Archive for the ‘At the cinema’ Category

Oscars 2018 – Lady Bird and The Shape of Water

Posted on February 27th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Apparently, I’ve been saving the best for last. According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Lady Bird was briefly the best-reviewed movie of all time (now overtaken by Paddington 2). I therefore sat down to watch Greta Gerwig’s unassuming coming-of-age movie with high expectations. It is, of course, excellently done, but I am slightly bewildered at the overwhelming adoration it has received. Maybe critics who are lauding it as an amazing debut didn’t see Frances Ha, also written by Gerwig (but with Noah Baumbach directing) which now looks somewhat like a trial run for this.

This is not to say that it isn’t excellent. It absolutely is. Gerwig’s acutely observed script follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson through the end of high school and the beginning of college, and essentially watches her – as many people do at this time in their lives – try on different personalities, ways of engaging with the world and circles of friends, in an attempt to discover who she is and what space there is left in the world for her. Time and again, Lady Bird presents us with situations very familiar from other movies (high school prom, losing virginity, meeting the parents), but time and again Gerwig finds a way to twist, tweak, surprise or invert these tropes, without the film ever departing from reality too much.

To deliver this script, Gerwig has marshalled an incredible cast, from the effortless Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, to the impeccable Laurie Metcalfe as her mother, to Beanie Feldstein as her off-again, on-again best friend. And – look! – there’s Timothée Chalamet, so utterly convincing in Call Me By Your Name, incredibly funny and having a whale of a time playing the hideously pretentious boyfriend whom Lady Bird goes to bed with.

But as well done as all of this is, it seems inherently and necessarily limited in its scope. The themes, although universal, rarely rise above the trivial, and the appeal to religiosity at the end, while it might have more resonance with American audiences, did nothing whatever for me. So I would file this under “really well made” rather than “changed my life”.

I had almost equally high expectations for The Shape of Water, which comes to the 90th Academy Awards with the most nominations (13 including director, screenplay, score and cinematography). I made a point of watching del Toro’s early hit Pan’s Labyrinth which I hadn’t seen before and which I thought was absolutely amazing – far darker and grimmer than the whimsical fantasy I was anticipating, but hugely effective.

A few similar themes recur here, but the intent is subtly shifted. The period setting and the slight unreality of the production design create a fully-integrated world in which Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man fits properly. This contrasts with Pan’s Labyrinth in which the “real world” is generally presented in a realistic fashion and the hidden world of sprites and fauns seems fantastical. There’s also something fairy tale about Sally Hawkins’ apparent refusal to speak (although the marks on her neck, which give rise to the wonderful visual pun at the end hint at some physical trauma robbing her of the power).

But elsewhere, the feel is much more realistic, with some fairly grim and gruesome violence, not least Michael Shannon’s severed, reattached and rotting fingers, and it’s when these two approaches collide that the film is on thin ice. For much of its running time, the sheer conviction of the players – Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and fabulously expressive and winning Sally Hawkins – carries it through. But all it takes is for the audience to think – even for a second – hang on, this is all a bit silly isn’t it? And suddenly the whole enterprise collapses. And it’s hard not to think that when Hawkins is blissfully filling her entire bathroom with water from an overflowing bath in order to engage in sub-aqua nookie with a fish man. Dear god!

Looking back on the nine nominees, then, it strikes me that while there are no outright disasters – nothing nominated this year is anything like as bad as The Imitation Game, Hacksaw Ridge or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – most of the nominees have been bettered by their own directors. Here, The Shape of Water is good, but not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is good, but not as good as the same director’s Memento (or even The Dark Knight). Phantom Thread is good, but not as good as Magnolia. Three Billboards is good, but not as good as In Bruges. The Post is good but – take your pick! Call Me My Your Name may be better than I am Love, but I haven’t seen it.

Passing over Darkest Hour, which really isn’t all that good, that just leaves Lady Bird and Get Out: two films from first-time directors which really stand out as being true statements of intent from fascinating artists to look out for in the years to come. And although I thoroughly enjoyed Lady Bird, it can’t match the breadth, depth, complexity and ambition of Get Out, which – I’m slightly surprised to report – turns out to be my favourite of this year’s nominees.

On to predictions, briefly. I suspect another split year, with Three Billboards gaining enough momentum to overtake The Shape of Water (which is also dogged by accusations of plagiarism) for Best Picture, but I can’t see anyone other than del Toro winning Best Director. Best Actor and Best Actress are foregone conclusions (Oldman and McDormand) as is Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney). Best Supporting Actor is a little more open but Sam Rockwell should probably have a speech ready.

Screenplay is much harder to call. Really, any of the five nominated films could take Best Original Screenplay, with Three Billboards probably having a slight edge, but I’d love Jordan Peele to take it. Best Adapted Screenplay won’t go to The Disaster Artist or Logan, but the other three all have a shot. I suspect the Academy’s tastes lean more towards Molly’s Game than Call Me By Your Name, but I’m by no means sure.

Join me back here this time next week and we’ll all know for certain.

Oscars 2018 – The Post and Phantom Thread

Posted on February 16th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post almost looks like a spoof Oscar-garnering machine. Beloved actors working together for the first time, a true story about noble crusaders standing up against the powerful elite, an expert director and plenty of hype from a long way off. But when it actually arrived, it seemed to have run out of puff a little. In practice it only ended up with two nominations – Best Picture and Best Actress for Meryl Streep.

And I entered the cinema with a slight sense of obligation. Sure, I know Spielberg will marshal the material with grace and elan; Hanks and Streep are never less than watchable; and I wasn’t overly-familiar with the story. But honestly, with the classic All The President’s Men showing us The Washington Post taking on Nixon already, and the very recent, Best Picture winning Spotlight giving us a more modern take on the brave reporters uncover the truth story, I couldn’t help wondering whether there was any real need for The Post?

The story is very simple. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg smuggles out classified reports on the doomed Vietnam War and the New York Times begins to run them but is halted by a court injunction. When copies find their way to the Washington Post, editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham have to decide whether to risk their newly public company by following suit. And that’s it! That’s the whole story. So this is a film about process, and a film about character.

Spielberg’s ability with shots and editing is unrivalled, of course, but it’s his ability to deploy all of the resources of a filmmaker’s arsenal to deliver story which really sets him apart. I’ve recently noted the care with which he sets up Lincoln’s need to pass a constitutional amendment, and his 2015 film Bridge of Spies is another example of his immense skill and care. So, if anyone is going to tell this story, it’s this filmmaker.

What lets the script down a bit is the relentless determination to make it relevant. The parallels between the Nixon administration’s attempt to win the public debate by using the courts to silence dissenting voices are obvious, but that doesn’t stop the film from reminding us again and again and again that Trump is behaving in a very similar way. But at its heart, this is a film about characters, and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer create moments for even the smallest parts, which is partly why the roster of talent continues way past the marquee names. Take a bow Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Michael Stuhlbarg and more besides.

