Tuesday, December 29, 2020

THE MIDNIGHT SKY


THE MIDNIGHT SKY is a deeply derivative, mediocre sci-fi movie that will be utterly predictable and unsatisfying to anyone even half decent with the canon. It stars and is directed by George Clooney. He plays a scientist on a future earth ravished by some kind of non-specific disaster. Naturally he's also dying because Pathos. As is the way with these sorts of film, scientific geniuses are self-involved dicks, so earlier in his life he has turned his back on the love of his life and his daughter. So when in old age this dying scientist starts seeing a young girl called Iris in his arctic base, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that he's hallucinating his little abandoned girl. Together they travel to a different arctic base to send a signal to some astronauts not to come home, but to go back to a moon that is capable of sustaining life. Why does George need to travel to another base? So that he can turn in one of those Man vs Nature performances (think Leonardo di Caprio in THE REVENANT or Tom Hanks in CAST AWAY) that Oscar voters love. Except Clooney's performance is mediocre at best and the stakes really don't seem as grave as in THE REVENANT. There is no doubt he'll survive if only to connect with the astronauts. Also it really pissed me off that Clooney as director doesn't obey the rules of hallucinated little girls. If Clooney's character can't see her, we shouldn't be able to see her. Come on Clooney you should know this - you did star in that piss awful remake of SOLARIS!

By far the more interesting part of the film takes place on the spaceship that has discovered the new life-sustaining moon, per Clooney's predictions. It's staffed by David Oyelowo and Felicity Jones as a pregnant husband and wife research team as well as sidekicks like Kyle Chandler. His character exists to show the dilemma the scientists face upon hearing Clooney's news. Do you return home to try and find and admittedly die with your family? Or do you go to the new moon and try to "do better this time"? But even in this strand it all feels like stuff we've seen before, and the way in which space and moonwalks are photographed just cannot compete with superior films like GRAVITY and FIRST MAN.

The bottom line is that you would be better off watching any of the other movies that I have referenced in this review. 

THE MIDNIGHT SKY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 118 minutes.

Monday, December 28, 2020

AK VS AK


Anil Kapoor is the real life ageing former "hero" of Bollywood, scion of a famous acting dynasty and most famous for his role as Mr India in 1987. Think Bollywood's Tom Hanks, married forever to his wife, with two lovely kids. Anurag Kashyap is the self-styled Tarantino of Bollywood - the young upstart crafting gritty sweary gangster dramas - scion of no particular family with a car-crash personal life. 

This hilarious, smart, kinetic mockumentary begins with Kashyap insulting Kapoor as a has-been at a film-festival, resulting in a social media furore and his career nosediving. A year later, Kashyap decides to extract his revenge by kidnapping Kapoor's real life daughter Sonam and giving Kapoor till sunrise to find her. He can't call the police; he can't ask for help; all phone calls have to be on loudpspeaker; and Kashyap's camera has to capture it all. The result will be, per Kashyap, an amazing action thriller that catapults his career back to the A-list.

The result is one of the smartest, funniest thrillers ever made in India.  Kashyap perfectly portrays a kind of manic insanity and reminds us he's actually a very good actor as well as a pioneering director.  But it's Anil Kapoor who steals the show, shaking of his good guy image in numerous hilarious incompetent punch-ups with Kashyap. His real-life son Harsh Kapoor also gives a great cameo as an idiot fanboy describing his own potential action scene.

But there's a dark underside to this superb comedy-thriller.  It comments on the superficiality of selfie culture, with an increasingly beaten-up, bloody and desperate Kapoor being asked for selfies by seemingly oblivious fanboys.  And in the best scene of the film, a totally broken Kapoor is commanded to dance like a performing monkey, still bringing the crowd to cheering applause with a hit from 1987.  There's also a wry comment about the misogyny of Bollywood, but to discuss that is to spoil the superb end-reveal.

To be sure, you'll get more out of this film if you're cineliterate, and equally versed in Hollywood and Bollywood references.  Like Tarantino, Avinash Sampath's script is chock-full of knowing references. But Mr007 has no background in Bollywood and didn't know who either of the AK's were but thoroughly enjoyed the film on its own terms regardless. 

Highly recommended. 

AK VS AK has a running time of 108 minutes. It is streaming on Netflix.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

SOUL


SOUL is a deeply affecting and visually ravishing film from Pixar. It stars Jamie Foxx as a mild-mannered, warm-hearted jazz musician called Joe who never quite got that big break and has ended up teaching band class.  A grateful former pupil finally hooks him up with a big break but Joe has an accident and dies. He ends up quite literally on a staircase to heaven but fights to come back and play his big gig, meeting a little unborn soul called 22 on the way. So they get back to New York but end up in the wrong bodies - 22 in Joe, and Joe in a cat! And what ensues is your classic body mix-up comedy, along the lines of Freaky Friday or Big. The different perspective allows 22 to find joy in music and simply living, and allows Joe to realise that Jazz isn't what gives him purpose after all - it's acts of kindness and living each day. 

