Sunday, December 01, 2019

DOWNTON ABBEY


DOWNTON ABBEY the movie is exactly what DOWNTON ABBEY the TV show is but glossier and longer - it's sort of akin to a super version of their Christmas specials. I doubt anyone who isn't a fan of the show would watch the film - indeed no concessions are made to those who don't know the backstory of the aristocratic Crawley family. We simply dive in, in media res, with the family preparing for a Royal visit. Some characters are absent - notably Bates, and for much of the film, Mr Talbot.  Some characters are present with essentially nothing to do - notably Lord and Lady Grantham.  The action centres on Mary Talbot (as usual) - wondering whether to keep the show that is grand country living on the road - and Lady Edith missing her old career - in both cases of course we are meant to sympathise with the grand people with their obligations, and look to the loyal servants to sympathise with them, enable them, and provide moral support.  Of the visitors, the action centres of Imelda Staunton as Lady Bagshawe, and a backstairs secret she is holding that also involves Jack Leech's Branson - after all with the Downton family married of, he's the only candidate left for romance!

The resulting film is everything one expects from Downton, fully satisfying to fans of the series, and probably irritating to those who aren't. It is essentially conservative in its views of the value of the aristocracy and a rural way of life, but mildly progressive in its B plot - sympathy for closeted homosexuals; working women who have to give up their careers to be decorative arm-candy.   It looks sumptuous, with lavish costumes and ball room scenes.  And while the plot and dialogue are rather mechanical, one does of course have the joy of Maggie Smith as the dowager Duchess, with her witty one-liners, not to mention a rather emotional and lovely denouement.

DOWNTON ABBEY is rated PG and has a running time of 122 minutes. It was released earlier this year and is now available to rent and own.

ALADDIN


I approached the live-action remake of ALADDIN with extreme cynicism. I didn't understand why you'd want to remake the perfection that was Robin Williams in the original animated version, and I had my doubts that mockney action director Guy Ritchie was the guy to do it.  But I have to admit that this film won me over within its first minutes and that by the end the I was a committed fan. It is, in essence, a very faithful adaptation with all the beloved songs from Alan Mencken; all the beloved characters; and even some of the set piece action and dance numbers recreated scene for scene.  But it does so much more in its delineation of character and acknowledgement of current political mores, and yet none of that feels clunky.

But let's start with what this film lives or dies on - the performance of Will Smith as the Genie.  I have to say that he is just wonderful - charismatic, effervescent, truly a warm and loveable figure.  Crucially, Smith makes the figure his own, rather than trying to ape the untouchable Williams, and I love that he gets his own love-story framing device. His genie is almost more human, more warm and more touching that Williams', and the film benefits from that.  Smith's Genie also doesn't dominate the film in the way that Williams' did and that's all to the benefit of the really impressive cast of actors playing the other roles.  I really liked Mena Massoud as Aladdin - he was charming, smart and I really rooted for him. But I felt he was outshone by Marwan Kenzari (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) as a superb Jafar - almost like an Edmund from Lear with a kind of demented logic to his scheming - a poor boy like Aladdin who resents that he doesn't live in a pure meritocracy where his smarts would be properly rewarded.  But most of all, I loved Naomi Scott (POWER RANGERS) as Jasmine.  She has strength and agency and her costumes, while stunning, aren't the cliched skimpy numbers from the original film. Mencken gives her a new song that shows her desire to be a just ruler and decide her own fate, and in this film Jasmine is not a damsel in distress but truly the protagonist to Jafar's antagonist.  I really rooted for Jasmine and Aladdin to get together, but even more I rooted for Jasmine to rule, and that's as it should be.

All of this lovely character work is situated inside a truly stunning production design that Guy Ritchie's kinetic camera-work shows off to its maximum. It turns out he really was the guy to direct this film and I really can't fault any of it. 

ALADDIN has a running time of 128 minutes and is rated PG-13. It was released earlier this year and is now available to rent and own.

