powerhouse performances and it’s serious enough in its intent not to seem frivolous, while not actually challenging anyone’s beliefs. See also Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Spotlight and other recent comforting fare.

What’s frustrating about this is that it was up against the afore-mentioned Roma, which tells us that social mobility is impossible; BlacKkKlansman, which tells us that racism is certainly not a thing of the past; and Vice, which tells us that the entire political system is fucked beyond repair. While it’s not so surprising that the Academy picked the film which tells us that racism is a) history and b) can be solved by eating fried chicken, it is disappointing after recent wins for such fare as Moonlight and The Shape of Water.

What is absolutely inexplicable is that the dogs-dinner of a film which is Bohemian Rhapsody would emerge as the most-awarded film of 2018, with its win for editing being the most ridiculous, as the biggest single problem with the movie is the lack of plot momentum from scene to scene. Almost as if the director wasn’t paying attention. Ah. Oh. Er.

Also frustrating was If Beale Street Could Talk losing out on Best Score. It was bad enough that this beautiful film didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, nor its enormously talented director a nod, but the score was surely in with a chance. I can only assume more people saw Black Panther. The one thing that Beale Street did wrong was not to make a lot of money.

And the ceremony itself was gratifyingly short, but brutally efficient. Yes, we lost thirty minutes of hosty self-indulgence, but with that bathwater of excess minutes went the baby of personality. This ceremony had no identity, or spark of individuality. It was just a conveyor belt of nominations, presentations, speeches and on with the next one. They couldn’t even find room for Stanley Donen in the In Memoriam section.

Oscars 2019: BlackKklansman

Posted on February 20th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

And finally to BlackKklansman.

I haven’t seen very much of Spike Lee’s work. I think I’ve been in the room when either She’s Gotta Have It or Do The Right Thing was on, but I suppose aged about 16, I didn’t really think that the issues he was documenting had anything to do with me. I do remember seeing and enjoying Mo’ Better Blues, but that’s a pretty small and fairly unrepresentative sampling. Today, I see his work as being far more relevant.

Even without the urgent social commentary, there’s a pretty juicy set-up here. It’s the mid-1970s and rookie black cop Ron Stallworth gets it into his head to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan division. In furtherance of this goal, he will need to team up with a white cop who can play Ron Stallworth in person. All based on a true story of course – this is Oscar season after all.

After a bonkers opening in which Alec Baldwin has too much fun as a mouth-foaming white supremacist I guess motivational speaker, Lee and his fellow writers sketch in Stallworth’s entry into the Colorado Springs Police Department, interregnum in the records room and graduation to intelligence work with admirable economy. Stallworth meets and begins a relationship with student civil rights activist and teams up with Flip Zimmerman who will become his pale-skinned alter-ego.

A lot of this looks pretty cliched on the page. Zimmerman must think quickly to protect his cover from the probing of the dumb but instinctive red neck when he asks too many questions of the more intellectual, but more trusting leader. And towards the end, when Stallworth is working as David Duke’s security detail, at the same time as Zimmerman’s cover is falling apart, and while simultaneously Stallworth’s girlfriend is the intended victim of a bomb attack, it becomes near-ludicrous. Remarkably, the subplot about Stallworth having to protect Duke does seem to be true, even though most of the rest is exaggerated, rearranged or just made-up from whole cloth.

However, after that demented opening, Lee and the actors keep it grounded and play it for a great deal of verisimilitude. John David (son-of Denzel) Washington is quietly compelling as Stallworth, but it’s the addition of a Jewish heritage to Adam Driver’s Zimmerman that gives real depth to the white side of the story. At the end, it’s all smiles and air-punching as Duke is humiliated and ally white cops drag racist white cops away to jail. But Lee is too smart and too political a filmmaker to leave us on that, instead cutting in horrifying footage from protests and riots in 2017.

Again, on the page this seems clumsy, even crass, but the progression is so perfectly calculated and the clips chosen so shockingly confronting that it can’t help but be effective – more effective I thought than the seemingly far more elegant and complex machinations of Vice. To be successful, BlackKklansman needed to do a great many things at once. It needed to tell the story of these people in this situation. It needed to be an exciting and suspenseful thriller. And it needed to connect the experiences of America 45 years ago to the realities of America today. It’s hugely to the film’s credit that it largely achieved all three of these. I think I would have preferred it to feel a little less like a suspense thriller in the middle, but I can’t deny the powerful work done by both leads and the effectiveness of that hammer-blow ending.

