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.

Monday, January 22, 2018

THE POST


Steven Spielberg's THE POST tells the story of the Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers, after the New York Times had been prevented from continuing by a court case launched by the Nixon White House.  Accordingly, the first theme of the film is one of the freedom of the press, and the importance of the press in preaching truth to power. In this case, that means exposing successive administrations interference in Vietnamese politics, the secret wars in Laos and Cambodia, and the prosecution of the war long after it was judged to be winnable, thus sacrificing many lives.  However, there's clearly a desire on the part of the film-makers to make an analogy to the current administration's derision of the mainstream media.  The script gives the source of the leak - Daniel Ellsberg - a line where he likens a President who rejects criticism of himself as treason, to a man who thinks he IS the State.  

The second theme of the film derives from its focus on the role of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the Post's proprietor, whose decision to publish risked time in prison and the future of her company's IPO. In doing so, it paints a picture of a woman who was born to be a socialite, still is a socialite, and only went into business when her husband committed suicide - a woman who had to learn how to operate on the job, under pressure, and a time when business women were a rarity. This focus is of course incredibly timely given the current heightened climate around gender equality.  And it stands it sharp contrast with that other famous Washington Post film, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. The contrast is stark - both films cover moments in which Kay Graham had to made a decision about publishing politically and legally contentious stories. In the one made in the 70s,  notable that Kay Graham barely figured, and it was the paper's editor Ben Bradlee who was the hero - in the film made in 2017 - she was the central focus.  

So how does Spielberg's film stack up? On the one hand, there's lots to like. It's well cast and the cast all give decent performances - not Oscar winning mind you. I liked the film's design - all muted browns and light blues, soft focus lighting, and that indescribably warm-toned 1970s feeling.  I also liked the way in which the camera really moved - unusual for a Spielberg film - weaving its way - sometimes handheld- through the authentically recreated newsroom and the houses of Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). This gave the feel a really dynamic quality and reminded me a lot of how Joe Wright used his camera in DARKEST HOUR although without quite the attention-drawing formality.  I also really loved the use of architectural framing in the film to make an emotional point. What I mean by that is that - as in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and early seasons of MAD MEN - we often have the camera placed to show the ceiling of the newsroom and to give a sense of the claustrophobic camaraderie of the us-against-them newsroom.  We also get a lot of scenes where the camera shows a split shot of Kay Graham in between her house's social areas and her home office - as if to show her caught between the social and business world.  This is also a conflict that comes up in a lot of her exchanges with Ben Bradlee. And a lot of times we see the camera loom up on Graham and show her cowering beneath it - just as Spielberg often shows her crowded out by a sea powerful businessmen telling her what to do.

But my pleasures in the film were offset by the clumsiness of a script that felt more tell than show. We get endless dialogue telling us how to interpret the action - a patronising use of (ironically) largely female minor characters. So instead of us just watching Graham and coming to the conclusion that she's brave all on our own, we have to listen to Bradlee's wife (Sarah Paulson) explaining to us just how brave Graham is. This sort of Basil Exposition nonsense happens so often it becomes wearying.  I also found a scene on the steps of the Supreme Court, where Graham eschews a press conference to merely walk away, but nota bene!, through a crowd of female supporters, who's lives, we are meant to intuit, she has now changed. 

The result is an earnest and well-made film that simply does not trust its audience enough to allow them to reach the politically correct conclusions it wants us to reach.  So we get hit over the head by a book while John Williams' score plays our emotions.  By the end, I longed for the austerity of the ending of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN - with a newswire banging out the end of the Nixon regime. Depersonalised. Stark. Adult. 

THE POST has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated 12A for strong language and brief battle violence. It was released last year in the USA and earlier this year in Australia, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Bulgaria, Canada, India and Turkey. It is released this weekend in Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, the UK and Ireland. It will be released on January 25th in France, Portugal, Estonia, Lithuania and Sweden. It opens on February 1st in Argentina, Brazil, Hong Kong, Italy, Netherlands, Finland and Mexico; on February 16th in Norway and Poland; on February 22nd in Philippines, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Russia; on March 9th in Taiwan; on March 30th in Japan; and on April 5th in Denmark.

LAST FLAG FLYING


LAST FLAG FLYING is the latest film by indie director Richard Linklater, famous for his BEFORE SUNRISE trilogy, and more recently, BOYHOOD.  It's based on a novel by Daniel Ponicsan.  The arthouse movie fans among you might remember that Ponicsan wrote an earlier novel set in Vietnam, which became the Hal Ashby movie THE LAST DETAIL. This film is then based on the sequel to that novel but chooses not to use those actors or character names.

Essentially it's a story about three old friends and Vietnam veterans who have fallen out of touch reconnecting when one of their sons is killed in Iraq.   The father, Doc, is played by Steve Carell, a performance of quiet grief that slowly amplifies into real anger.  He is supported by cynical bartender Sal (Bryan Cranston) and former tearaway turned reverend Richard (Laurence Fishburne).  What comedy their is stems from the battle of wits and values between Sal and Richard, and jokes about getting old, but really this is a melancholy and world-weary movie. It's a film shot in dull and muted colours, and staged in dingy wintery railway stations. run down motel rooms and unfashionable bars. It's about three men who are patriotic and served their country, but who no longer understand why Vietnam or Iraq were prosecuted.  This provides what little plot their is - Doc refuses to have his son buried as a war hero and so they need to find a way to take him back to New Hampshire to be buried as a son - a civilian. 