Hanks, of course, is tremendous, delivering a straight-arrow part with straight-arrow charisma. But – perhaps predictably – it’s Meryl Streep’s movie. The portrait of a publishing heiress with the guts to risk it all could have been movie-of-the-week tepid triumph, but Streep invests her with such tremendous vulnerability – even when she’s in the very process of standing up to her army of advisors – that it becomes a uniquely fascinating take on a woman in whom multiple clashing forces are chaotically fighting it out. Sadly, for Streep, Frances McDormand is in the race too, but with three acting Oscars and an unprecedented 21 nominations, I think Streep will be able to bear not winning this one.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is much more complex and unapproachable. In what is being touted as his final film, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the gloriously-named Reynolds Woodcock, fifties dressmaker to London’s great and good. With his severe sister (Leslie Manville – magnetic) as his second-in-command, the tetchy, fussy genius of couture continues to command his army of seamstresses and turn out stunning ball gowns and wedding dresses.

Into this controlled and controlling world comes Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson and a very strange and twisted battle of wills ensues. If The Post’s storyline is simple, Phantom Thread’s is positively anaemic. Much of the running-time resembles a series of short films, some of which are delightful, some of which are less diverting, some are just a bit frustrating. When Alma, ignoring all advice, tries to disrupt Woodcock’s routine by making him a private romantic dinner, she displays so little understanding of his character, and he displays so little sympathy for her feelings, that it’s hard not to feel entirely fed up with both of them, and it’s very hard to remain invested in the future of their romantic relationship.

When the real nature of their relationship is finally revealed, it’s undeniably arresting and original, and does draw various thematic threads together (sorry) but it’s also faintly ridiculous, with a whiff of off-brand Roald Dahl. And what’s also a peculiar choice is that the film opens with the casual dismissal of the previous girlfriend. This sets Alma up as merely the latest in a series of women, which should make Alma’s refusal to go away much more of a threat to Manville’s Cyril. But in fact, Manville plays almost no part in the final act of the film.

So, it’s also a little hard to understand, particularly in light of the dinner scene above, just what Alma is getting out of the relationship, and also how she is able to see into Woodcock’s soul.

I suspect, more than anything, this is a question of taste. I saw this film with two others one of who adored it and one of whom couldn’t wait for it to end. That leaves me somewhere in the middle. The performances, especially the three leads, are absolutely excellent, and director Anderson makes the most of the locations and wintery London scenes. It’s undeniably original and richly realised, but I think fundamentally I didn’t enjoy being in the company of these people and I began to lose interest in the horrible things they chose to do to each other.

Two films left to go, and to hear my thoughts on Oscar-winners past, do check out my new podcast Best Pick, wherein John Dorney, Jessica Regan and I are watching and reviewing every Academy Award Best Picture winner in no particular order.

 

Oscars 2018 – Darkest Hour and Three Billboards

Posted on January 31st, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Here we are again. As well as podcasting about the Oscars, I intend to continue blogging about them, so here are the runners and riders for the 90th Academy Awards…

Call Me By Your Namereviewed here. Moving drama with incredible performances and not quite enough story to sustain the length.

Darkest Hour – enjoyable history lesson with some ghastly lapses, held together by a wonderful central performance. Full review below.

Dunkirk – often very effective outing for Nolan’s rigorous style and not overlong, but not all sequences are equally effective

Get Out – stunning achievement, marrying black comedy, horror and social commentary in a brilliantly controlled manner.

Lady Bird – have yet to see, but looks great

Phantom Thread – have yet to see, and I don’t always enjoy Paul Thomas Anderson’s stuff, so I’m anxious

The Post – have yet to see, and worry that it is inessential

The Shape of Water – have yet to see, but it looks amazing

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – marvellous, meditative drama, which always kept me guessing. Full review below

Darkest Hour

Where would the Academy Awards be without a biopic of a famous historical character, played by a beloved character actor, labouring under mounds of latex? Some years we get several, this year Joe Wright and Gary Oldman provide the only one (unless you count The Post) although not the only film about Dunkirk.

To begin with, Oldman is amazing, with the aforementioned mound of latex applied gingerly and not too roughly, so that – while the resemblance is sometimes absolutely total – Oldman’s interpretation of the role is allowed to shine through. He completely inhabits the character – flaws, ideals, strengths, lapses and doubts – and never dips into caricature. Overall, I think his performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is probably finer (who else would dare go toe-to-toe with Alec Guinness) but this is the kind of expert showboating that the Academy loves and it’s hugely satisfying and fun to watch.

Director Joe Wright surrounds Oldman with an impressive roster of supporting actors too, from Kristin Scott-Thomas who eagerly laps up what tiny crumbs the script gives her and manages to sketch in something resembling a human in barely five minutes of screen-time; to Ronald Pickup, born to play Chamberlain and an excellent Ben Mendelsohn as stammering Bertie.

What isn’t quite so satisfactory is the script. The raw story arguably gives writer Anthony McCarten more to work with than the life of Stephen Hawking, but the pages he has produced are often equally flaccid and unconvincing as they were in The Theory of Everything. One huge problem is that the story, which pits Churchill’s newly-anointed Prime Minister against a gag of senior appeasers, doesn’t give him adequate space to articulate his views on how best to deal with the Nazi menace.

Senior parliamentary figures, having agreed to a war-time coalition on the basis that Chamberlain is removed from office, select Churchill as his successor, presumably knowing that he is certain that Hitler must be opposed and by military force, and then proceed to act as if the very thing was absolutely unthinkable. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that appeasement would have been a dreadful folly, but McCarten is so keen to make sure that Chamberlain, Halifax and the others are able to clearly explain the logic behind appeasement that he never gives Churchill the same opportunity. The result is that Winston is painted as a warmongering maverick who on this occasion got lucky. See Spielberg’s Lincoln for how to do this right. That film glides sedately to a stop while the President lays out exactly why nothing short of a constitutional amendment will do, because Spielberg understands that while such a scene might lack in visual excitement or emotional heft, if that issue is not made absolutely clear, then nothing else in the movie is going to matter.

And this may be the wrong place to bring this criticism up, but Oldman-as-Churchill is the latest in a long line of figures which I might call The Rude Good Man. This is a character who is breathtakingly arrogant and rude to those around him (often women) but whose rudeness is not without wit, and so we are invited to find it funny and iconoclastic (instead of just aggressive and unpleasant) and with whom we empathise because he is saying the unsayable and he is ultimately on the side of the angels. Isn’t it time this figure was laid to rest and Lily James given something to do other than have verbal punishment meted out to her?

