Thursday, March 29, 2018

THE HAPPY PRINCE


Oscar Wilde is one of our great playwrights, poets and wits, but his work has rightly been overshadowed by the significance of his life.  He has become a symbol of the hypocrisy of Victorian England - apparently happily married and a father, Wilde embarked on a series of homosexual affairs that were tolerated by polite society while they were with people lower down the social ladder and discreet.  But when Wilde dared to have a highly publicised affair with Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, son of a boorish, violent, aristocrat, he ended up in prison.  This tragic fall, from feted and celebrated writer to spat upon criminal was harsh - from luxury to hard labour - from beloved father to exile.  When Wilde was released from prison he gave us two great works - The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis - but nothing of substance thereafter. He lived a rakish life on the Continent, cut off from his family, alienated his remaining friends with a temporary reconciliation with Bosie, and descended into poverty, ill health and death. 

Understandably the many film adaptations of Wilde's life have refrained from putting this often sordid tale on screen. They conveniently end when he enters or leaves prison, or reconciles with Bosie. We therefore remember Wilde as young, in love, and hopeful.  THE HAPPY PRINCE refuses to let us off the hook that easily.  The handsome Rupert Everett allows himself to transformed with a fat-suit, false teeth and make-up into an old, weathered, ashamed, drunk and hopeless man.  There are occasional flashes of Wildean wit, but really this is the story of a man broken by love, hypocrisy and simple lack of funds. He cannot write - whether because of the trauma he has experienced, or the stress he still endures, or because of the distraction of Bosie.  He knows his life is ending but cannot stop hurtling himself toward self-destruction, spending freely, loving freely, until the end.  Even a romantic death bed is interrupted by violent vomit. We cannot escape all the contradictions - seemly and unseemly - of Wilde.

Everett's performance is magnificent and unflinching in a way that feels eons beyond the more manicured performances of previous films. And he is ably supported by a cast including Emily Watson and Colin Firth as Wilde's wife and good friend Reggie.  We are also fortunate in the casting of Wilde's warring lovers - Edwin Thomas as his devoted and loyal literary executor Robbie Ross, and TV's Merlin, Colin Morgan, as the beautiful but selfish and fickle Bosie. The performances demand to be seen.

My regret is that Everett did not succeed in finding a more seasoned director to helm this wonderfully acted, daringly non-linear script.  He makes another daring choice to have an almost verite style to his filming, with a handheld camera and lots of POV shots. It's effective in some places - and many costume dramas can feel stuffy and old-fashioned when they match a static camera with restrictive costumes. But I found the camera too distracting, drawing my attention away from the superb performances. There are also certain cuts and juxtapositions that felt too on the nose, or too forced which I felt a more seasoned director might have avoided.  So this is a flawed film, but a deeply earnest, compassionate and well-acted one nonetheless.

THE HAPPY PRINCE has a running time of 105 minutes.  The film played Sundance, Berlin and BFI Flare 2018.  It opens in Germany on May 24th and in the UK on 15th.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A FANTASTIC WOMAN


Marina and Orlando share a life together. They are in love. Then one day Orlando has a heart attack and dies, sustaining bruises as she tries to get him down the stairs and to the hospital. Marina is in a deep state of grief for her lover, but it's a grief that is not permissible or acceptable in contemporary Santiago, and maybe anywhere yet.  The doctor tells her to wait outside the treatment area, Orlando's family won't permit her to attend the funeral. The police think the relationship might've been commercial, or abusive. They demand and invasive examination to be sure. Marina and Orlandos' love is seen as perverse; something that can't be seen in front of the children; Marina as unreal. And finally, their love is something to be physically punished, Marina brutalised. And through all this we have Marina, quiet, enduring, emotional trauma etched on her face, forced into the margins of her dead lover's life. No wonder she escapes into a beautiful fantasy world where she exudes strength, beauty and confidence, where she can still see her lover.

That this film is as powerful as it is owes much to the quiet nobility of trans actress Daniela Vega's lead performance, and the superb direction of Sebastian Leila (GLORIA) that mingles clean sharp-coloured Santiago with a more wonderful neon-lit disco dream world. This contrasts with a script that is very matter of fact, linear, straight forward. It's a film that centres us on Marina and the thousand small cuts of cruelty she suffers - the power is cumulative and quite devastating. 

A FANTASTIC WOMAN has a running time of 104 minutes and is rated R in the USA and 15 in the UK for strong language and discriminatory behaviour. The film played London 2017 and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. 

BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY


BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY is a beautifully put together concise documentary about a one-time Hollywood star who felt trapped by her beauty and her reputation and under-appreciated for her intellect.  