Oscars 2019: Vice

Posted on February 19th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Adam McKay is the other comedy director trying to prove his worth to the Academy with meatier subject matter, but this is less of a surprise than Peter Farrelly’s restrained Green Book, since Vice is clearly from the makers of The Big Short, with the same machine-gunning of information at the viewer via archive footage, voice-over narration, on-screen captions and generally anything else the director can think of.

But whereas The Big Short zipped from story to story in its quest to unpack the financial disaster of 2008, some narrative flourishes notwithstanding, Vice is pretty much a straight telling of the rise of Dick Cheney from Congress back-room-boy to the most powerful deputy President America has ever seen. In some ways, this is a relief. Less reliance on fourth wall-breaking for its own sake makes for a more absorbing film and allows the performances to speak for themselves. But it does also reveal a narrative that isn’t always that interesting or nuanced.

To begin with, it’s clear that McKay is hugely angry at what the Bush/Cheney administration got away with in the years 2000 – 2007. And many people, including me, share that anger. But this film doesn’t always know where to direct that anger or how to make good use of it, and especially in the final twenty minutes, it just seems a bit shouty.

There are two flourishes worthy of (spoilery) mention. One is the pushed-to-the-max, Python style, mid-movie credits fake-out. A lot of the early part of the film, establishing how the younger Cheney got his start in politics, is not that interesting, useful as it possibly is for setting up an MO and for setting up characters like Donald Rumsfeld who we will meet again later. But it’s possibly worth it for the delirious audacity of this sequence.

Then there’s the neat twist about who the narrator is and just what his role in Cheney’s life turns out to be. He’s not just a soldier who ends up in the war Cheney engineered for his own purposes. He’s the heart donor who allowed Cheney to keep on living. This is smartly done and allows for a recontextualization of the whole story, but it’s also at this point that McKay’s fury overcomes his discipline. The operation scene, in which Cheney’s heart is removed, is a very clumsy metaphor, underlining that – for these filmmakers at least – it seems as if the worst thing Cheney did in his entire life was to throw his gay daughter under the bus in order to further his straight daughter’s political career. Now, that’s an undeniably shitty thing to do, but compared to orchestrating an actual war on an evidently non-existent pretext, it’s pretty small-time villainy.

And the lack of focus really becomes apparent in the final speech direct to camera, where Cheney dares us to criticise him. McKay is notably proud that these are all culled from Cheney’s own words, but he’s failed to notice that in this final speech, real Cheney manages to directly contradict movie Cheney. Movie Cheney’s fault is that he has no principles, and is just out to increase his own power and influence for the sake of having power and influence. But the, possibly scarier, truth is that everything Cheney did, he did because of a very real and quite profound ideology.

Vice is rarely less than entertaining, and if there isn’t much nuance in the performances of Tyler Perry, Sam Rockwell or Steve Carrell, then that’s to be expected. The real pleasures of this film though are Christian Bale and especially Amy Adams who manage to get under the skin of their parts in a way which the frenetic script rarely does.

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 be 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…

Mary Poppins Redux

Posted on January 2nd, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

WARNING: Spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns

I was really looking forward to Mary Poppins Returns.

I’ve got a lot of nostalgic affection for the original 1964 film – even more so after watching Saving Mr Banks, far better than the pitch would suggest (it’s basically a massive studio making a film about how awesome another one of its films is!). You can’t argue with the pedigree of the talent involved, on both sides of the camera. And the early clips looked great.

What we got was… okay, I guess.

It probably shouldn’t go without saying, but it very often does, that the film looks fantastic. Robert Stevenson’s original is strikingly effortless in its creation of magical effects, with no computer generated imagery available (although Disney did have better blue-screen than anyone else, thanks to Petro Vlahos’s sodium vapor process which other technicians at rival studios had been unable to replicate). Rob Marshall’s follow-up keeps the same easy and unfussy integration of magical elements into a believable, but storybook world and Dion Beebe’s photography smartly keeps a ceiling on the brightness until the world explodes into colour and light towards the end. And if the new songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman aren’t quite in the league of those by the Sherman Brothers, they’re tuneful enough and they get the job done.

