Sunday, December 26, 2021

SILENT NIGHT****


Camille Griffin's brilliantly nasty little black comedy, SILENT NIGHT, deserves to become a cult Christmas classic alongside BAD SANTA and TRADING PLACES. It basically satirises all those posh, mawkish, godawful Richard Curtis films as well as middle-class Englishness in general. It gathers together a bunch of well-heeled university friends in a lovely country house for Christmas dinner, where the angst is about whether or not Waitrose has run out of sparkling water and sticky toffee pudding. Except, there's something bigger going on than your typical One Percent Problem. The world is about to end because of an irreversible environmental disaster, and everyone is going to take a suicide pill after Crimbo dinner.  These pills have been provided by the government. I mean, not to everyone, you understand. Not to immigrants, and the homeless and people who don't count in our affluent society. And as with the current climate and epidemiological crises, there are people who are in denial and think it's all a conspiracy. Not least the increasingly desperate son of the hosts, played by JOJO RABBIT's Roman Griffin Davis (conveniently the son of the director) much to the chagrin of his exasperated parents (Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode in standard posh mode).

The darkest of dark comic conceits is played beautifully by the superb ensemble cast. My favourite moments are those with the best swearing, or those with the most surprising pathos:  a little girl who won't cuddle her mummy, because mummy spent her trust fund on a pair of shoes.  It prompts a fun parlour game: what would YOU do if the world were about to end? What would you spend on? Who would you shag? And would YOU take the pill?

SILENT NIGHT has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated 15. It played Toronto 2021 and is on release in the UK.

C'MON C'MON*****


Mike Mills (20th CENTURY WOMEN) returns to our screens with the beautifully shot and acted drama that's ostensibly a bonding road-trip between an uncle and his nephew, but is actually a hymn to single mums everywhere. It stars Joaquin Phoenix (JOKER) as Jonny - a wonderfully empathetic, rumpled, charmingly vulnerable radio journalist whose job is to travel America and listen to teenagers describe their struggles and joys in life. He transfers all those brilliant listening skills to taking care of his young nephew Jesse, played in one of the performances of the year by Woody Norman (THE CURRENT WAR).  Jesse is a really sweet, smart kid being raised as such by his brilliantly loving and strong mother Viv (Gaby Hoffman - Transparent). Viv and Jonny clearly love each other but drifted apart after their mother's death. But they reconnect when Viv needs her brother to help out because she has to take care of her ex-parter Paul (Scoot McNairy - IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS) who is suffering through an acute episode of bipolar disorder. 

The resulting film speaks to the fears and joys of parenthood, and feels so real in its depiction of authentic family relationships. I loved every moment of it and feel as if I know the characters intimately. It never strays into mawkish predictability and handles its topic of mental health with sensitivity.  The superlative acting and writing is matched by DP Robbie Ryan's stunning black and white photography:  LA and Manhattan haven't looked as beautiful in years. 

C'MON C'MON played Telluride and the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It has a running time of 109 minutes and is rated R.

TICK, TICK...BOOM!****

 
I came to TICK, TICK...BOOM! knowing nothing about its subject, real-life musical theatre composer and performer, Jonathan Larson. I know RENT - his hit show - primarily for its South Park spook, "Everybody has AIDS". So when the opening framing device revealed that Larson died the night before his hit show opened, I assumed it was from AIDS. What an idiot. Two hours later, I learned that Larson died of aortic failure in his early thirties having slaved away at various commercially failed projects, living in a crappy 1990s New York apartment, and generally struggling to hold onto this love of theatre despite the temptations of getting a Real. Job. 

That I found Lin Manuel Miranda's movie of Larson's last decade is testament to Andrew Garfield's lead performance. To call it big is an understatement, and for anyone less charming, Larson might come off as an insufferably insecure, selfish attention seeker. In Garfield's hands, one cannot but admire Larson's energy and gregarious good humour even as he suffers crippling self-doubt and ... whisper it quietly... his songs aren't that good. Maybe RENT was though? I shall endeavour to find out.

TICK, TICK...BOOM! has a running time of 115 minutes and is rated PG-13. It was released earlier this year on Netflix.

ENCANTO*****


60 movies in and Disney finally made one where my childhood self might have seen herself on screen: brown, bespectacled, curly-haired, clearly not a Princess, no magical powers, not at all submissive or mild, but definitely curious and loyal, from a large loving multi-generational family.  It's easy to say the phrase "representation matters" and it's another to truly feel it in your bones and to believe that you could be a Disney hero.  What I would've given to have seen ENCANTO as a kid. 