So at the end of the film, Churchill must win over the doubters. Unlike Ava DuVernay, Wright is able to use Churchill’s real speeches, so we don’t get some awful paraphrase of “We will fight them on the beaches,” but the already-shaky logic of the film rather falls apart here. Churchill is criticised early on for not being straight with the people of Britain about just how dire the situation is. When the King comes around to his Prime Minister’s way of thinking (an epiphany which frustratingly happens off-screen) he tells him that they are now in partnership, but that the PM must start being straight with the British people. Churchill nods in agreement, but that is the last appearance of the King in the movie, and Churchill’s next opportunity to speak to the nation is the aforementioned famous barnstorming speech.

In fact, according to McCarten and Wright, what Churchill needed was to spend an implausibly long time going one stop on the London Underground, hob-nobbing with ordinary Londoners in order to kick-start his torpid confirmation bias. The absurd scene is the nadir of an otherwise fairly enjoyable film, and appears to have been left over from an earlier, sillier draft in which Churchill was made to sound like a Spitting Image puppet of Jeremy Corbyn, trying to score points in the house by asking questions from “ordinary voters”.

As far as the shooting goes, Wright does create a strong sense of place and time and texture, and he manages to pull off some impressive shots. What he lacks is the ability – which, again, Spielberg always seems to have had – to sew a number of amazing shots together into a fluid and dynamic sequence. Wright’s bravura dollies-to-the-sky and so on stand out because in the edit they are too often sandwiched between very static or otherwise pedestrian set-ups.

So – top ten movie of the year? Clearly not. But quite an enjoyable history lesson and a wonderful opportunity for one of our best actors to have a blast.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Following his debut feature In Bruges, which was astonishing unless you were already familiar with his amazing stage work, writer-director Martin McDonagh stumbled slightly with the diverting but hollow Seven Psychopaths. Three Billboards feels like his most mature, complex and satisfying work to date. Not nearly as much fun as In Bruges (no-one even comes close to exploding the head of a little person, even though there’s a little person right there and nobody calls anyone an inanimate fucking object at any stage) but considerably deeper, richer and more interesting.

Frances McDormand is excellent as grieving mother Mildred Hayes, who pays $5000 to put up three enormous billboards on a quiet country road, taunting the local police for their inability to find her daughter’s killer. McDonagh’s work in the theatre hasn’t lead him to fall into the trap of telling the whole story verbally. People having ideas is one of the hardest things to pull off in cinema. From the opening of this film, I know I’m in safe hands, because McDonagh doesn’t make a meal of it. He just films McDormand driving past the derelict billboards and looking at them. That’s all you need.

This action sets up a wave of recriminations which touches Sam Rockwell’s racist thug of a cop, John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, Caleb Landry-Jones as the billboard manager and essentially the whole town. McDonagh’s first master-stroke (of many) is making the principle antagonist, Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, not an intransigent authority figure but instead a deeply compassionate family man with a cancer diagnosis.

To say much more would be to spoil this endlessly rich and rewarding film, but what really struck me was how the playwright’s cynical and mordant tone has shifted into something much more hopeful and optimistic. So, yes, we do get some clumsy racial slurs early on (which to be honest, the film doesn’t need and which stick in the throat a bit), as well as the nasty fun of McDormand drilling a hole through a disgruntled dentist’s thumbnail, or – in one amazing shot – Rockwell tossing Landry-Jones out of a second-storey window. But ultimately, the film offers us a redemptive view of humanity which is hugely refreshing and uplifting.

Some of the plot contrivances have come in for criticism, and I understand where those critiques are coming from (hi guys) but I don’t entirely share them, except in one case, very near the middle of the film, where poor old Željko Ivanek is made to recite some truly awful dialogue which makes no sense at all, but which is simply required to move one of the chess pieces to the appropriate square on the board. What’s much more laudable is the way McDonagh manages to avoid the plot disintegrating into a very uninteresting whodunnit without the gears grinding in the least little way. And what’s truly impressive is the that the film constantly kept me guessing without me ever feeling cheated, bewildered or manipulated.

Every member of the cast acquits themselves with honour – look it’s Lester Freamon! – and Carter Burwell’s music knits the whole thing together. A wonderful film to savour, bar a few tiny stumbles.

Molly’s Game

Posted on January 7th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut arrives and it’s certainly a heady concoction, full of fizz and invention, but it does end up feeling just a little hollow. It’s the true story of the improbably-named Molly Bloom, whose career as a professional skier is interrupted by an injury and who ends up making more money running her boss’s poker game than she does doing her job. She therefore takes the game away from him and ends up as the unwitting confidante of a number of top players, including members of the Russian Mob.

Sorkin borrows a page from his own Facebook, designing the structure of the film around Molly’s court case, in which her phones full of incriminating texts from regulars at her poker games become the prize which law enforcement is after but which Molly, despite protestations from her lawyer, is unwilling to surrender. Around this main narrative thread, there are frequent flashbacks to Molly’s childhood, young adulthood and evenings running poker rooms.

The two different parts of the movie are handled very differently. Especially early on, Sorkin makes the flashbacks an assault on the senses. Chastain rattles out Sorkin’s voice-over dialogue with crisp authority as driving music knits together images from a huge variety of sources, to the point where the style is not so much Award Winning Prestige Motion Picture, but more YouTube video. At times, he seems about to fall prey to one of what David Frost called “Lord Privy Seals“.

The rest of the film – mainly contemporary verbal fencing between Jessica Chastain’s resolute Molly and Idris Elba’s compassionate lawyer (thankfully much more cautious Stringer Bell than lumpen Luther) –  is more conventionally shot and edited. Sorkin, whether wisely or not, trusts that his dialogue and his actors will carry the day. And they mostly do. Both Elba and Chastain do solid work, if a little one-note. Kevin Costner and Jeremy Strong are both fine. Michael Cera has fun as movie-star composite Player X, and Chris O’Dowd possibly has little too much fun as the hilariously inarticulate Douglas Downey, whose Russian Mob connections prove to be Molly’s downfall. It’s just a shame that as a director, Sorkin hasn’t found any middle ground between shooting his scenes like a particularly demented music video on the one hand, and like any random episode of The West Wing on the other.

The story itself is well-paced and never less than entertaining. Sorkin uses the backstory well, serves the needs of poker and poker-related gamesmanship, family drama and legal thriller equally and adroitly, and – as you might expect – the dialogue crackles along. He is also unafraid to deploy jokes, even during moment of the highest drama, so when Elba is speechifying or Chastain is expositing, all is right with the world.

But there are a few niggles. Surprisingly, not all the poker stuff is completely accurate. Twice Sorkin, who must have known better, over-reaches. Wanting to establish Michael Cera’s character as a brilliantly player who can force better hands to fold, he gives the other player the nuts, i.e. an unbeatable hand, which strains credulity quite unnecessarily. Later, he allows Molly to begin raking the pot in the middle of a hand, which is highly unlikely to be true. I suppose it could be, I haven’t read the book, but most players would revolt at this sudden, unexpected and irrevocable rewriting of the rules.

