Tuesday, September 11, 2018

COLD WAR


World War Two is over and Poland has fallen behind the Iron Curtain. The new government wants to create and train a troupe of singers and dancers to show off the Polish folk tradition. Charismatic and talented Zula (Joanna Kulig) cons her way into the school by pretending to be a naive fresh-faced country girl and becomes the star of the show.  The musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) stays with the troupe despite pressure to include songs in praise of Stalin so that he can be close to her. They fall in love. They decide to defect. He goes, she stays. Why? Years later she marries and follows him to Paris and begins again as a jazz singer.  And yet something once again pulls her back to Poland, despite the risk of returning a traitor, and the double risk of Wiktor following her.  

At its heart, COLD WAR is a story about the impossibility of love in a society of total politics. The personal is political in a totalitarian state - to admit of love is bourgeois - indulgent - diverting energy and devotion from the state. David Lean told the same story - Boris Pasternak's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO - but on an epic sweeping scale.  Pawel Pawlikowski's version is intimate, claustrophobic, concise, but no less visually stunning nor affecting. The black and white photography, the aspect ratio, contains the story while the lovers try to break out of it. It works beautifully. Both lead performances are perfect but it's Joanna Kulig that is the most memorable in what must be an Oscar-worthy display - a combination of Julie Christie's Lara and Anita Ekberg's Sylvia.  If anything trumps the performances it's the music - from full-throated a cappella renditions of folk songs to the jazz scene of post-war Paris to the tawdry mock-Latin pop of the 60s.  This truly is a remarkable film.

COLD WAR has a running time of 88 minutes and is out in the UK in cinemas and on demand. It opens in the USA on December 21st.  The film played Cannes 2018 where Pawel Pawlikowski won Best Director. 

KING ARTHUR


I massively enjoyed Guy Ritchie's retelling of the KING ARTHUR myth - it was funny, fast-paced, had some really superb visuals and a kinetic score.  It sets itself up perfectly for a sequel that isn't going to happen because for some bizarre reason no-one else liked it.  Close your ears to their whining and give it a go because it's stonkingly good fun! 

In Ritchie's version of the tale, we have a mythical version of post-Roman Britain in which King Uther (Eric Bana) has been trained by a mage called Merlin and given a magical sword called Excalibur.  His evil brother Vortigern (Jude Law is superb cigar-chomping mode) kills his brother and seizes the crown but has one problem - Excalibur is stuck in a stone and he can't remove it.  He also has a second problem but he doesn't know it yet.  Uther's son Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) was saved as a baby and ended up being raised in a brothel.  The main action of this film sees him extract the sword from the stone, realise his true inheritance, struggle to accept it, but overcome this hesitation thanks to an ethereal Lady In The Lake, and save Britain from Vortigern's black magic. 

So far so good.  I have no truck with purists saying that Ritchie has changed the story.  It's a story that is endlessly malleable. It's a myth from an oral tradition that takes some shreds of actual history and runs wild, and has done for centuries. I also love how Guy Ritchie gets certain things really right - the clash between the forces of modernity and the old beliefs in magicks - this is Britain  at a time of deeply contested philosophy - pagan vs Christian - Briton vs Roman - you name it. 

Anyway, this is KING ARTHUR with all the energy, vivid characterisation, underdog energy and sharp dialogue of LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS.  What's even more impressive is that despite all the jokes and lad-humour, the movie worked on a deeper level.  There's a particular character moment that actually moved me because I was so invested in the characters. And the way in which Ritchie imagines the Lady in the Lake is stunning. Of course there's also lots of cheap CGI and silly fight scenes but it doesn't matter - because I liked hanging out with this group of usurpers - I loved the moment at the end when order was restored and Goosefat Bill became Ser William again - I loved the diversity of the Knights of the Round Table, and I want my sequel GODAMMIT!

KING ARTHUR has a running time of 123 minutes and is rated PG-13. 

MARY SHELLEY


In 1816 a young woman called Mary Shelley created the story of Frankenstein - the "monster" created by assembling corpses and revivifying them with electricity.  It's a story of an innocent, faithful creature misused by the real monster, Doctor Frankstein. The monster is violent and vengeful but also displays more humanity than his creator.  The woman who created this story was not just sensitive and romantic with a capital R, but deeply intelligent, well-read in the classics, fascinated by science - an active participant in the political and philosophical debates of the day. Her reputation as a radical philosopher may not be in the same league as that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, but her fictional creation has achieved more fame, and argued more powerfully for the radical cause. And yet history has diminished her - describing her more often as the scandalous girl seduced by Percy Bysshe Shelley, keeper of his artistic legacy, and almost by chance creator of a gothic masterpiece. Only very recently has she been subject to serious intellectual enquiry. And in this film I had hoped to see a similarly respectful portrayal of this radical woman.