Hedy was born in 1914 in Vienna to a middle-class Jewish family, with a beloved father who encouraged her interest in mechanics and invention.  As a teenager she became a beauty, and in decadent pre-anschluss Vienna, she felt free enough to express that in nude photos and a notorious film called Ecstasy, in which she appeared nude and faked an orgasm on screen. All this before she turned twenty. She marries a rich industrialist who happens to be supplying the Nazis with munitions, becomes a bored trophy wife, and escapes to England then America, where she enters another kind of prison, on a contract with Louis B Mayer.  He categorises her according to her reputation for Ecstasy, giving her bad parts that sell her looks but not her acting skills. Despite this she has a few hits, and is widely lauded as a beauty, but it never quite sticks.  She makes a bad second marriage to a philandering screenwriter - the second of many. And by the 1950s is washed up, a single mother, taking bad parts, addicting to the pills MGM gave her to keep her on the treadmill in her popular years. The worst part is that while she spent her entire life trying to be valued for her brains, not her beauty, she too gave into that metric as measure of her worth, indulging in more and more extreme plastic surgery until the results forced her to become a recluse, dying alone, being buried in an unmarked grave in her beloved Vienna.

And so the brains. Hedy had no higher education but had a fascination with science and engineering and a bold willingness to solve problems. During World War Two, she wanted to help the Allies who suffering horrific losses in the Battle of the Atlantic.  And so, with musician George Antheil, she invented a system of radio Frequency Hopping that would allow Allied boats to communicate with torpedoes securely, and to evade German U-boats jamming their communications.  It is appalling that such a revolutionary idea would be filed away by the US Navy.  It's even more appalling that she was condescendingly told to be a good pretty little actress and to sell war bonds by auctioning off kisses. And the final insult was that her patent was seized by the US government because she was an "alien" rather than a patriot, and exploited for military and commercial gain without her seeing a dime. To be clear, the consequences of her invention were immense - it's the concept behind the secure communications in wi-fi and bluetooth! 

There are so many ideas and emotions in this short film that it takes some time to really settle and unpack it all - what it means to have your patriotism questioned as an immigrant - the difficulty of being taken seriously as woman in Hollywood - the emotional damage of a persona - drug abuse. That alone would make it worth watching, apart from the technical skill of assembling some very high quality vintage footage. 

BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY has a running time of 88 minutes. The film is rated 12A for modest sex references and nudity. The film was released in the USA and Spain last year and was released in the UK this weekend in cinemas and on demand.  It will be released in Germany on March 22nd.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

BLACK PANTHER


BLACK PANTHER comes to our screens freighted with the self-appointed weight of political history. It's as if action movies starring Denzel Washington, Will Smith or Wesley Snipes never happened. It's as if nuanced black action heroes like Lando Calrissian never happened.  This, we are told, is a watershed moment where a major franchise blockbuster not only stars a single male action hero, but a whole cast full of amazing black male and female talent.  I can't but agree - there's a qualitative leap when you have an entire film full of black actors, with African accents, with most of the action set in Africa.  This is all to the good, and it's great to see black representation go to that next stage, but I can't help but feel that that tide of goodwill toward the film - goodwill that I too shared - has clouded critical attitudes toward it.  I am hugely excited that such a project has come to our screens, but I think it would be patronising not to review it critically.  I sense in a lot of the excitement in the tweets since its preview screenings began, at best conflation between excitement that the project exists vs its content - and at worst virtue signalling.  Because let's be clear, this is an entirely disposable occasionally very funny, but often rather dull and overly complicated film.  And its titular character, as portrayed by Chadwick Boseman (GET ON UP), is the least interesting thing about it.

The story has so many strands it's hard to know where to begin.  We have a thinly veiled version of Rwanda blessed with a rare metal called Vibranium which gives their king, Black Panther, extra-ordinary power, and the country futuristic technology.  The film takes from this premise the following concern:  

1) Should this tech be hidden to prevent its exploitation by others;
2) Shared with the world for good;
3) Or be used to get revenge and achieve domination over the rest of the world? 

Broadly speaking, Black Panther starts off believing the first, and this story is his coming of age story, a classical Greek tale of a son learning to confront his father's assumptions and become his own man.  His wariness is made credible by the existence of a nasty white South African thief called Ulysses Klaue, who's being chased down by a CIA agent called Everett Ross.   By contrast, and despite seeing all this, Black Panther's little sister Shuri, who is a tech genius, believes the tech should be shared, tradition thrown off, and modernity embraced.  Finally, Black Panther and Shuri have a cousin called Erik Killmonger, who as his name suggest with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, is angry at being rejected by his family, the death of his father, and wants to overthrow Black Panther and use the Vibranium for evil.