Ultimately, with an eye on the Oscars, the question becomes – is this just a thrill ride, a roller coaster of words and situations, or does it illuminate something bigger than itself. In conversations with Dad Costner and lawyer Elba, the nature of Molly’s stubborn integrity is probed, but she remains a movie hero, who plays by her own rules, but whose interior life is only glimpsed occasionally, unless it’s being spelled out for us in voice over.

And as the film has no ambitions to explore anything beyond the realms of poker and crime, this remains a well-made entertainment rather than a masterpiece.

Look out for episode 0 of my new podcast Best Pick, dropping on Wednesday, and be back here on 23 January for the Oscar nominations,

Pre-Oscars 2018

Posted on January 4th, 2018 in At the cinema | 1 Comment »

Although the nominations have not yet been announced, I’ve got my eye on what films are getting “buzz”. One leading candidate I’ve already seen (Dunkirk) and at least a couple of other slightly more left-field possibilities are also in the bag (Get Out and Bladerunner 2049) but back in London with a less-than-usually hectic schedule, I sought out a couple of indie films likely to get mentions on 23 January.

Please remember, my reviews are not guaranteed to be spoiler-free. Proceed at your own risk.

The first film I took in was The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s depiction of a young mother struggling to make ends meet for her and her six-year-old daughter in her run-down motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World in Orlando. Brooklyn Prince as Halley and Bria Vinaite as her daughter Mooney are outstanding as is the rest of the mostly-unknown cast who all give hugely engaging, truthful performances. Really only Willem Dafoe is at all familiar, but he slips in beautifully as Bobby, the wearily compassionate manager of the Magic Castle.

Halley scams, makes friends, makes enemies. Mooney plays, makes friends, makes enemies. Bobby bears witness, tries to protect Halley from herself and the motel from Halley, and all of this takes place walking distance from The Happiest Place On Earth™. Baker is very aware of the irony, but to his credit, never leans on it too heavily. It’s all beautifully observed and never less than fascinating to watch, but although to some extent Halley’s misdeeds do start catching up with her at the end of the film, I never quite got the sense of the dominoes starting to topple. Sean Baker has essentially made a dozen or so short films set in this fascinating location, but for me there’s no sense of crescendo even when social services arrive and try and take Mooney away. And the eventual (slightly inexplicable) trip to the real Magic Kingdom at the end doesn’t deliver the necessary catharsis either, because it’s all over with very quickly, and too many threads are left hanging.

Similarly episodic, but (slightly) more in control of the narrative structure is Call Me By Your Name which arrives festooned with awards and critical acclaim. Directed by Luca Guadagnino with a script by James Ivory from the novel by André Aciman, this is a coming-of-age story in four languages set in a bucolic Italian retreat some time in the 1980s.

Elio, the slightly feckless son of academic Jewish couple the Perlmans, sees his regular summer sojourns as a tedious stretch to be endured, but he begins experimenting sexually with one of the local girls, not least as a distraction from this year’s visiting student Oliver, played with brawny intelligence by Armie Hammer. Eventually, the two of them develop a sexual relationship.

As Elio, Timothée Chalamet is revelatory, his unstudied awkwardness and fleeting articulacy capturing with pure honesty the way a young life is slowly assembled through different experiences. But while this film doesn’t have the near-random order of events that weakens Florida, it does get a bit bogged-down in the long middle section where Elio and Oliver continue their affair, happily, warmly, equally and without fear of discovery or approbation. The desire to avoid melodrama is laudable, but the danger is that one avoids drama.

Looking at a synopsis, I can see that the plot of the novel has been streamlined, and I can understand why, but when it becomes clear that this is not an older man taking advantage of a younger man, nor a foolish infatuation of a teenager with an adult, but a genuine meeting-of-minds, then simply watching that play out is not quite as interesting to me as it apparently is for Guadagnino. So I found that the episodic feeling was a bigger problem here than with The Florida Project simply because the stakes feel so low here.

Unlike Florida, though, when the catharsis comes, it really hits home. In a movie which is largely concerned with visuals, where many scenes play out with little or no dialogue, the crucial scene is essentially a monologue from Michael Stuhlbarg to his son. Stahlbarg, a fabulous actor, pulls it off magnificently, and so finally, and without ever tipping into hysteria, the film delivers a real punch of an ending, which considerably makes up for the sluggish preceding half hour or so.

That’s it for now. Other movies which I imagine are in the running include The Post, Molly’s GameThree Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Lady Bird, and Detroit. I also wouldn’t rule out The Big SickThe Shape of Water and I Tonya.

Oscars 2017 – Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, predictions

Posted on February 26th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Hell or High Water

This was still showing at a couple of rep cinemas but I missed it and had to catch up with it on iTunes. Maybe it would have cast a stronger spell over me in a cinema, but watching at home on my own I was immensely struck by how ordinary it was, especially in the light of the other nominees. It’s not a bad film by any means, but nothing in it is in any way striking, original or important.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are fine as the brothers resorting to bank robbery for reasons which (to create a bit of extra false suspense) are not immediately clear and Jeff Bridges is in good form as the laconic sheriff on their tale. The sprawling rural setting, casual violence and Bridges in particular all call the Coen Brothers to mind, but this is even more straight down the line than True Grit, arguably their most conventional film, and it sorely lacks the kind of idiosyncrasies which they or someone like them might have been able to bring.

Taylor Sheridan’s script is unhurried (good!), the characters do more than simply go through the motions, and David Mackenzie photographs and paces it well, but I couldn’t find anything to excite me. It’s all fine, but it’s all been done as well or better elsewhere, notably on TV in shows like Justified and especially Breaking Bad.

Hidden Figures

More problematic is Hidden Figures, which aims higher and misses much more comprehensively. On paper, this looks like ideal Oscar fodder. Like Best Picture Winners before it including The King’s Speech, Argo and god help us, Shakespeare in Love, it appears to tackle important issues but does so in a way which is ultimately reassuring rather than challenging. While this is not as cack-handed as either, this film reminded me not of the foregoing but rather of previous nominees The Help and The Imitation Game.

To begin with, this was a story which deserved a wider airing and if people who had not known about their contribution beforehand leave the cinema able to cite the names Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson (as well as appreciating that they were three of an entire team of African-American women who contributed to NASA in very significant ways over several decades) then that is a very good thing indeed.

But it’s a shame that the movie itself is so generic, bland and unconvincing. As with The Imitation Game, I am not unduly worried about historical accuracy (although it’s reassuring that unlike with that film, someone on set knows how to pronounce the name Euler). I did feel that I didn’t learn an awful lot, compared to, say Selma for example, but to be fair it’s not entirely to Selma’s credit that I was rather uninformed about that period of Dr King’s life, nor is it a slam against the makers of Hidden Figures that I was rather more aware of the facts that movie is based on. But whereas Selma viscerally made me feel what life was like for black people in the segregated south, Hidden Figures feels like the carnival float version, depicting the pain and struggle in very broad and familiar brushstrokes.

