Thursday, August 01, 2019

THE WEDDING GUEST


The title might suggest mawkish rom-com, but indie British director Michael Winterbottom's latest film is an imperfect but still compelling road-trip thriller set in Pakistan and India. It stars Dev Patel (HOTEL MUMBAI) as a British psycho-killer paid to abduct the British-Pakistani bride at her wedding.  The twist is that she's in on the heist, not wanting to be married off to a suitable boy.  In fact, the whole thing has been concocted by her and her unsuitable Indian boyfriend, whose family handily run a jewellery store. The joy of a film like this should be in the double-crosses and power-plays, and while we get some of that, it's never cleanly enough delineated or carried out with enough conviction. Radhika Apte - so fantastic in the Netflix series SACRED GAMES - is once again the scene stealer in this film, playing the victim who's actually far more capable and wily than she might at first appear.  This is quite an achievement given that so much of her character is slippery - and her motivations unclear. In fact, I am quite sure that my version of what happens is squarely prejudiced by my view that no sensible woman could fall for someone as monstrously psychotic as Dev Patel's character. Sadly, his character is far less well drawn.  How is it that this boy who can't speak any Asian languages and doesn't seem that competent with a gun, is nonetheless very comfortable wheeling and dealing cars, fake IDs, and ruthlessly killing people?  It just doesn't really hang together, and I didn't buy Patel as an assassin. This isn't because he can't act - it's because the script doesn't give him enough.  

Other than the performances I really enjoyed the cinematography and production choice of being in the midst of real Indian locales, with real Indian extras. For example, the sheer authenticity of having an actual Rajasthani jeweller in his shop - or the mobile phone seller - adds up to a film that really takes the time to situate us in a reality despite the high concept plot.

THE WEDDING GUEST is rated R and has a running time of 96 minutes. The movie played Toronto 2019 and opened earlier this year in the USA. It is now on release in the UK in cinemas and on streaming services. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

THE AFTERMATH


James Kent (TESTAMENT OF YOUTH) returns to our screens with another earnest, deeply felt, beautifully staged, but ultimately un-engaging wartime drama. This time, we're in Hamburg in 1946 during the British occupation of the city they bombed. Jason Clarke - by far the best thing in this film - plays the only really fascinating character - a tight-lipped British officer, turned humane by his brutal experiences of war, struggling to communicate with his wife since the death of their son.  The wife is played by Keira Knightley taking a million steps back from her more challenging and interesting performance as COLETTE to play the kind of role she did before - very posh, very repressed, very superficial British woman. She acts out at her husband's coldness and grief by at first being hateful to the Germans she blames for her son's death, and then having an affair with one of them - the moody, soulful, pretty architect, now houseboy played by Alexander Skarsgard. I've commented before at how uncomfortable I feel when an affair with a third person merely exists to cause self-reflection and evolution for the protagonist. Skarsgard's character is used here in more way than one, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth at the film's resolution. I came to the conclusion that I couldn't believe it because the husband seemed to be operating on such a deeper plane of intelligence and profundity than his wife.  The result is a rather obvious, predictable film, with a hammy lead actress performance and a so-called passionate love affair at its centre than fails to catch fire. 

THE AFTERMATH is rated R and has a running time of 108 minutes. The film was released earlier this year and is now available to rent and own. 

TOLKIEN


As both a huge fan of test match cricket and Tolkien, it was a rare week to watch both THE EDGE and this biopic.  If the former was frustratingly tame, the latter didn't disappoint. In fact, it rather impressed as a study of a young smart, kind boy, orphaned at an early age, shamed into being the scholarship boy at an academically strong school, finding lifelong friends along the way, and ultimately both loves of his life - philology and his wife. We meet young Tolkien as an orphan, at a smart school in Birmingham, running with a super smart group of boys who must restrict their fantasy life of writing poetry or imagining worlds to their second life - the first aim is a profession.  The film beautifully captures the delicate class balancing act of the scholarship boy, living in a boarding house, courting the lodger's daughter.  He seems to take intellectual conversation for granted, casually cutting her off from discussion of Wagner when she desperately needs the outlet. We are subtly aware that the options for her - a similarly bright and talented woman - are slight because of her class and sex. As the boys move to university - Tolkien to Oxford - we discover that he nearly flunked out but was rescued by a philology don who allowed him to transfer courses of study.  I hadn't realised that this was the case, but thank goodness! But all too soon, war breaks out and the friendships of youth are tragically curtailed - whether by death or the traumas that estrange because they are unutterable.