I really wanted to like this movie but found it a rather tedious watch - it takes a long time to get going.  I also found it confusingly jarring in tone.  One minute we're in a very moving scene in which a grieving father sees his son. The next minute the three friends are joking about visiting a whorehouse in Vietnam. The movie just never came together for me - the characters didn't seem real but personality types sent in to clash against each other - and I didn't really think I had been provoked to feel or think anything different about war by the end of it.  I also had issues with some of the easy emotional resolutions at the end which felt convenient, compromised and unearned. Ultimately, this was a forgettable experience. 

LAST FLAG FLYING has a running time of 125 minutes and is rated R in the USA and  15 in the UK for strong language and sex references. The film played New York and London 2017.  It opened in the USA, Canada and Portugal last year. it opened in France last week and opens in the UK and Ireland, Singapore and Mexico, this Friday. It opens in Argentina on February 8th, in Spain on February 16th and in Greece on March 15th.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

DARKEST HOUR


DARKEST HOUR is a film about the first month of Churchill's Prime Ministership and what is often referred to as the Cabinet War Room Crisis.  It's a very compressed account of a Conservative Party at odds with its leader.  Neville Chamberlain, the previous Prime Minister, discredited by his association with the policy of appeasing Hitler, is judged unfit to continue by both his party and the opposition.  The Conservatives must therefore find a Prime Minister who will unite Parliament. Lord Halifax is popular with his own party, the King, and the House of Lords, and like many aristos of the time, scarred by World War One, is determined to make peace. Churchill seems to stand alone in believing that one cannot negotiate with a tyrant, but as the British forces are encircled at Dunkirk, seems to lose faith in his own judgment. This is his Darkest Hour. And yet, by interacting with the Honest Plucky British Public on a tube train, and with the fortification of his King who is now "bloody angry" that he'll have to go into exile in Canada, Churchill rediscovers his own confidence.  He outmanoeuvres Halifax, who is threatening to resign and bring down the government, by calling a wider meeting of his Outer Cabinet and then addressing Parliament directly. In the words of Halifax, Churchill "mobilises the English language". 

The decision to focus on this period, and the script, are the work of Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING).  And there is much to love in this tense, compressed approach of focussing at the very real ethical dilemma of prosecuting war no matter what the cost.  We know that Churchill had history on his side, but the film does a good job of showing his faults - the drinking, past military blunders - as well as the humanity of Halifax's concern for wasted human life. After all, it's easy with the benefit of hindsight to know that the Allies would prevail, but in 1940 Britain was alone, America was out of the war, and Western Europe had capitulated. It's hard for us to sympathise with appeasers having not lived through the horror of World War One.  I also love the fact that this script focusses very much on Churchill's use of language. In his Darkest Hour, words fail him - this is a signal that he's doing the wrong thing.  That said, there's a little hokeyness mixed in with the otherwise excellent writing.  Did we really need Churchill on a tube?

In front of the lens, I loved everything about the production design - the claustrophobia of the cabinet war rooms symbolising how trapped Britain was; the oppressive grandeur of Buckingham Palace hemming in the King; contrasted with the homely security of 10 Downing Street and faithful wife Clemmie. I also loved the decision to match the ethical quandary with a visual darkness and chiaroscuro that's more extreme than anything I've seen in recent years. Kudos to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) for pulling it off.   And the acting is of course superlative.  Kristin Scott Thomas manages to make Clemmie more than a caricature hairstyle and shows the real sacrifices she has made.  Stephen Dillane gives real humanity to Halifax and makes it clear that his decisions are not founded in self-interest.  I very much liked Ben Mendelsohn as King George V - he gets the sense of conflict and duty. But it's Gary Oldman who is rightly winning praise for his absolutely seamless transformation into Churchill. We live in an era of Churchill's - Brian Cox, John Lithgow - but none have benefited from the prosthetics, or quite nailed the vocal pattern. His Churchill is a great man - and greater still for his vulnerability and doubt.  He is funny as well as wise, and I must confess I was in tears during his final speech to the House of Commons.

So overall, there is a great deal to admire in Joe Wright (ATONEMENT)'s new film.  As ever he gives us a fluid camera and camera moves that draw attention to themselves. He loves showing us complex interiors as he draws his camera forward on a single character weaving through the landscape.  At times, I felt the flourishes were just too much, or without purpose, but in general in makes what could've been a more stodgy period drama (think THE KING'S SPEECH) more dynamic, tense, and high stakes. 

DARKEST HOUR has a running time of 125 minutes and is rated PG-13.  The film played Telluride, Toronto and Turin 2017. It opened last year in the USA, China and France. It opened earlier this year in Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Kuwait, Portugal and Slovakia. It opens this weekend in Spain, the UK and Ireland; on Jan 18th in Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, South Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Finland, Indonesia, Mexico, Romania and Vietnam; on Jan 25th in Denmark and Poland; on Jan 31st in Malaysia; on Feb 2nd in Estonia and Sweden; on Feb 14th in Philippines and Argentina and on Feb 23rd in Turkey.