But from fairly early on, a lot of elements don’t seem quite right.

We are (re)introduced to the Banks children, now grown up and played by Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer. Wishaw’s Michael is living in his childhood home on Cherrytree Lane and now has three children of his own, and all four are mourning the death of their mother. Aunt Jane (Mortimer) is staying with them and in a needlessly chaotic scene we gather that the plumbing needs seeing to, the groceries need to be got, the house is being repossessed and the kids, especially Annabel are really running the show. They’re certainly more practical help than housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters, taking over from Hermione Baddeley).

Lo, while flying Michael’s old kite, Mary Poppins appears and with a bit of help from lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), they descend into a cartoon world inside a china bowl, pay a call on Poppins’ cousin Topsy (a delightful Meryl Streep) and save the house from the clutches of the bank.

In outline, I suppose, this all sounds fine. But, rather like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new film treats the original less like a springboard from which to find new ideas, but rather as a template to be followed closely. So just like in 1964, we get a magical tidying up, followed by a journey to a cartoon world, followed by adventures with an eccentric friend of Poppins’ up on the ceiling, then a trip to the bank which goes wrong, rescue by Bert/Jack and his gang of workers, then a resolution at the bank, followed by aerial delights with the whole family in the park while Poppins slips away.

But while the structure is followed rigidly, it seems as if writers Marshall, David Magee and John DeLuca are working from a half-remembered version of the original, in which Dick van Dyke plays a chimney sweep (he has a different job in each section of the film), in which Mary Poppins repeatedly transports the children to magical lands (this only happens once) and in which fantastic sequences end with the children waking up as if from a dream (this never happens). In fact, as the cameos from familiar faces start piling up, this begins to feel less like From Russia With Love and more like Operation Kid Brother.

But the original film is also smart and subtle enough to realise that while the source books feel very episodic, movie audiences of all ages need a bit more connecting tissue. So, every episode contributes in some way to the rehabilitation of George Banks. Motifs like “a spoonful of sugar” and “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” are all part of his journey back to his family and the least well-remembered sequence (Ed Wynn on the ceiling) is the cornerstone of this process.

Here, nothing in the underwater “Can You Imagine That” sequence is ever referred to again, and it’s questionable whether we needed either “Turning Turtle” or “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” either. And if it sounds like I’m criticising the film when it copies the original and criticising it again when it doesn’t – well, I suppose I am, but that’s the problem that sequels are often faced with, especially sequels to beloved films which are a very long time in coming. And it’s not particularly a point in the new film’s favour that a lot of the new sequences are drawn from PL Travers’ writing either. Who the hell actually read the books? (Actually I read the first four avidly as a child, but that’s not the point.)

No, here’s the real problem with this film. What’s it actually about? As I’ve said, it was the Sherman Brothers and producer Don Da Gradi’s inspiration that the golden thread uniting all of the elements of their story was that Mary Poppins had arrived not to straighten out unruly kids, but to save their father from himself. What is Mary Poppins’ mission this time round?

Well, at first it seems as if the natural order of things has been reversed. The kids are having to parent their father (Annabel at least). Is this the problem that supernanny is here to solve? Well, Georgie, the youngest, doesn’t suffer this affliction and when she’s done summoning a plumber (who never arrives) and setting off for groceries (which she never buys), Annabel just basically becomes a child again and so does her twin brother John.

Wishaw seems a bit absent-minded, but it’s not clear whether this is brought on by grief or whether it’s a character flaw. Either way, it wouldn’t work for Mary Poppins to make him more organised and rigid, and she clearly isn’t going to bring his wife back from the dead (can you imagine!?), so he isn’t the problem either. And Emily Mortimer’s Jane seems pretty self-reliant and together throughout. The film hints that she might need a man to be whole, but never quite sets off down that rather parochial path.