So I don’t mind at all that in reality Katherine Johnson just went ahead and used the whites-only ladies’ room, nor that although John Glenn did ask for her personally to check the calculations, she had a couple of days to do it. What I do mind is that the depiction of these women’s struggle is not on its own terms convincing, illuminating or even terribly interesting. Compared to the depiction of sexism (and to a lesser extent, racism) in Mad Men, although the fictional versions of Dorothy, Katherine and Mary do face a lot of road blocks, most of them are overcome fairly easily once they make an Impassioned Speech. When in 2017, Donald Trump is trying to stop transgender people from using appropriate bathrooms and stopping green card holders from being with their families, the cosy come-on-in-and-join-us, racism-is-solved moments come across as smug and complacent, rather than punch-the-air triumphant. The slow thawing of Kirsten Dunst’s character towards Octavia Spencer is the sole exception, as this is at least presented without the implausible grandstanding seen elsewhere.

Screenwriter Allison Schroeder does little to really establish who these three women are and what sets them apart from each other, so we must be thankful that the three leads do such amazing work. Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae all manage to find moments to elevate the largely sit-com style script to something a bit deeper and more complex, but these opportunities are frustratingly rare. Meanwhile Director Theodore Melfi has failed to learn the lesson of Apollo 13, where Ron Howard used all-CGI shots of rockets and spacecraft, but made them all look as much like real footage as possible. Here we have science-fiction style sequences where virtual cameras whirl around shiny capsules, cut together with archive footage which clashes horribly.

So, I fear that one of the films I was most looking forward to ends up as probably the weakest of this year’s bunch.

Now – predictions. The big question is: will this be La La Land’s night? I’m going to say yes. Moonlight is gathering a lot of buzz but faced with a choice between the feel-good musical about Hollywood itself, or the low-key drama about a black, gay man whose life is turned around by the drug trade, the very conservative Academy is going to stick firmly in the middle ground, so La La Land takes Best Picture and Damien Chazelle takes Best Director, although I wouldn’t entirely rule Barry Jenkins out of the running.

Denzel Washington has probably done enough to eclipse Casey Affleck in the Best Actor stakes, but if it is going to be La La Land’s night, then Emma Stone will take Best Actress. The Best Supporting categories are far easier to predict, with Mahershala Ali needing to write a speech and Viola Davis probably having already cleared space on her dresser.

As they are nominated in different categories, Moonlight and La La Land can expect to split the screenwriting awards and I’d expect La La Land to take Best Song, Best Score and maybe Best Cinematography too.

Let’s check back here tomorrow and see how I did.

Oscars 2017- Fences and Moonlight

Posted on February 19th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It would be easy to lazily lump these two films in the same category – family dramas dealing with contemporary issues of race and class – but actually Denzel Washington and Barry Jenkins’ films reveal two fundamentally different approaches to movie-making. I didn’t think either of them was entirely “complete” but both have immensely powerful moments.

Fences

Fences is probably an extremely good play. I never saw it on the stage, either on its first run in 1987, or its 2010 production with Washington and Viola Davis. It won a slew of awards in the eighties though, and watching the movie, I can sense its power. But original author August Wilson died in 2005 and Tony Kushner (discreetly taking only a producer credit) has reverentially adapted it for the screen, while Denzel Washington directs himself in the leading part.

From the opening scenes, something is off. Troy Maxson (Washington) and buddy Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) shoot the shit, first riding around on the back of their garbage truck, later with Maxson’s wife Rose (Davis). Their dialogue is full of non-sequiturs, half-sentences and interruptions, but the rhythms are practised, mannered and artificial. Part of the problem is that Washington is such an articulate and literate actor that, in these early scenes, Troy’s storytelling never convinces as the imagination of a salt-of-the-earth working man. The fourth wall becomes a narrow slit through which we glimpse real humans only occasionally, through a mesh of stylised language and pseudo-authentic banter.

The story takes its time to get going as well, but as it does, the depths of Troy’s character are revealed and the movie begins to evade its stagey origins. An early speech from Troy to his son in which he is lectured about the importance of duty sets up just how selfish and hypocritical this man truly is. Washington has never had any compunction about playing morally flawed characters, but Troy Maxson must be the most compromised of all his creations, constantly screwing over the people around him, while angrily denouncing the injustices which life metes out to him.

Despite this, the fog of artificiality never really goes away and among the very small cast (one major character is never seen at all) Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother in particular fails to convince. One key problem is that not only has Kushner been unable or unwilling to open the play out in any useful way, but as director Washington often frames the shots awkwardly and almost never finds ways of telling the story visually. Even the fence of the title is much more often talked about than seen, to the point where each repetition clangs more absurdly than the last.

However, as the human drama builds, the film slowly starts to weave its spell, and when Troy has to tell his wife the worst news she’s ever heard, Washington just points the camera at Viola Davis and lets her fall apart. It’s an incredible piece of acting, a shattering moment in the story and there can’t be many actors alive who could have pulled it off.

The last episode in the film belongs to Jovan Adepo, as Troy’s son Cory. This young British/American actor had been extremely solid bouncing off Washington earlier, but he is completely convincing in these final fifteen minutes, and if it weren’t for Davis’s barnstorming performance, would have been the MVP for sure.

It’s a shame then that such quality material has been handled with such clumsy reverence. Washington is good when he’s good, but he’s been better on-screen many times before, and as director it feels like he’s out of his depth. However, Viola Davis is absolutely sensational and her grip on the Best Actress Oscar is now iron-clad.

Moonlight

If Fences is a film stuck in the eighties, then Moonlight feels like a film which simply could not have been made even three years ago. Although the story is much simpler, smaller, more contained than Fences, it feels like cinema throughout, with its three narrative sections identified by named and numbered chapters (one of my favourite devices), we meet our hero as a child, teenager and young man. Early on, Jenkins is so determined that this small story should not feel like TV (or, worse, theatre) that his camera whirls dementedly around a simple three-person dialogue scene. Later on it settles down, but the shot selection is always inventive and the lighting and grading are sumptuous.

The first section revolves as much around Juan (Mahershala Ali, worlds away from the smooth charisma of Remy Danton on House of Cards) as it does Chiron, a taciturn and lonely child whose mother (Naomie Harris, also miles away from Moneypenny) is slowly falling apart. The drug trade is an ever-present feature of the film, but it is presented clearly and without judgement. Juan is the most principled and compassionate drug lord you are ever likely to meet, and when later Chiron slips into his erstwhile mentor’s shoes he is presented more as a successful entrepreneur than anything else.

The second section is at once the most familiar and the most successful. In its early parts, where Chiron is bullied at school, it feels like every other eighties or nineties high school movie remixed, but the tone is so intense that the broad familiarity ceases to matter as the specific details make it sing. When Chiron finally connects with Kevin, it’s a really beautiful moment.