The film is okay as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far or deep enough. It is very good at portraying Mary as a naive silly little girl who falls for a charming but vain and capricious seducer.  But it makes a fateful and disrespectful error in portraying her as being extremely passive. She watches and observes as men show her things - articles of galvanism or gothic paintings - which will work their way into her famous book.  But nowhere does it show Mary to be an active agent in her intellectual life.  There's nowhere that we SEE Mary as interested in science. We're just told by a bunch of male characters that she is.  The result is a heroine that is admirably free of cant, but one that is frustratingly passive. And it becomes very difficult to understand why she keeps returning to her emotionally abusive husband because he too is a pretty face. If there's no credible intellectual spark between the too, what's there to engage with?

That said the film is occasionally worth watching for the odd engaging performance - Tom Sturridge gets Byron exactly right.  But dialogue that is occasionally anachronistic, too conscious of the #timesup movement, and lead characters who are too thinly drawn, undermine the entire project. 


MARY SHELLEY has a running time of 120 minutes.  The film is available to rent and own.

Monday, August 27, 2018

RED SPARROW


I sat down to watch RED SPARROW with limited expectations given the poor reviews and controversy surrounding the Jennifer Lawrence spy thriller.  But I found the film to be beautifully cast and acted, superbly photographed, evocatively scored, with a script that was intelligent and provocative and a directorial eye that rightly forced us to address all of the darkness inherent in the #metoo movement. I have since read some of the reviews and it feels as though many people are utterly missing the point of this slippery film.  But I would urge you to watch it, and to keep your wits about you and your loins girded.  No other film better speaks to our times.

The movie opens in contemporary Russia where Jennifer Lawrence's prima ballerina Domenika (shades of BLACK SWAN - Darren Aronofsky was originally attached to the film!) is savagely injured on stage and her career ruined.  Facing eviction and no means of supporting her sick mother (Joely Richardson - saying more with one look than many actresses with pages of screenplay), Domenika is lured into working for her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts - a dead ringer for a young Putin), the Deputy Director of the Russian secret services. He essentially pimps her out to an oligarch, deliberately putting in the way of sexual assault. When Domenika then becomes witness to that oligarch's murder she is given the non-choice of being assassinated herself, or joining the Russian SS4 spy school and essentially continuing her career as a spy/whore for her country.  Her specific mark is an American CIA agent based in Budapest, played by Joel Edgerton, who is running a mole in the Russian secret service. Her task is to seduce him and get the name of the mole. Meanwhile, she runs a side-con, offering him the information that a senior American official is selling state secrets.  

Let's start with the unequivocally good stuff. This is a movie that looks gorgeous. Every detail of the shabby 70s looking Budapest and Russian apartments contrasted with the ornate Russian government offices and ballet theatres is sumptuous and evocative, creating a world that I utterly believed in.  The cinematography and editing is similarly superb - particularly in the opening scene that intercuts the ballet accident and a spy meeting in Gorky Park that goes wrong. Even that name is evocative - and this is a film that clearly knows and respects the history of its genre, complete with a final handover scene straight out of SMILEY'S PEOPLE. Moreover, with the exception of a few very violent set-pieces this is not really an action movie at all. It's a genuinely tricksy intelligent spy thriller that has you genuinely guessing as to which side Domenika is on, and who the mole is.  It has the confidence to make its audience work hard, and to confirm a theory with a simply subtle smile between two characters rather than with heavy-handed exposition. 

And now to the controversy. RED SPARROW is a film about how men exercise power over women, subtly, obviously, through coercion or outright aggression, and more often than not through sexual violence.  This sexual violence graphically shown and so it should be  - to show the sheer fear of a woman physically assaulted by a powerful man - and to contrast with how Domenika slowly takes back that sexual and intellectual power from pretty much every man in the film.  It is - then - a film that doesn't shy away from showing scenes of rape, attempted rape, and sexual manipulation and humiliation. But each time, there is a power shift.  And how refreshing to see a woman's sexual power explored on film by an actress who was firmly in control of the film's development and her own nudity.  In other words, this isn't - per many reviewers - a sexist film - but a film about sexists.  It's a film about a woman's political awakening. And that couldn't be more relevant. 

RED SPARROW has a running time of 140 minutes and is rated R. The film was released in cinemas in March 2018 and is now available to rent and own. 

OCEAN'S EIGHT


The OCEAN'S films - when they work - work because they show us a group of people who are all friends in real life, having a really good time getting up to no good.  The original Rat Pack oozed cool and elegance - they created an exclusive guy's club but had the generosity to let us inside for 90 minutes. The cast of the Stephen Soderbergh remake may not have all been best friends in real life, but the relationship between Brad Pitt and George Clooney was real enough, and they all did genuinely look like they were having a blast. Moreover, they were lucky enough to be filmed by Soderbergh with a deliciously luxe, cool, 70s infused kinetic energy, and to have a soundtrack of Dave Grusin-y goodness.