One interesting thread which is presented is that as they recollect their time with Mary Poppins, the adult Michael and Jane have rewritten their memories, and now believe that their magical adventures were nothing but an overactive imagination. They conclude this in the foreground, as Emily Blunt sails up the bannisters behind them, in what is possible the best shot in the entire film. But they both feel the same way, which is dramatically inert, and they don’t really alter this point of view over the course of the story. At the climax, when the whole family is soaring through the sky, buoyed aloft by Angela Lansbury’s balloons, Lansbury lumpenly spells it out for us – the adults won’t remember this the next day. No change. No growth. No transformation. No point.

In other words, Mary Poppins isn’t doing anyone any good by being there. She’s a fun source of magical adventures, but that isn’t a story. Disney realised that in 1964. Why has no-one clocked it this time round?

Absent a needed emotional transformation of a family member, what does drive the plot of the new film? An achingly tedious find-the-McGuffin routine, over-familiar from countless other films before it, allied with an even more over-familiar race-against-time device. This requires the presence of something which the first film had no need of: a bad actor; a villainous character who is actively and purposefully seeking to cause the Banks family harm for his own personal gain. It was during the otherwise lovely Royal Doulton Bowl sequence, with its wonderfully nostalgic hand-drawn animation that I began to feel as if something was badly wrong. Why are the Banks children in mortal danger? Why is a bad guy rubbing his hands with glee? Why does the sequence not end properly? What the hell is going on?

And Colin Firth is required to jump through any number of nonsensical plot hoops to make all this work. He gives Wishaw a job, even though he wants him to default on the loan. He voluntarily stays at the bank till midnight, even though he could go home at 5:00pm and guarantee that his scheme succeeds. He allows himself to be suckered in by the incredibly lame device of Miranda and co turning back the hands of Big Ben so that the deadline can be extended (a literal race-against-time, yawn) and then every single action anyone has taken in the last half hour is rendered moot by the Deus Ex Van Dyke at the end. Without Indy, the Nazis would probably still have found the Ark eventually, but at least because he was there, it ends up safe in the hands of the American government, who have the wisdom not to try and weaponise it. Without Mary Poppins’s return… I don’t know. Everything is exactly the same, I guess. Because she’s there to give the kids adventures, but the plot revolves around a bank loan. The pieces don’t mesh, and I don’t feel anything when I watch it.

The nearest I got to being moved was when the kids sing The Place Where Lost Things Go to their dad, who realises that they’ve been parenting him. Yes. Briefly. Before Mary Poppins showed up. But this epiphany doesn’t actually change Wishaw’s behaviour in any way, so – again – what’s the point of it? And it doesn’t help that this is the latest in a too-long line of supposedly insightful bon mots which attempt to recapture the simple truth of “A spoonful of sugar” but none of them quite make the grade. “Different point of view.” “If it makes no sense it can’t be true.” “A cover is not the book.” And most vacantly of all “You can’t lose what you’ve never lost.” Eh?

Even the shot of Firth’s balloon sinking to the ground at the end, leaving him humiliated and earthbound just seems wrong to me. Mary Poppins is about taking crusty adults who have forgotten the elation of being childlike and giving them that joy back again. It’s not about sorting adults into winners and losers and then laughing cruelly at the losers. Ugh.

One of many reasons why the 1964 film works so well is that its makers were in no way in awe of the books. They disregarded PL Travers every chance they got, in order to put their vision of Mary Poppins on screen. As Saving Mr Banks tells us, they then had to defend and fight for every single one of those changes, which is perhaps why the final film feels so perfectly balanced.

The new film has been made by people whose reverence for the original seems overwhelming, and yet at the same time, who didn’t really understand it at all. It’s a cargo-cult version of the original, with a smashing cast, decent songs, a good sense of fun and some eye-popping visuals. But it has no engine and that’s why it can’t ever actually take off and fly.

Pre-Oscars 2019: Roma

Posted on December 15th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

I like structure.

I like structure in movies, and I like it both explicitly and implicitly.

I like it when a film is divided into chapters, or falls neatly into sections, or mirrors itself in some way.

