Monday, May 30, 2022

THE NORTHMAN - Zero stars


THE NORTHMAN is a really bad, stupid movie made by a director - Robert Eggers - who has really blown it.  

It stars Alexander Skarsgard (BIG LITTLE LIES) as a super buff version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. We first meet him as a young prince, whose father (Ethan Hawke - BEFORE SUNRISE) is offed by his treacherous uncle, leaving our young Amleth to run for his life.  We then meet him as a buff young man, raised as a berserker warrior then Russian slave, intent on revenge, as foretold by equally nuts prophetess Bjork and as enabled by his witchy lover (THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT's Anya Taylor-Joy).  So he goes and kills his uncle and his mum - who it turns out rather resented the offspring of rape - and founds his own dynasty. The End.

What makes this unwatchable - apart from the really dumb plot full of dump people motivated by greed and expressing themselves in a mix of violence and drugged out lunacy - is the fact that all the acting is BAD. Pantomime bad. Bad with a side order of the worst fake accents since Dick van Dyke in MARY POPPINS.  What is this half Scottish half Irish half whatever nonsense they are all speaking? It's utterly distracting, totally unconvincing, and takes you out of the story at every turn.

These are all unspeakable people with unlistenable accents and no amount of self-conscious sweepingly majestic cinematography makes up for that.

THE NORTHMAN has a running time of 137 minutes and is rated R. The film is available to rent on streaming services.

CYRANO**

 


French poet-playwright Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac has been adapted for screen since the dawn of the silent era - most notably with Steve Martin and Gerard Depardieu taking on the role of the tragic romantic hero.  In this adaptation by Erica Schmidt, from her own successful stage musical., the lead actor is Schmidt's husband and GAME OF THRONES' Peter Dinklage, playing Cyrano as a witty, articulate soldier who is crippled by self-doubt not because of the play's large nose but because of his dwarfism. Cyrano is in love with his childhood friend Roxanne (HALEY BENNETT), but fears she will reject him because of his appearance. So, when she falls for his handsome but inarticulate fellow soldier Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr - THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7), Cyrano offers to write Roxanne love letters on his behalf.

Matters take a grim turn when Roxanne is courted by the rich and predatory De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn - ROGUE ONE - in full pantomime villain mode), and Cyrano helps Roxanne and Christian marry in secret before the two soldiers are sent to war. 

The resulting film is spare and elegantly constructed but filmed in a maddeningly, almost GODFATHER II chiaroscuro which the pretentious director Joe Wright clearly feels is emblematic of hidden truths and deception.  Poor Ben Mendelsohn is not asked to give a performance of any depth and neither is Kelvin Harrison Jr. There is far more to Haley Bennett's passionate, smart and rebellious Roxanne, although she is made to be so perceptive and witty it's hard to believe she wouldn't a) rumble the ruse and b) love Cyrano for his intellect from the start. There's also something deeply uncomfortable for a modern audience seeing a young woman duped in this way, into a marriage with a man she cannot help but soon find out is not who she thought he was. 

And did I mention this was a musical? With bad music that has a kind of weird country rock feel that works against its setting, costumes and dour, po-faced mood?

The only two reasons to watch this film - and the two stars I have awarded it - are as follows: first, Peter Dinklage is charismatic and compelling and heart-breaking as Cyrano.  Second, there is a particularly good and deeply sad song by soldiers on the eve of battle.

CYRANO has a running time of 123 minutes and is rated PG-13. It is available to rent and own.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT***

 


In 1943 the Allies were desperate to land troops in mainland Europe and open up a second front against the Axis powers, and the most obvious candidate was an amphibious landing in Sicily. The problem is that this was equally obvious to the enemy.  So, British counter-intelligence cooked up a cockamamie scheme to convince Hitler that the invasion would actually take place in Greece. The schemers did this by taking a dead Welsh man and floating him into harbour in Spain, disguised as a drowned Royal Marine Officer complete with locked attache case containing the fake plans. Why Spain? Because it was a technically neutral country filled with agents, double agents and triple agents, where the British felt they could map out the path of the fake intel all the way from Spanish fisherman to Hitler himself.  This operation was dubbed Mincemeat, and in Ben Macintyre's wildly popular non-fiction account of the ruse, he argued that it was the most successful intelligence operation in history. Who can tell? We can for sure say that by allowing the Allies to land on a less well defended beach, Mincemeat saved Allied lives.

This new film adaptation of the story is compelling when it sticks to the espionage plot.  John Madden (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE) does a good job of telling a complicated story and while it does rather drip with British heritage derring do, it's not as jingoistic as it might have been.  Madden and screenwriter Michelle Ashford manage to add shades of nuance with the casting of Mark Gatiss as the potentially treasonous brother of the naval officer in charge of the deception (played by Colin Firth).  I wish they had explored this subplot further. Rather, they waste their time adding a fictional romantic triangle between Montagu - his nerdy colleague Cholmondely (Matthew MacFadyen - SUCCESSION) and their subordinate Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald - BOARDWALK EMPIRE).  I felt this love story was rather tacked on and artificial and simply distracted from the real meat of the story.  It was actually far more interesting to see what was happening in neutral but spy-ridden Spain and I was pleasantly surprised to see the rather frank depiction of how the British attache (Nicholas Rowe) was pleasuring his former handler into taking the bait. 