Where the film works well is in its opening 45 minutes.  The prologue nicely sets up some of the mythology and origins of the Black Panther/T'Challa, and the emotional ties between father, uncle and son as well as the Panther and his love interest. The action is fast paced, we are introduced to the the man we think is the antagonist, and also the character who truly turns out to be the real threat.  And we get the surprise of two of the least well known members of the cast - Letitia Wright and Dalai Gurira - being by far the most charismatic and funny.  The problem is that after that we get a middle section that is extremely bogged down in all the intricacies of the cumbersome plot. And a final section that is your typical Marvel action set-piece with bad CGI.  Someone in the screening I attended, who evidently loved the film, shouted "Rewind!" as the credits rolled, and I just wanted to shout back "Edit!"  There's a decent 100 minute action movie struggling inside this over-blown 134 minute running time.

The problems for the film are worse than just a baggy script though. Chadwick Boseman is a charisma-less lead. Perhaps the most charisma-less lead since Henry Cavill's Superman.  And he plays the role not just with a South African accent, but with an almost pastiche version of a Nelson Mandela impression.  His entire acting range seems to be to bite his lip, and look concerned. He's acted off the screen by Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT) as W'Kabi, his fellow Wakandan, not to mention Michael B Jordan (CREED) as his troubled cousin Killmonger.  And that's before we even get to the women. Lupita N'yongo is anonymous as the love interest - an early attempt to rescue Boko Haram kidnapped women makes you think she's gonna be feisty, but no, she really is just there to look adoring and be supportive. And so she in turn is acted off the screen by Letitia Wright's smart, irreverent Shuri, and by the Black Panther's General Okoye (Danai Gurira). And to be honest - and I'm not gonna be popular for saying this, the entire bunch of them are outclassed by Andy Serkis cameo as the evil Klaue, and he seemed to be having far more fun on screen than I did in the cinema. 

The tragedy of this film is that having waited so long for a black-led ensemble action movie the result is so anodyne. Take a Bond-like villain here, a character that's like Q, your typical Marvel action scenes and tech, an indifferent score and special effects.... And then for no reason at all, chuck in a cataphract rhino and a cliche of tribal strife. The result is a film that isn't half as good as BLADE and middling by the standards of the MCU.

BLACK PANTHER has a running time of 134 minutes and is rated 12A for moderate violence, injury detail and a rude gesture. It goes on global release on Wednesday 14th February. 

Saturday, February 03, 2018

PHANTOM THREAD


Where to begin with this strange slippery film?  It's genre, tone, dramatic tensions shift and evolve over its two hour running time until it becomes something quite hard to pin down? Is it a melodramatic period romance like THE BEGUILED? A Hitchcockian psychological thriller?  A generational ghost story? A fetishistic romance like THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY?  It's a film that certainly delights and repays the audience with a knowledge of film history. And yet it's something quite hermetically sealed and delicately balanced between difference style of film-making.  It's a film one can imagine quite hard to pull off without an absolute conviction in what one was creating. But in its exploration of intense emotional relationships in a tightly proscribed world, it reminded me most of all of Peter Strickland's dreamy romance.

Daniel Day-Lewis (LINCOLN), in his final role, plays Reynolds Woodcock, a 1950s fashion designer who lives and works in a grand London house, complete with royal clientele. As the film opens, he is presented as the kind of domineering, egomaniacal man surrounded by sycophantic enablers that has become vilified in the #metoo movement. He lives by strict rules all designed to give him, the self-appointed genius creator the peace he needs to create. He fears discombobulation.  And in a sense there's a delicious irony in the fact that the first of his dresses that we see is comically ugly - it's the fawning delight of his clientele  - here Gina McKee - that tells us all we need to know.

Reynolds' perfect world is curated by his devoted sister Cyril (Lesley Manville - veteran of Ken Loach films). She neatly dismisses the young girls he takes as his muses when they become tiresome, and manages the financial side of the business.  As the film opens we see her dispatch one girl only for him to speed to the country and pick up another, mostly on the grounds that she looks biddable and can remember his vast breakfast order. Both women seem at his service.  The young Alma (Vicky Krieps), takes orders from him, becomes little more than an inanimate model, and hangs on his every word.  And so the relationship might follow the typical pattern.  Alma - scraping her butter onto her toast so very loudly - might soon be dismissed.

The beauty of this story is that it subverts our expectations of who is truly in control and indeed who are the true protagonists of the film. This is the way in which it most profoundly reminded me of THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY. One thinks this is going to be a film about subservient women but actually they are firmly in control. As the film progresses we see that Cyril very much rules Reynolds - forcing him to attend a wedding to keep the House in business - daring him to pick an argument that he cannot win.  Even the seamstresses are more in control than Reynolds - he is dependent on them to bring his designs to life.  