In a film filled with truthful, subtle and powerful acting, the third section is blessed with a marvellous performance from Andre Holland (Selma). Kevin and Chiron, reunited after countless years, struggle to reconnect and rebuild what they once had. So far, so fantastic. Moments of real power, beautifully underplayed and shot with great skill and panache. But the movie doesn’t so much end as stop, leaving any number of unanswered questions and a gnawing feeling that the shattering conclusion which would bring these various threads together is still sitting on Barry Jenkins’ hard drive.

It’s fascinating how the old-fashioned melodrama of Fences, finally overcomes the staginess of its presentation to create a moment whose sucker-punch power Moonlight cannot hope to match. But it’s equally fascinating how, even without a narrative which conforms to those expected shapes, the tiny details of Chiron’s life remain telling, affecting and moving.

Oscars 2017: Manchester by the Sea, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge

Posted on February 14th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Three more movies to add to my tally. Minor spoilers throughout – you have been warned.

Manchester by the Sea

Writer director Kenneth Lonergan was not someone whose work I was very familiar with. I’d seen Gangs of New York, but that seems like writer-for-hire stuff, owing much more to Scorsese’s vision that Lonergan’s. I haven’t seen You Can Count on Me or Margaret – but on the other hand, I have seen a fair number of Boston Male Angst movies, generally starring whichever Afflecks are nearest to hand, or Matt Damon if wet (here Damon produces and Casey stars).

Initially, Manchester is a slow burn. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler operates according to the cast-iron law of movie heroes that the audience will always like you, no matter how grievous your crimes or appalling your character flaws, if you are good at your job. So, he can’t keep a civil tongue in his head while doing odd jobs in dilapidated apartment blocks, but he knows one end of a wrench from another and he’s a hard worker.

Then he’s summoned to his hometown, narrowly missing the death of his father, and needing to break the news to nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). When his brother’s will names him as the boy’s guardian, Affleck will do anything to avoid staying in Manchester by the Sea.

So far, so Hallmark. Just imagine the TV movie version of this story, where ill-matched handyman and teenage tearaway discover that despite their early clashes, actually they both need each other. Ugh. But Lonergan’s handling of the material is far more subtle, restrained and powerful. Of particular note is the flashback structure. Ultimately, we come to realise that the problem is not the sudden and unexpected burden of quasi-parenthood, nor is Affleck’s refusal to relocate sheer stubbornness. The whole town is full of ghosts, and some of the memories unearthed by his visit are truly ghastly.

So, the film nips back and forth along the timeline, but – emphasising that at any moment the lead character can be confronted with another grim reminder of horrendous past decisions – there is no visual distinction between then and now, nor any overt cue that a flashback has begun or ended. This makes for an initially confusing watch, but once I got used to the rhythms of Jennifer Lame’s editing, and once the jigsaw started to come together, everything made perfect sense.

That freed me to admire the crystal clear digital photography by Jody Lee Lipes, making the every-present cold feel absolutely real. And the powerhouse performances from Affleck, Hedges and Michelle Williams doing a great deal with not very much as Affleck’s ex-wife. And there are flashes of humour too – notably a lovely cameo from Matthew Broderick of all people, as well as Hedges’ endless quest to bed either or both of his girlfriends.

So, if the scope of the movie is not terribly broad, then the depth of the writing and the acting largely makes up for it, and although this isn’t a movie to watch and re-watch, it’s certainly a moving and effective piece of work.

Lion

Lion similarly doesn’t try to encompass anything more than the plight of a handful of people in a peculiar situation, but also like Manchester, on the whole it succeeds very well. Considering the pitch – Saroo, adopted by a white Australian family when he was only six years old, in his early adult life suddenly needs to reconnect with his origins in India and risks alienating his adoptive family – it would seem “obvious” to begin with marquee names Dev Patel (Saroo) and Nicole Kidman (his adoptive mother) and have the audience feel Saroo’s confusion and anguish along with him.

In fact, about the first hour of the movie concerns Saroo’s early life in India. We meet his brother, mother and sister and see exactly how he came to be separated from them, thousands of miles away from home, unable even to speak the local language. This whole section of the film works brilliantly, and the terrible details of his accidental removal from everything he knows are worked out with remorseless precision.

Sunny Pawar is astonishing as the young Saroo. Shot after shot depicts him furiously running away from some kind of danger, like a pint-sized Tom Cruise (insert your own joke here), tiny fists pumping, fierce little face set in grim determination. When he evades what were probably people traffickers and ends up at an orphanage, the tension ebbs out of the film a little, but the details of his arrival in Australia are some of the most affecting sequences. Kidman, barely on screen for more than twenty minutes, seizes every opportunity she is given, and her quiet outpouring of love for the little boy in her bathtub, who can’t yet speak her language, is incredibly moving.

Dev Patel – suddenly brawny, rangy and hairy, quite unlike the powerlessly slight figure he cuts for much of Slumdog Millionaire – also does well as the grown-up Saroo, and the early scenes of him trying to figure out just what had happened to him all those years ago are effective, but here’s where it becomes clear why this movie needed that long first act. There isn’t really enough story to keep the momentum going after Saroo makes his decision to try and Google Earth his way back to his origins.

Rooney Mara is largely wasted as his new girlfriend, largely because he’s not letting her in on what he’s trying to do. And the damage done to his relationship with his Australian family is undermined because the filmmakers – somewhat letting the truth get in the way of a good story – have included his brother Guddu, adopted a year or so after Saroo. Guddu’s mental health problems already mean that his family unit is under stress, and the film can’t make up its mind whether Saroo trusts or resents Guddu, so this portion of the movie represents a significant dog-leg, effectively marking time until Saroo can be permitted to solve the puzzle of his beginnings.

When – finally! – Saroo makes it to India, the film pulls out of the dive and really delivers a cathartic ending, emphasised by photos and video of the real Saroo, Sue Brierley and others, and with an absolutely brilliant title card punchline. It’s tremendously emotional stuff, handled beautifully by director Garth Davis, making his feature debut.

Not quite as complete as Manchester by the Sea, then, but still well worth seeing, especially for the opening hour.

Hacksaw Ridge

I don’t really like war movies.

Of course, there are exceptions – Saving Private Ryan (mainly for the Omaha Beach scene), Paths of Glory (absolutely devastating) and, er, does Casablanca count?

But, by and large, tales of heroism behind enemy lines, brilliant military stratagems dreamed-up by inspired generals, or the bonding of boy soldiers who should never have been sent to the front lines, all leave me cold. And the wave of seventies and eighties Vietnam films similarly left me unstirred. No thank you Platoon, I’ll leave after the Russian Roulette scene The Deer Hunter, you’re not doing it for me most of Full Metal Jacket, enough already Casualties of War.

So, maybe I was never going to like Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss who nevertheless signs up to serve as a combat medic in World War II and ends up saving the lives of dozens of men on the titular ridge at Okinawa. But honestly, Mel Gibson’s film is a total mess, tonally incoherent, riddled with inconsistencies, and clearly glorifying the very violence that its hero is so determinedly opposed to.