All of this is sensitively and handsomely told, with Nicholas Hoult capturing both Tolkien's earnestness and his sense of child-like fun.  Lily Collins is superb in her few pivotal scenes, and together, this as her performance in LES MISERABLES show that she has real talent when challenged with good material. But best of all for the fans, we see everything that makes Lord of the Rings so unusual in fantasy literature. For here is an author who has actually fought in battle - knows the terror and fear of the jobbing ordinary soldier - the importance of camaraderie - and can describe the fear on the eve of battle.  It's not for nothing that Aragorn tells his men, scared at venturing into Mordor for the final battle, that there is no shame in turning back, that he understands their concern.  It's not for nothing that Frodo never recovers from his injuries - mental or physical - that his fellow friends always feel separate and unappreciated. So much of fantasy literature focuses on great heroes and high colours and banners. Tolkien focuses on the ordinary man, and this film shows why. 

I also enjoyed the film for the nostalgia it created in me. I suppose it's somewhat shocking to see how little things change, but I was also a scholarship girl at a private school, painfully aware of class privilege and the need to maintain one's financial aid.  I sat the same exams as Tolkien to get into Oxford and went to the college next door to his. The nervousness around college exams, the getting into trouble for seemingly petty violations, the mentoring by inspiring, exacting but eccentric dons - it all rang so true. And so thankfully did the establishment of lifelong friendships. It truly is a place out of time. 

TOLKIEN has a running time of 113 minutes and is rated PG-13.  It is available to rent and own. 

THE EDGE


Barney Douglas' documentary THE EDGE is an indispensable watch for ardent English test match cricket fans with impressive access to the main players in one of the most successful but also controversial period's in the team's history - its rise to top ranked test team in the 2009-2013 period and then the acrimonious fall out with its star player Kevin Pietersen. The problem it that the film never asks the difficult question of its interviewees, and allows them to set their own narrative. Perhaps this was the price of gaining access, but ultimately it makes for quite a frustrating viewing experience for those of us truly fascinated by the fracas, who've read all the autobiographies and followed by long-running psychodrama intimately.

So - for example - we have Jonathan Trott being hugely brave and honest, discussing his nervous breakdown during the 5-0 whitewash in Australia during Mitchell Johnson's epic series in 2013.  This is fantastic documentary stuff. But wouldn't it have been even more insightful and hard-hitting, had Douglas not asked Andy Flower (interviewed elsewhere) to talk about what he felt management did wrong in not picking up the signs of his mental stress earlier. I saw him in the hotel lobby the day before the match at the Gabba and as a manager myself, I would never have let him come into any form of work, the state he was in.

Or when Stuart Broad talks about turning to James Anderson and seeing Trott in despair - why not ask why they as senior players who'd played with him so much, hadn't done more. Or even pick up the accusations Kevin Pietersen made in his autobiography that they - with Swanny and others - had created a toxic bullying culture of younger players (and himself). Is it enough just to let Broady deny he made the KP parody account? Why not ask Strauss and Flower why more investigative action wasn't taken?  

Maybe when interviewing Monty Panesar, who speaks of stress eating alone in his room, they could've asked him - or Steve Finn - what is was like to be a young man in that dressing room,  or the dressing down you'd get if you dropped a catch. Why not interrogate further the idea, lightly alluded to, that Monty felt he'd become a figure of fun, not taken seriously by the crowds or his team-mates. 

And as for Kevin Pietersen, who likes to depict himself as a bullied outsider, why not ask why he feels he was singled out. After all, it was a cosmopolitan team - why not ask what he feels he did to contribute to that. Did he feel he deserved special treatment?