What elevates this film beyond the classic body mix-up comedy is its heart and its imagination. Speaking to its heart, I don't think I've ever seen a film portray the joy of playing music so beautifully, or the awe and joy that hearing someone lost in the moment can inspire. I'm not even talking about Joe here. The best moment is seeing a young girl called Chloe sit on Joe's staircase playing her trombone, and 22, in Joe's body, look on in awe. There's also something really wonderfully touching and joyful in how Moonwind (Graham Norton) is portrayed. Normally, hippies and kooks are portrayed as Goopy idiots, but here they are treated with affection. They also have a kind of wisdom and a part to play.

As to the imagination, this film pushes animation beyond anything I've ever seen before.  The beautifully re-created contemporary New York is sunlit and sepia toned and captures both its beauty and rambunctiousness - from the crazy soundscape of a New York pavement to the crowded jangling of a subway train. This would be achievement enough but it contrasts to brilliantly with the ethereal dreamworlds of the The Great Before, a strange in-between, and The Great Beyond. The Great Beyond is a stunning black and white abstract moving walkway with a strange electronic soundtrack that feels both odd and reassuring. The in between world is again monochromatic but drawn in 2-D and the most starkly abstract. And then we land in The Great Before which is all luminous pastels and fuzzy edges. I particularly liked the design of the wire-frame 2-D characters that shepherd the little souls. It's just amazing how much character and expression the animators managed to get into these simple abstract figures. 

The resulting film is a tour de force of visual imagination with a score as varied and wonderful. This is the best that Pixar has yet produced. 

SOUL is rated PG and has a running time of 100 minutes. It is streaming on Disney+.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM


It's a searingly hot day in 1920s Chicago.  A black blues band is shut into a dank dark basement to rehearse for a recording session.  The session is run by rich white men.  The star is late. And she is well aware of the delicate power balance that lies between her - the moneymaker - and the men who control access to the record business.  She is Ma Rainey - the Mother of the Blues - a big butch black woman who wears greasepaint make-up and a horse-hair wig and sings and speaks with an authoritative growl. She knows what she wants - whether that's the complete devotion of her lover Dussie-Mae, or a cold coca-cola, or her stuttering nephew to speak on her track. She holds both her manager and the studio boss in contempt and with good reason. She knows full well how the North is just as racist as the South. Most importantly for the plot of this chamber piece, Ma Rainey has no time for the pretentious jazz stylings of Levee Green, or for his eyeing up her lover, or for any kind of destabilising of her core style when Bessie Smith is rising up as a rival.  Levee is, by contrast, a man who still thinks his talent will win him a fair shake by the recording studio. Although we realise as the film goes on just how angry, and damaged, and traumatised, and violent, he is. Because this is a film that does not shy away from describing and showing the most brutal forms of racism - whether rape and lynching, or the exploitation of black talent. Life is truly a brick wall behind a locked door.  Ma Rainey knows this from the start: Levee comes to a painful realisation during the course of the film.

The resulting film is good if you take it as it is - a filmed play.  As such the language (Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapting August Wilson) is stylised and the action largely confined to either the rehearsal room or the recording room.  We have moments of high drama in the form of powerful monologues by Ma Rainey and Levee, and a final act release of tension. If you take it as it is, this really is a powerful and moving drama. Viola Davis' Ma Rainey is an instant icon of queer and black cinema - a powerful and uncompromising figure who speaks honestly to the racism of her time. Kudos to the costume and make-up designers that gave her heft and sweat and revolting make-up - underlining the fact that she was not going to survive a more superficial mass marketing age. But it's Chadwick Boseman in his final role that steals the show, with his two powerful monologues. The latter is a violent indictment of an absent God, and given what we now know about Boseman's fatal illness, and can see in his thinner frame, it has an extra pathos. I suspect that he will be posthumously nominated for Awards and deservedly so.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM is rated R and has a running time of 94 minutes. It is streaming on Netflix.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

THE DIG


THE DIG is an incredibly earnest and prettily produced historical drama, but one that falls prey to lumpen dialogue, heavy-handed politics and cliched character development.  

It's a retelling of the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial boat and a cache of rare artefacts in an archaeological dig in Suffolk, in 1939.  The find is familiar to most British schoolchildren, especially if like me you grew up in the area, and many of us took school-trips to see the Sutton Hoo finds. They were revolutionary because of their rarity but also because of how they redefined how we considered the "dark ages".  Through the sophistication of the artefacts, historians could see that Anglo-Saxon culture was actually far more developed than had been presumed.  The film wants to tell us this too - and does so with Basil Exposition levels of clumsiness, usually taking the form of excited declamatory statements from Ken Stott's British Museum archaeologist. 