In the supporting cast I thought Jason Isaacs rather wasted in the role of the British military commander unimpressed by the Mincemeat plan. By contrast Johnny Flynn (EMMA) was having great fun as a young pre-James Bond Ian Fleming. But Penelope Wilton (DOWNTON ABBEY) was the real moral heart of the film as the secretary of the espionage unit.  The sight of her, on the eve of the Sicily landing, praying fervently in the office that the Germans had taken the bait, was genuinely moving and brought home the true stakes of the deception.

OPERATION MINCEMAT has a running time of 128 minutes and is rated PG-13. It is now on release in cinemas and on streaming services.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

SILENT NIGHT****


Camille Griffin's brilliantly nasty little black comedy, SILENT NIGHT, deserves to become a cult Christmas classic alongside BAD SANTA and TRADING PLACES. It basically satirises all those posh, mawkish, godawful Richard Curtis films as well as middle-class Englishness in general. It gathers together a bunch of well-heeled university friends in a lovely country house for Christmas dinner, where the angst is about whether or not Waitrose has run out of sparkling water and sticky toffee pudding. Except, there's something bigger going on than your typical One Percent Problem. The world is about to end because of an irreversible environmental disaster, and everyone is going to take a suicide pill after Crimbo dinner.  These pills have been provided by the government. I mean, not to everyone, you understand. Not to immigrants, and the homeless and people who don't count in our affluent society. And as with the current climate and epidemiological crises, there are people who are in denial and think it's all a conspiracy. Not least the increasingly desperate son of the hosts, played by JOJO RABBIT's Roman Griffin Davis (conveniently the son of the director) much to the chagrin of his exasperated parents (Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode in standard posh mode).

The darkest of dark comic conceits is played beautifully by the superb ensemble cast. My favourite moments are those with the best swearing, or those with the most surprising pathos:  a little girl who won't cuddle her mummy, because mummy spent her trust fund on a pair of shoes.  It prompts a fun parlour game: what would YOU do if the world were about to end? What would you spend on? Who would you shag? And would YOU take the pill?

SILENT NIGHT has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated 15. It played Toronto 2021 and is on release in the UK.

C'MON C'MON*****


Mike Mills (20th CENTURY WOMEN) returns to our screens with the beautifully shot and acted drama that's ostensibly a bonding road-trip between an uncle and his nephew, but is actually a hymn to single mums everywhere. It stars Joaquin Phoenix (JOKER) as Jonny - a wonderfully empathetic, rumpled, charmingly vulnerable radio journalist whose job is to travel America and listen to teenagers describe their struggles and joys in life. He transfers all those brilliant listening skills to taking care of his young nephew Jesse, played in one of the performances of the year by Woody Norman (THE CURRENT WAR).  Jesse is a really sweet, smart kid being raised as such by his brilliantly loving and strong mother Viv (Gaby Hoffman - Transparent). Viv and Jonny clearly love each other but drifted apart after their mother's death. But they reconnect when Viv needs her brother to help out because she has to take care of her ex-parter Paul (Scoot McNairy - IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS) who is suffering through an acute episode of bipolar disorder. 

The resulting film speaks to the fears and joys of parenthood, and feels so real in its depiction of authentic family relationships. I loved every moment of it and feel as if I know the characters intimately. It never strays into mawkish predictability and handles its topic of mental health with sensitivity.  The superlative acting and writing is matched by DP Robbie Ryan's stunning black and white photography:  LA and Manhattan haven't looked as beautiful in years. 

C'MON C'MON played Telluride and the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It has a running time of 109 minutes and is rated R.

TICK, TICK...BOOM!****

 
I came to TICK, TICK...BOOM! knowing nothing about its subject, real-life musical theatre composer and performer, Jonathan Larson. I know RENT - his hit show - primarily for its South Park spook, "Everybody has AIDS". So when the opening framing device revealed that Larson died the night before his hit show opened, I assumed it was from AIDS. What an idiot. Two hours later, I learned that Larson died of aortic failure in his early thirties having slaved away at various commercially failed projects, living in a crappy 1990s New York apartment, and generally struggling to hold onto this love of theatre despite the temptations of getting a Real. Job. 

That I found Lin Manuel Miranda's movie of Larson's last decade is testament to Andrew Garfield's lead performance. To call it big is an understatement, and for anyone less charming, Larson might come off as an insufferably insecure, selfish attention seeker. In Garfield's hands, one cannot but admire Larson's energy and gregarious good humour even as he suffers crippling self-doubt and ... whisper it quietly... his songs aren't that good. Maybe RENT was though? I shall endeavour to find out.

TICK, TICK...BOOM! has a running time of 115 minutes and is rated PG-13. It was released earlier this year on Netflix.