The first act of the film, sketching in Doss’s home life in Virginia, is pretty corny movie-of-the-week stuff. We begin with a very clumsy flash-forward, flash-back, flash-forward opening, seemingly designed to ensure that nobody expecting a military bloodbath panics that they’ve walked through the wrong door, while scooping up a supposedly key childhood incident which is never picked up on again (a later incident is drafted-in where this one presumably was meant to go). Then we follow Doss’s journey from somewhat misfitting youngster to eager recruit.

But Gibson keeps emphasising all the wrong things. He can’t even shoot Doss and his new girlfriend (the preternaturally beautiful Teresa Palmer) having their first kiss without trying to have them both killed in road traffic accidents. And it’s absolutely baffling when his dad (Hugo Weaving, wasted) tells him that his problem has always been that he has to ponder and pray on every little decision before acting – since up till now all we have seen is him being headstrong to the point of reckless. Later, in the training scenes, he will be resolute and steadfast and in the extended climax in Okinawa he will be decisive and focused. This ponderous indecision is simply not a part of his character. It’s almost as if the script was assembled from multiple drafts by choosing pages at random.

In the middle section, every cliché of the Army Boot Camp is wheeled out. The men are giving amusing quirks and cheeky nicknames so that we can keep them straight when they start getting sliced up by Japanese bullets (this doesn’t work). And Vince Vaughan of all people essays a hugely uninteresting take on the shouty drill sergeant who really only wants the best for his men.

But the conflict between a conscientious objector, who refuses to even touch a rifle but who nevertheless wants to join the Army to serve as a medic on the front lines, should make for a fascinating battle-of-wills – even if presented with these over-familiar tropes. But again, the key scenes evade Gibson’s camera. Doss repeatedly asserts that he was told by the recruiting officers that he would not have to handle firearms, but since we didn’t see this scene, we have no way of knowing whether or in what manner this undertaking was given. So rather than seeing him as a wronged man, a pawn mislead by the great machine of war, it’s tempting to see him as just naive or worse a simpleton not worth rooting for.

In the end, the stage is set for a court martial, but once again this is handed in the most clichéd way imaginable, with a “hail Mary” piece of key evidence arriving at the eleventh hour causing all charges to be immediately dropped with smiles and handshakes all round. For all I know, this is exactly the war things happened (although I doubt it) but events are presented with zero verisimilitude.

Act Three is the main event, Hacksaw Ridge itself. Take the ridge, you take the city. Take the city, you take the country and win the war. But the dastardly Japs have claimed many brave American lives already and this won’t be easy. It’s tempting to compare the gruesome battle scenes which follow to Spielberg’s handling of the Normandy Beaches in Saving Private Ryan, but while Gibson’s film handily exceeds the Tom Hanks movie for viscera, brutality and ghastly sound effects, it totally lacks Spielberg’s perfect balance between the fog of war and the demands of narrative clarity. Spielberg’s sequence is precision storytelling. Gibson’s version is a blood-spattered roller coaster.

When the American forces are cut to pieces and have no option but to retreat, brave Private Doss drags the wounded to safety and lowers them off the ridge. This selfless act of heroism is entirely true and it’s with genuine humility and shame that I watch my soft hands type these words. What that man did on that ridge is absolutely remarkable, but the film which was intended to honour his noble deeds continues to lose its footing in these crucial moments.

Firstly, as noted, Gibson succumbs to the temptation to make the battle scenes thrilling, which means that the film fails utterly as a parable about the horrors of war (should that point need making again). Secondly, the moral complexity of Doss’s position is completely overlooked. War is presented as a necessary tool to achieve global stability and the mission of the American forces is one of truth and rightness. When Doss drags Vaughan on a makeshift sled while the other man sprays bullets from a submachine gun behind him, we’re supposedly meant to punch their air, or cheer or something. I just thought this was a ridiculous spectacle belonging to nonsense like The Fast and the Furious, not a serious Oscar-winning movie confronting the realities of warfar.

In big ways and small, Gibson presents the Americans as all-too flesh and blood humans, whose lives would be deeply mourned if they were lost. But the Japanese are presented as boogie-men who exist only to imperil the lives of Our Brave Heroes.

This can be seen not only in their stereotypical presentation (when they are finally defeated, they even commit hari-kiri) but in more subtle ways as well. None of what they say is subtitled. Their faces are almost never clearly seen. Sometimes their whole bodies are obscured by smoke, but even when they emerge from the mists, the lighting and grading conspires to hide their eyes, or mute their features completely. They are alien, separate, other, killable. Doss does lower a couple of Japanese wounded off the ridge, but we never see them and we are later told they “didn’t make it” leaving open the question of whether or not American surgeons would have operated on them or not.

And the muddled writing hasn’t gone away either. Holed up for the night, Captain Glover marvels at Doss’s continued refusal to handle firearms. “Any sane man would want a rifle,” he exclaims. Doss quips in return “Well, I never claimed to be sane.” Fair enough, except that an hour earlier, I watched this same Captain Glover attempt to drum Doss out of his platoon on the grounds of insanity, in response to which Doss very cogently argued for his sanity, and this was the conclusion reached by the psychiatrist assessing him who then made his report back to – you guessed it – Captain Glover. Again, I can only assumed no-one was paying attention to which draft was being shot today.

Andrew Garfield, seemingly channelling Tom Hanks not as Captain Miller but as Forrest Gump, does well enough with what he’s given, but even he and a parade of talented Australian character actors, can save this nasty jingoistic propaganda piece from collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

Five down, four to go.

Oscars 2017 – and La La Land

Posted on February 7th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

At the time of writing, I’ve seen four out of nine of the nominees. Here’s a quick assessment of the runners and the riders, and then I’ll post some more reviews.

Arrival: Cerebral science fiction with a cracking central performance from Amy Adams but zero chance of winning the main prize. Longer review here.

Fences: Denzel Washington directs and stars in this family drama which also explores social and racial issues in 1950s Pittsburgh. Viola Davis is also up for Best Supporting Actress. Well-reviewed but not getting the kind of buzz it needs to win.

Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson directs a number of other Aussies in a World War II movie based on a true story. Again, well reviewed but not really a contender.

Hell or High Water: Clint Eastwood directs and Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine star in the Western crime thriller which completely passed me by on its initial release, but which I’m hoping to find at an art cinema somewhere before resorting to iTunes.

Hidden Figures: Second true story on the list, this time that of the social and racial issues surrounding the largely unsung women of colour working on the maths behind the moon landing. Not a front-runner but I wouldn’t right it off completely, especially after its cast won the Screen Actors Guild Award.

La La Land: Festooned with awards, this is Damien Chazelle’s bubblegum follow-up to his brilliant debut Whiplash. By any measure, the one to beat.

Lion: Third true story, this time a family drama focusing on adoptive Australian Dev Patel’s quest to rediscover his Indian heritage with attendant social and racial issues.