The problem with this new all-girl remake is that it fails to deliver that spark, that fun, that attractive glamour.  I didn't believe these girls were actually friends or had any kind of relationship.  The movie had no tension. It had only one genuine laugh. And at its centre - the message was rather cold. 

Let's break it down. The movie opens with Sandra Bullock playing the late Danny Ocean's sister Debbie. As in the Clooney version, she gets out of jail with a plan for a heist and assembles the gang to pull it off together with her best friend and sidekick Lou (Cate Blanchett in biker chic mode).  There are some surprisingly big names in the ensemble cast and then a smattering of younger musicians in there - Rihanna, Awkwafina - presumably to attract a younger more diverse audience. So much of this film feels made on a spreadsheet by the finance department calculating to maximise revenue. The con is that the girls will get a fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter playing herself with an Irish accent) to insist that a Hollywood star (Anne Hathaway satirising herself) wears a $150m Cartier necklace to the Met Gala.  From there, the girls will make the actress eat a dodgy bowl of soup, throw up it the bathroom, and have the necklace switched with a 3-D printed fake.  Their jewellery expert (Mindy Kaling) will break up the necklace and the girls will wear different parts of it out. 

All of this sounds promising enough as a basic heist story. The problem is that the girls have no fun together.  Only Anne Hathaway really has any fun with it.  The script contains no tension or wit - and why you'd give such a major project to a first time screenwriter - Olivia Milch - is beyond me. I don't care if she's the producer, she's out of her depth, and the soggy, mediocre script sinks the movie. Then you later on pedestrian direction from Gary Ross (THE HUNGER GAMES) and a really mediocre repetitive score from Daniel Pemberton (ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD). The result is a film that can't really be truly bad given the talented cast, but one that simply fails to ignite. The final nail in the coffin is that this film has no heart. In the first movie we forgive Danny his criminality because he's charismatic and fun, but most of all because he wants to win back his girl.  In this film, his avatar is setting up a treacherous ex (Richard Armitage). This lends a subtly petty and nasty undertone rather than a loving glow. 

OCEAN'S 8 has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film was released in cinema's this summer. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

SUBURBICON


SUBURBICON is a much-maligned film - so much so that I put off watching it for quite some time. I see the issue with it. Despite his earnest liberal pose, George Clooney has created a film in which the story of a black family victimised by racists in 1950s America is treated as a counter-point to the main story of a white family torn apart by lust and murder. He doesn't condescend to give his black characters names, personalities, an inner life, agency.  They are cookie-cutter martyrs.  In fact, Clooney doesn't even look that interested in what they're going through, other than that a climactic race riot can provide an opportunity for his actual protagonist to mask a murder.  One has to ask oneself how a director who is also an activist could be so tone deaf to his own implicit racism.  Maybe it's just another example of the inability of rich white old men to "get it".  

The problem is that if we write off all of SUBURBICON because of Clooney's racist mis-step, we ignore the evident artistry of its main  plot. In fact, one could imagine someone putting the film through FinalCutPro, taking out the black neighbour side-plot, and coming up with a very finely produced, nasty, subversive, little suburban thriller.  The tragedy of SUBURBICON is, then, not that it's a bad film, but that it's a good film with a side-order of tone-deaf sub-plot. 

So let's get to the main film. It's a Clooney directorial effort based on a 1980s script by the Coen Brothers, whose sensibilities he has absorbed over many years of working for them as an actor. He has reworked the script with producing partner Grant Heslov to create a dark tale of lust and greed. As the film opens, its protagonist Gardner (Matt Damon) is living with his wife and son Nicky as well as his sister-in-law (both sisters played by Julianne Moore).  In an early and tense scene of home invasion, the wife is killed, after which Gardner takes up with the sister, who creepily dies her hair to look like the dead sibling.  This - and other "red flags" raise the suspicions of an oppressively charming insurance fraud investigator played by Oscar Isaac, and we realise that Gardner is in cahoots with two mobsters.

This kind of complex caper, with crosses and double-crosses, small-time crooks and venal men, are common in Coen Brothers movies. But this is not one of their dark comedies. Rather, it's a relentlessly vicious film, centring as it does on a small kid who sees and is victimised by violence and coercion. To that end, I thought Clooney handled the tension and the violence very well - walking just the right balance of holding our gaze vs exploitation.

I also loved Clooney's visual style in this film, his scrupulous use of vintage design - not just clothes and the way the houses are dressed - but the logos on the beauty parlour window and the brochure for a military school - the deep dark oppressive browns of Gardner's office. Everything is just right.  He also knows how to frame a shot.  Matt Damon, broken nose and glasses, trying to intimidate his son, with an absurdly lit fish-tank behind him. In many ways, I think this is Clooney at his most deliberate and controlled and I loved it. And of course Julianne Moore is superb. In other words, there's a lot that's really superb in this film if - and it's a big if - you can overlook the serious political mis-step. 

SUBURBICON has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated R. It is available to rent and own.