The film is an absolute joy: a riot of colour and dance, best seen on a big screen with a great sound-system. Lin Manuel Miranda provides songs that are instantly recognisable as his - mashing up musical genres but reaching back to latin roots. And Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is just a wonderful heroine. She clearly loves her eccentric, magically gifted family, but harbours a secret sadness that she is the only one without magical powers. That said, she's smart, and realises that something bad is happening to her enchanted family house, and that her family's magic might be under threat. And in exploring why, she realises that all of her family have their own stories too:  the super strong Luisa is buckling under emotional stress; perfect princess-like Isabella actually just wants to "let it go". The final act twists are deeply satisfying and I found myself in tears at the ending, with all of its affirmation and emotional release. Kudos to all involved.

ENCANTO is rated PG and has a running time of 102 minutes. The movie is on global release.

THE SPARKS BROTHERS*****


I came to Edgar Wright's new documentary thinking that Sparks was a novelty act. The weird glam rock singer and Hitler-looking grim keyboard player singing This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us. I only new that they were still around when Leos Carax' brilliantly bizarre ANNETTE was released, with music by the duo. But by the end of this long and loving documentary I had come to a new found respect and eve love for the band, and can't wait to dive into their 25-album-and-counting back catalogue. I turned to my husband at the end of the movie and said that the fact that such a deeply weird, witty, intelligent and NICE band had survived all these years and had new generations of fans said something good about humanity. And certainly about them. It's nice to see a pair of musician-brothers not turn into the feuding Gallaghers, and not become commercial sell-outs, and not become parodies of themselves. Just carry on, making cool, weird records. 

This is Wright's first doc and he brings reverence for the music together with visual flair.  There are so many brilliant jokes in how the interviewees (Bjork, Beck, Katie Puckrick, Flea and sooo many others) are subtitled and how vintage footage is intercut with the interviews. But most of all Wright just has the grace to give this story the run-time it deserves and to give each album its due, no matter whether it was a hit or a bomb. And yes, there seem to have been a lot of ups and downs in their career. The result is that we feel invested in their success and if not their success then their happiness and artistic fulfilment. There's a deeply touching moment near the end where Ron thanks the audience and says that he doesn't take the fans for granted. They really are gentlemen. 

THE SPARKS BROTHERS is rated R and has a running time of 140 minutes. It played Sundance and SXSW 2021 and was released earlier this year.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

49th PARALLEL***** - Pantheon Film Of The Month


49th PARALLEL aka THE INVADERS
is a fascinating piece of British propaganda from 1941, with a deeply nuanced view of World War Two, but ultimately arguing for the US to enter the war. It was created by the iconic pairing of Michael Powell (director) and Emeric Pressburger (writer) who went on to create masterpieces like THE RED SHOES.  Behind the lens, we have a young David Lean as editor and DP Freddie Young, both of whom would go on to collaborate on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. And on screen, we have Laurence Olivier with a laughable Quebecois accent, as well as Leslie Howard (GONE WITH THE WIND) and the legendary Anton Walbrook.

The plot is radical insofar as it centres the narrative on a handful of Nazi submariners who come ashore in Canada and have to journey incognito to the US which is still neutral. On the way, they meet Olivier's Quebecois trapper who doesn't even know the war has started, and posits the radical idea that all men must have some goodness inside of them, for he wouldn't shoot Polish women and children. That said, as propaganda, the film is careful to show him as saying his loyalty is to Canada and thus Britain, not to France, as an ally of Germany. 

As the film goes on, the Nazis take shelter with a kind of German emigre mormon community, and one of them starts to question what they are doing, which again feels radical for a propaganda film and reflects all the nuance and humanity that Pressburger (an "enemy alien" - ludicrous - in Britain at the time). But as these things go, naturally the Nazis must come to a bad end, and show the valiance of the Canadians along the way. This is most eloquently and powerfully displayed in Anton Walbrook's monologue roughly half-way through the film, where he explains why immigrants left famine and persecution in Europe and came to Canada for peace, security, tolerance and freedom. It remains incredibly stirring stuff.  

It's equally impressive to consider how this film was made - partly funded by the UK taxpayer - filmed on location in Canada when travel was both restricted and dangerous - with an international cast of major talent, often working at half scale or donating their fees to charity. Freddy Young's black and white photography is superb and most of all, we have a score by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is no surprise that this film was a huge commercial success, and apparently remains once of the highest grossing British film in the US of all time.

49th PARALLEL was released in 1941 and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.