Archaeology being a fairly dull, painstaking exercise, the screenwriter Moira Buffini decides to add some excitement with a couple of action scenes and a hokey romance. The former take the form of a scene where the gifted amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) nearly suffocates when the dig collapses on him, as well as a scene where a RAF pilot crashes into a nearby river.  The latter takes the form of Lily James' archaeologist Peggy Preston realising her husband (Ben Chaplin) is probably gay and at the very least frigid resulting in her having sex with Johnny Flynn's amateur photographer, Stuart Piggott.

Are these spoilers? No, not really. Everything in this film is so clearly telegraphed you can see the character arcs and plot twists coming as soon as the characters are introduced. Lest you ever forget, war is imminent! So we get RAF planes flying overhead at every moment, and this underscores the DOOM that overhangs Carey Mulligan's sick landowner. The inevitable battle between the amateurs and the institutional control freaks at the British Museum is, well, inevitable. And as soon as Lily James turns up in her scantily clad holiday clothes with her frigid husband you can see the affair coming a mile off. 

The politics is heavy handed too. There's a running thread of the Establishment not valuing outsiders - whether it's Mrs Pretty not being allowed to go to university, or Mr Brown not being given credit for the dig, or Peggy Preston being patronised by pretty much everyone except Cousin Stuart. And yet this comes up against an almost Downton Abbey-esque doffing of the flat tweed cap with Mr Brown and his wife grateful for any crumbs of praise from Mrs Pretty. 

What's so annoying about all this is that the film, directed by Simon Stone, is actually well made insofar as it has lovely lush British golden hour country landscape cinematography; a lot of care has been taken over period costumes and art direction; and the cast is first-rate (even in Mulligan is way too young to play Mrs Pretty). It's just all so wasted on such a twee pointless script. I would much rather have watched a doc on Sutton Hoo instead. 

THE DIG is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 112 minutes. It will be released on January 29th 2021.

Monday, October 26, 2020

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM


In a world where large swathes of educated people wilfully believe that vaccinations cause autism; and that the Clintons and Bidens are part of an elite paedo ring; and that Covid is a hoax; I am was was really wary of watching a new BORAT film.  Isn't real life already filled with toxic racism, homophobia and misogyny?  How do you satirise bigotry when the entire political discourse of America in 2020 feels like it's gone through the Looking Glass?  But I am so happy that I watched this film, because it's really fucking funny, and really fucking horrifying, and both are important things to experience and acknowledge right now. Because whether or not the White Supremacist in the White House is evicted next January, the attitudes he exposed, the grievances and bigotry he unleashed, the lies he peddled will remain in the public discourse.  We need Borat to help us channel our anger into laughter, but we need to feel angry nonetheless.

Of course, if the world has changed for us, it's also changed for Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat is so recognisable he has a knock off fancy dress costume as seen in this sequel.  So Cohen couldn't actually use the Borat character to lure his bigoted marks into a false sense of security and expose their hatred.  Rather, he has to spend most of the film as Borat dressing up as someone else. And the real heavy lifting is done by the previously unknown but apparently comic genius Maria Bakalova, playing Borat's daughter Tutar. It is Bakalova that exposes the misogyny and sexual perversion at the heart of public life, not least in the coup de theatre that is the final scene where she plays a OAN-style news reporter in mini-dress and blonde wig, buttering up a lascivious Rudy Giuliani, who is all too ready to have a drink with her in a bedroom, let her take off his mike, lie back on the bed and apparently start to masturbate. What an absolute sleazebag. 

Which isn't to say that Baron Cohen/Borat doesn't have some phenomenal scenes himself.  In this sequel, we see Boart released from a long prison stint for embarrassing Kazakhstan's dictator, and sent to America to offer Trump a gift to make sure that he's seen as a friend of Trump in the same way that Bolsanaro and Putin are.  But Borat's daughter Tutar has contrived to be shipped to America instead, so that Borat has to offer HER as a gift. Cue some really queasy discourse about the pornification of young girls, and the appropriate role of women in modern life.  The most awful scenes are probably a tie between an anti-abortion pastor ignoring a case of incest and rape to focus on preventing abortion, and Borat in disguise singing a song to the delight of his bigoted audience as they chant along that their enemies should be given the Wuhan Flu while raising Nazi salutes.

Basically this is a film that makes you sick, but also makes you laugh in the way that maybe only Sacha Baron Cohen can. It's absolutely the film for this moment.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM has a running time of 95 minutes and is rated R. It is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.