BY THE GRACE OF GOD / GRACE A DIEU


Francois Ozon's BY THE GRACE OF GOD is a film that stands apart from the rest of his oeuvre.  Showing he can match his style to the subject, he has made a sober, reflective, beautifully paced and acted film about the most serious of topics - that of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and to compound that crime, its institutional cover up for decades.  By now we are sickeningly familiar with the story of paedophile priests being found out, and simply moved on to another parish to commit their crimes on another unwitting flock.  We are familiar with the heartbreak testimony of survivors and the seemingly interminable process of bringing these men to real criminal (as opposed to ecclesiastical) justice. But this film remains compelling because it's such a delicately, beautifully mined character study of how a group of men cope differently with their abuse.  And despite the darkness of the material it's ultimately a quiet film that builds to something rather hopeful and wonderful  - as these men form a kind of familial supportive bond. That might or might not be enough for all of them to pull through their trauma, but it's in this carefully mined character study that the film is at its most compelling.

BY THE GRACE OF GOD has a running time of 137 minutes.  The film played Berlin 2019 where it won the Silver Bear. It also played the BFI London Film Festival. It is now on release in the USA and in UK cinemas and on the Curzon Home Cinema streaming service. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

FROZEN II


I walked into FROZEN II expected nothing more than a cynical shameless cash-in on the success of its predecessor.  I knew Disney wouldn't have the balls to give Elsa a gay love interest so it didn't seem as if the story had anywhere to go. But I have to say that all my cynicism was overturned. FROZEN II is a beautifully told, technically stunning, deeply moving film, and one of the best I've seen this year. What's more, having heard a post-film Q & A with director Jennifer Lee, I can happily report that none of the character evolutions have been organised to be safe or commercial - rather to be true to the much-beloved characters and how they might feel at this "second act of a Broadway play".   A classic example of this is with the storyline of Kristoff. As the movie opens, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is grappling with how to craft the perfect proposal for Princess Anna (Kristen Bell).  But the writers actually went so far as to create and screen test a version where Anna proposes to Kristoff. The objection wasn't conservative, but that after a movie's worth of his efforts, it felt mean not to let him do it.  Similarly, when it comes to Elsa (Idina Menzel), I'm no fool - of course Disney isn't going to let her be out gay. But Jennifer Lee did make the good point that she's not actually ready for any relationship yet, because she's still at a weird place.  If the first film was about Elsa learning to accept that she can't hide who she is and isolate herself, the second film is about her moving away from just being almost pathologically grateful to be accepted by Arundel, to being genuinely happy in her own environment.

So that's the basic story arc. I loved the way the writers put it.  We have Anna as a fairytale princess and Elsa as a mythic archetype.  And as in the first film, we have to have Anna pull Elsa back from a classic mythic tragic fate, but we also have to respect that each has their own world.  To come to this resolution, we need to allow them to explore their back story. Why doesn't Anna have magic powers? Why were their parents out in a storm on a ship? To find out, the sisters, Kristoff and Olaf head north from Arundel to explore an enchanted forest that contains a dam that stops Arundel being flooded.  In doing so, we get a beautiful story that lightly but earnestly essays the dangers of not respecting nature, and the difficulty of confronting a colonial exploitative past. At the emotional level, there's a beautiful story about not being ashamed to depend on others, and how people from very different backgrounds (indeed, genres!) can come together to balance each other out, without demanding conformity.

All of which sounds terribly profound and earnest, and it is. But it's all dressed up in the most wonderful comedy and musical numbers. Olaf the snowman has a show-stopping old fashioned musical number that had the little children laughing.  Kristoff gets a parody 80s rock ballad that had the adults crying with laughter.  And the big number of this piece - "Into The Unknown" is just as beautifully crafted and penetrating as anything in the first film. I laughed, I cried, and was transported into the most dazzlingly created autumnal world.  I simply cannot wait for FROZEN III!

FROZEN II has a running time of 105 minutes.  It goes on global release on November 22nd. 

LE MANS 66 aka FORD V FERRARI


I absolutely loved LE MANS 66 - a superbly made character drama centred around a beautiful friendship played out against the world of motor racing, where the "pure" fans are up against the soulless commercial users.  