And so the principal tension of the film is not really between Reynolds and Alma - as we shall see later - he is only feigning resistance to her. It's actually between Alma and Cyril.  The young girl knows her mind and politely but firmly brooks no objections to her plans.  She is vying with the Cyril to take control of Reynolds, and by a masterful piece of skulduggery, wins. The question is how Reynolds will take to this change in reign, and it leads to a superlative set piece at the end of the movie, where very little is said, but suspicions are noted, and accepted.  It's quite the marvel. 

The result is a film with very clear themes if subtly slippery means of getting there. Reynolds misses his dead mother terribly to the point of almost willing her ghost into existence. He craves a replacement - first Cyril and then Alma.  He is forever ravenously hungry for nourishment, and at the most basic level, Alma provides it, naming him in their opening meeting "hungry boy".  What she gets out of the relationship is the ability to express her side of the fetish.  It is no coincidence that the most passionate kiss between the two that we are allowed to see in this very coy and ambiguous film comes when the sado-masochistic relationship is finally acknowledged on both sides. 

Everything about this production is first class - from the costumes, to the interior design, to the evocation of the British sea-side and 1950s ballrooms. The acting is also superb. Daniel Day-Lewis may be getting the awards, but Manville and Krieps match him turn by turn with performances of such subtlety and brilliance. The script is also fascinating, and funnier than one often expects from Anderson. Genuinely brilliantly funny.  There was only one scene that struck a bum note - when Reynolds and Alma look through a client's deep distress and mock and punish her for her drunken escape.  This was cruel - meant to be cruel - but lessened my interest in the characters. And this is ultimately my only real criticism of the film.  All of Anderson, and his cast and crews talents, on such a self-involved, and ultimately slight story. There's something a little disappointing in that - something small - lesser than THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER

PHANTOM THREAD has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated R in the USA and 15 in the UK for strong language. The film was released last year in the USA and earlier this year in Canada. It goes on release this weekend in Singapore, Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kuwait, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, the UK and Ireland, It goes on release on February 14th in France, Denmark and Russia; on February 22nd in Brazil, Italy, Malaysia, Finland, Portugal, Sweden, Taiwan and Vietnam; on March 1st in Netherlands; on March 8th in Hong Kong and Estonia; on March 15th in Argentina; on April 13th in Norway and Turkey and on May 26th in Japan.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

ROMAN J ISRAEL ESQ


Denzel Washington gives an impressive performance as the schlubby, socially awkward, but earnest and gifted lawyer in this social drama.  As the film opens, Roman's long-time legal partner has fallen into a coma, forcing Roman to confront the morally messy reality of the law-firm he has spent his life in, and to accept a job with the slick corporate lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell). One expects the plot to revolve around the moral tension between the two men. Roman is a veteran civil rights lawyer who wants to file a class action lawsuit to end plea bargains that compromise his clients' civil rights, landing them in prison to apparently save on legal costs. Pierce wants him to do paying work and make money. But actually it's really about the inner fight within Roman - between his old idealism, and the reality that he now has to confront, and whether he will give into that new cynicism.

What I love about this film is its lack of flash.  Even the Colin Farrell character, while slick, isn't a caricature Wall Street style guy - he does actually want to do what's right without going bankrupt.  And the way in which writer-director Dan Gilroy (NIGHTCRAWLER) and his DP film the LA law offices shows them to be messy, cramped, with a camera that sneaks up behind people and lingers over their shoulders. Moreover, it's a courtroom drama without a courtroom scene - which I guess is kind of Roman's point - that the general way in which American law operates, people DON'T get their day in court.

I also love the way the film so delicately walks the line of creating a quirky, eccentric character, but not allowing him to become a collection of ticks.  Roman is genuinely believable, if exaggerated in his look and feel. Moreover, the script allows Roman to be far more morally complex than a mere earnest self-described chivalrous man of old. There's a point at which he makes a decision that is legally and ethically complex and its consequences drive the final act of the film. The result is a drama that is far more adult, nuanced, and perhaps less simply satisfying than the typical fare. 

ROMAN J ISRAEL ESQ has a running time of 122 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA and 12A in the UK for infrequent strong language and moderate violence. The movie played Toronto 2017 and opened last year in the USA and Canada. It opened earlier this month in Malaysia, Estonia and Poland. It opens in the UK and Ireland on February 2nd, in Spain on February 9th, in Argentina on March 1st and in Germany on April 19th.