But I also appreciate a well-constructed story, in which everything is there for a reason, in which chains of cause-and-effect link the actions of the characters and everything builds to a satisfying resolution. I like it even more if the plot points are artfully concealed, and if it’s at all original or has something to say, than that’s even better, but even building a complete structure like that and successfully hiding the scaffolding from view is not easy, which is why it so often makes me cross to hear critics carping about the three act structure, as if writing according to this template is some sort of paint-by-numbers job. Really? You try it.

Independent films which reject the three act structure often find very little to go in its place. As I’ve observed before, writing a film with no structure, in which a bunch of things happen and then the film ends, may or may not be truer to life, may or may not feel fresh compared to the Hollywood template, but it is certainly a great deal easier to write than a film which requires careful set-ups and payoffs all the way through.

So, films like Boyhood, The Tree of Life or Beasts of the Southern Wild (to pick three previous Best Picture nominees) often leave me cold. On the other hand, I don’t have a single template for movie narratives into which I insist that every story be forced. The three act structure endures because it works and because it’s so flexible, encompassing everything from Dumb and Dumber to Citizen Kane, but other structures are possible – they’re just harder.

In the case, for example, of The Hurt Locker, the only thing I didn’t like was the emergence of traditional Hollywood storytelling in the final third. It jarred and felt artificial next to the terrifying realism of the preceding hour. Or there’s Amour in which the brilliant performances and acutely observed details of the lives of the protagonists, combined with the pitiless direction to make an extraordinary, if harrowing movie experience.

All of which brings us to Alfonsa Cuaron’s Roma. This is not Gravity Cuaron. This is not Harry Potter Cuaron. This is not even Children of Men Cuaron. It’s closer if anything to Y Tu Mama Tambien in structure, if not in tone. A synopsis doesn’t really do it justice, because the story, although it contains many powerful and affecting elements, isn’t really the point. Roma is not a film you watch. It’s a film you experience.

Recreating and lightly fictionalising his childhood, growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuaron takes us through a year in the life of a wealthy family facing domestic strife, not from the point of view of one of the children, as you might expect, but from the point of view of Cleo, the maid and nanny. Point of view is of course vitally important. It’s what distinguishes storytelling from journalism. This perspective immediately brings harsh realities of class, economics, politics and relationships into sharp relief. There is the sense here that the mother’s story, or the child’s or possibly even the father’s would be good movies in their own right, but Cuaron is never distracted, keeping Cleo at the centre of every event, including momentous ones in her own life, the family’s life and Mexico’s history.

Over some of the bland domesticity which takes up about the first half of the film, there is the constant hum of potential violence. Hard-edged technology creeps into the softness of the family home. Too-large cars crunch into narrow drive ways. Cleo’s boyfriend shows off his martial artistry. Planes whine overhead. When Cleo visits a shanty town, a man is being shot out of a cannon in the background. When, in the last third of the film, this violence erupts, it’s incredibly shocking and what follows is one of the most upsetting scenes in recent cinema history. But like those planes that are so often in view, Cuaron tells us that this too shall pass.

This has no need of any kind of three act structure, and would not be helped by it. The film would have been riveting enough with these performances (among a uniformly strong cast, Yalitza Aparicio is exceptional as Cleo) and this kind of storytelling. What catapults this to the very top of my list of movies for 2018 is the way that Cuaron tells the story visually.

Shooting in gorgeous 65mm black and white in 2.35:1, this couldn’t look less like an old movie, and yet the monochrome images can’t help but evoke the past (as does a cheeky reference to Marooned, a sort of 1969 version of Gravity). But although Cleo is the emotional heart of the film, by giving us a modern lens on an earlier time, Cuaron inserts himself discreetly into the movie too. This is 1971 from a 2018 standpoint.

We know Cuaron loves long takes, but here his style evolves again. Although shot with tremendous flexibility and panache, time and again, the camera tracks sideways or pans left and right across that widest of widescreen frames, almost like a security camera – observing but never intruding, And this unfussy style, combined with the patient editing, means that when the story is told in eye-popping images, which it so often is, it never feels forced, contrived or showy. This may have been bankrolled by Netflix, but you need to see it on a big screen.

Roma is an extraordinary achievement, clearly a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language film this year, and if there’s any justice at all, it will become the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. I’m not saying that’s going to happen – it probably won’t. I am saying I find it very hard to imagine seeing a better film than Roma this year.