So the movie is good as far as it goes, and adds to the increasing voices of players telling their sides of the story.  But the inability to have the interviewees cross-examined, or even interact with each other on screen and debate some of the thornier issues, is a real problem.  

In terms of production values, this movie has come on leaps and bounds from Douglas' first effort, WARRIORS. The score in particular is superb as the animation inventive.  Both add energy to a film that's basically a bunch of talking heads, and in general you have to say that Douglas helps to make a complicated story concise and clear.  I could've done without Toby Jones somewhat hyperbolic narration though.

THE EDGE has a running time of 95 minutes and is rated 15 for strong language. It is available to rent and own on streaming services in the UK. 

A CURE FOR WELLNESS


A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a really fascinating, beautiful film full of references to films and novels that I love. And so, despite it being about 45 minutes too long for what is, in effect, just GET OUT for white folks, I can't help but have a soft spot for the film. It's directed by Gore Verbinski who made the amazing RANGO, and this film is similarly cine-literate.  We are highly aware that he loves Kubrick, and Thomas Mann, and Visconti, and Russian Ark, and dark fantasy horror from the likes of Lynch and Del Toro.  And as with all of those, it's deeply aware of the dark gothic medieval fairy tales that underpin all of our worst fears.  It's a film where every piece of art direction is meticulous and every framing choice an echo of an iconic forbear. 

The movie opens with a young American financier called Lockhart (Dale DeHaan) being sent to Europe to extract his company's errant CEO.  Instead of getting him out, he's involved in a weird car accident that results in him becoming an increasingly unwilling patient in the sanatorium. (Echoes of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain!) He's schmoozed by the chief physician, Volmer, played by a deliciously oleaginous and sinister Jason Isaacs with a hilariously perfect German accent. And he's fascinated by a young girl called Hannah (Mia Goth) who seems pre-naturally innocent. As the film unravels, Lockhart gets more bodily and mentally fragile, as he tries to understand why the bizarrely passive patients are ageing and desiccated despite taking "the cure". We get to predictably sinister and fantastic territory but it all takes so very long that I found myself wishing that the movie had had more discipline rather than trying to throw every single image and every single idea onto the screen. Nonetheless, it's a noble failure. A movie full of wondrous moments and cine-love, that just needed a more disciplined hand at the tiller. 

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is rated R and has a running time of 146 minutes. It was released in 2016 and is available to rent and own. 

THE HOUSE WITH THE CLOCK IN THE WALLS


THE HOUSE WITH THE CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is a surprisingly entertaining and warm-hearted children's fantasy film based on the book series by John Bellairs, iconically illustrated by Edward Gorey. It's brought to the screen, again surprisingly, by R-rated film director Eli Roth, displaying a soft centre in this funny, handsomely made film.  It stars Owen Vaccaro as young orphan in the 1950s who goes to live with his eccentric uncle (Jack Black) in the titular magical house. Lewis' Uncle Jonathan and his neighbour/best friend Mrs Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) teach young Lewis magic, with which he summons the ghost of his uncle's old enemy (Kyle MacLachlan). We then get a magical showdown that's really more about a profound lesson - that holding onto memories of our loved ones can go too far - that sometimes it's healthy to move forward. 

The resulting film is genuinely funny and as improbable as it may sound, I really loved the banter between Jack Black and Cate Blanchett!  The movie is also beautifully designed. The house is filled with so many uniquely designed clocks, victoriana and gothic furniture, as well as sofas that act like puppies, and garden topiary that throws up!  The costumes are gorgeous - particularly those of the always immaculately put together Mrs Zimmerman.  Most of all, despite all the crazy special effects, this really is a movie that has a lot of heart, and none of its whimsy is unused or superficial. Lewis' wordplay, his love of the word "indomitable" in particular - is ultimately profound. And watch out for that Magic Eight Ball. 

THE HOUSE WITH THE CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is rated PG and has a running time of 105 minutes. It is available to rent and own.