Manchester by the Sea: Casey Affleck leads a very strong cast in this family drama which also explores social issues in contemporary Boston. Kenneth Lonergan’s film represents the best that the La La Land haters can hope for.

Moonlight: But don’t write-off Moonlight either. Mahershali Ali is the most recognisable face in this unstarry cast assembled to essay this family drama which also explores social and racial issues in contemporary Miama.

So, this is very much a list of two halves. Four films which represent adventure and derring-do of one sort or another. Four films which represent smaller more personal stories, including as noted, explorations of social and racial issues.

And then there’s La La Land.

Okay, let’s start with Damien Chazelle’s film taken purely on its own merits. I’m a sucker for Hollywood musicals and I regard the current TV trend towards musical numbers as a very positive and happy thing. I thought Whiplash was a fascinating and largely excellent piece of work, and I was absolutely ready to be charmed by the follow-up – and by-and-large I was.

The opening number is delightful and the leads are sketched in efficiently and playfully, with just enough time-jumping shenanigans to keep me on my toes, but not so much that it becomes distracting and show-offy. I don’t find Seb’s passion for jazz or his need to explain it to others offensive or insufferable, and I can forgive the occasionally iffy singing, especially when the dancing is largely very successful. And I defy anyone to not leave the movie humming Justin Hurwitz’s music.

For the most part, the tone is very carefully balanced – just enough sweetness and naiveté to sustain the confection of the musical genre; just enough real-life cynicism and acid to make it play in 2017. And the two leads do tremendous work. Chazelle repeatedly frames Emma Stone’s preternaturally expressive face very close-to and just lets his camera absorb the play of emotions across her features. And if Ryan Gosling isn’t exactly giving Winona Ryder a run for his money, then when the camera rests on his far more stoic physiognomy, there’s always something going on behind the eyes.

There are quibbles. When both parties get everything they dreamed-of, the details don’t entirely hang together, nor does the cost (they have to give up on each other) quite counter-balance the sugariness of Cinderella twist. And their parting is a little too comfortable and mature for their not-quite-reunion to have the kind of bittersweet tang that it really needed. But overall this is a perfectly inoffensive and rather winning piece of film-making, which shows that Whiplash was no fluke and that Chazelle is a singular artist whose career will be well worth watching.

But is it one of the top ten best films of the year? Well, that seems a bit of a stretch, even given that the Best Picture nominees frequently contain works of hugely varying quality. For it to have received more Oscar nominations than any other film this year seems very surprising. And for it to have equalled the record for the most nominations of any film ever is nothing short of ludicrous. With so many true life stories, so many intimate family dramas and so many explorations of social issues to choose from, faced with a world which seems to be rapidly heading towards a Twitter-fuelled Armageddon, the Academy appears to have voted for pure, flimsy, gossamer escapism.

Frankly, who can blame them?

Culture round-up early 2017

Posted on February 1st, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Well, for some time now, my new role as podcast producer has made updating this blog very difficult, and in the light of the ghastly developments in UK and world politics, my half-assed views on TV shows and movie seem hardly relevant. But the world keeps turning and since I’ve been to see a few movies and things, I may as well try and keep up my record.

So, let’s start with the Doctor Who Christmas Special. One reason for my not reviewing this at the time is that it was basically fine. Nothing terribly wrong, but nothing terribly exciting either. As writer, Steven Moffat reigned in most of his worst excesses, Ed Bazalgette frames it all with professionalism and style, real (north) American Justin Chatwin and faux American Charity Wakefield are both convincing and Matt Lucas was far less irritating than we might have feared.

Even the one big error simply duplicates a mistake made in pretty much every superhero movie ever shot, which is the physics-defying fantasy of magic catching hands. A person falling off a building will hit the floor and be made to stop very suddenly, and the impact will cause them severe damage. The kinetic energy they give up when their acceleration towards the ground suddenly ceases has to go somewhere. However, in superhero movies and in The Return of Doctor Mysterio, no such problem exists if the thing which the falling person (or object) collides with is a person’s hands. When Grant catches the ship, it stops just as suddenly as if it had hit the ground, but mysteriously with no damage to Grant, the ship or any of its occupants. Other than that, absolutely fine. Four stars.

Next let’s turn to Arrival, the cerebral science-fiction slow-burn movie starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and directed by Dennis Villeneuve which depicts the international response to a number of alien obelisks which descend without warning on planet Earth. Putting so much emphasis on Adams’ painstaking attempts to decipher the alien language is undoubtedly gutsy and for me in pays off handsomely, drawing me in to the puzzle as the various military powers across the globe get increasingly twitchy.

The central twist is a little over-familiar for those of us who have seen more than half-a-dozen science fiction films, but it’s artfully concealed and bolstered by excellent performances, from a luminous Adams on down. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which more later.

And finally, let’s tick off Rogue One. I’m not really a devoted Star Wars nerd, which meant that the number of “Easter Eggs” I noticed was not excessive, although I gather that they come at the rate of about two a minute if you really know your Force from your elbow. The tactic of alternating “saga” movies (like The Force Awakens) with “anthology” movies seems like a smart one and by inserting a narrative into the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope seems like an excellent way to start things off.

And so, this is not quite the Star Wars we’re familiar with. No opening crawl! No John Williams! No wipes! On-screen captions to identify the planets we’re visiting. And early on, it’s all a bit clunky, as we whip from planet-to-planet in search of the film’s plot. As the characters start to establish themselves, and the humour and adventure comes to the fore, things begin to improve, and the team assembled around Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso all get some great moments, especially Alan Tudyk as reprogrammed droid K-2SO, even if Jones herself can’t quite match up to the astonishing Daisy Ridley.

But the narrative momentum isn’t sustained, as the plot ties itself in knots to prevent us from getting to the last act too soon. I swear when they meet up with Jyn’s father, I can actually hear two different drafts of the film fighting each other, as the person Jyn trusted to deliver her to her father, whose message the rest of the film depends on her hearing, has a crisis of confidence and decides not to betray her by killing him anyway. Badguy Krennic then kills all of his men but not him and then rebel bombers blow him up anyway! Not exactly a clean narrative line!

In the final mission to get the plans out of the Imperial base, however, things improve enormously as director Gareth Edwards manages not just to summon up the spirit of the original trilogy, but to finally give his movie the singularity of purpose it seemed to struggle for earlier. And I have to admire both the commitment to the reality of the suicide mission and the neat plugging of the original film’s most glaring plot hole.

Everyone seems to have their own opinion about the digital Cushing and Fisher avatars which appear throughout the movie. For me, the brief glimpse of digital Leia worked fine. But the continual featuring of the CGI Tarkin stretched the envelope well-past breaking point. The dead eyes and weird mouth and imperfect vocal impression were a constant distraction and I was left with an appreciation of just how wide and featureless the uncanny valley truly is.

A full round-up of the 2017 Oscars will be here soon.