The film stars Christian Bale as Ken Miles - a true pure racer. He's one of those people born with the talent to really understand a car and to be able to test it and improve it through sheer engineering knowhow and hard work.  He's also a totally unglamorous Brummie, with an inability to play the corporate game and bullshit people.  As much as I loved SENNA and all the glamour of racing, there's just something wonderful about seeing a guy who's not conventionally gorgeous or charismatic do just as well through sheer talent.  I didn't know I needed a hero who was a cheeky sweary Brummie constantly drinking a cup of tea.  But I did.  And it's just so delicious hearing his old-fashioned swearing - and his sheer joy when he races the perfect lap. God only knows what American viewers will make of Miles calling his son a "dirty stop out" or singing H-A-P-P-Y though.  And the scene where he comes off the track at Le Mans to be told his cup of tea is waiting and to hear him respond "thanks Chaz" is just a thing of brilliance!

Miles' friend and colleague is Carell Shelby, played with an almost Clintonesque drawl by Matt Damon.  He was at that point the other American to have ever won Le Mans, and when forced to retire for health reasons, he created a boutique sports car manufacturing company.  Shelby is everything Miles isn't - charismatic, able to schmooze corporates, but both share their true love of racing.  We never doubt that they truly love and respect each other, and that they bring out the best in each other. It's a pleasure to be in their company.

The conflict comes when the bankrupt Enzo Ferrari, the third pure racer in this film, refuses to sell his company to Ford because he knows they'll put commercial interests above racing.  So Henry Ford II, in a fit of pique, decides to create a racing team to beat Ferrari at Le Mans just to humiliate Enzo Ferrari. He doesn't actually give a shit about racing and neither does his oleaginous side-kick Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).  In fact, they are so obtuse that when Ken Miles finally gets to Le Mans, and manages to get a wondrous four lap lead on the field, they actually ask him to slow down so that all the Ford cars can finish together! It's a truly humiliating thing to ask, and shows an utter disregard for Miles' achievement.  Bizarrely, it's the man who we think is going to be the villain of the piece at the start - Ferrari - who literally tips his hat to Miles, out of appreciation of his artistry.

This film succeeds because everything about it is just right.  The script - from Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller and director James Mangold - is perfectly constructed and rooted in authentic relationships and emotions.  For sure, the racing scenes are exhilarating and beautifully recreated. You can almost smell the petrol coming off the screen. But all this would mean nothing if we didn't absolutely care about Miles and Shelby.  It's also not a film that allows us to have easy one-dimensional portraits. As I said, Ferrari starts off as a rude tricksy tyrant but ends as just a kid who loves cars and truly appreciates them. Henry Ford II - who for the most part is a corporate arsehole - has a moment of almost childlike wonder at a car and an almost pathetic wish that his daddy had seen the GT40. Characters with smaller roles seem real and rounded.  Miles' wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) is supportive but strong and no-nonsense, with a real generosity of spirit.  And the acting is uniformly good. Bale should get all the awards, but I even loved Damon. There's a quiet moment near the end of the film where he's deeply distressed. He gets into a sports car and revs the engine. The sound of the engine is soothing to him - a car addict.  It's both terrifying and necessary. There aren't any words - it's all on Damon's face.  This is good stuff indeed.


LE MANS 66 has a running time of 152 minutes. The film played Toronto, Telluride and London and was released in the UK and USA this weekend.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

THE IRISHMAN - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Closing Night Gala


Who killed Jimmy Hoffa? Does anyone care? Martin Scorsese sure does. He spends three and half arse-numbing hours answering who and why. We only put up with this because it's Scorsese. And even then barely just.  If created for theatrical release, then this film is just too long.  It could easily lose twenty minutes of its opening hour and thirty minutes of its closing hour. Once Hoffa's dead, do we really care about his assassin's lonely old age?  I would argue that the indulgence Netflix afforded Scorsese is a hindrance here.  It has allowed him to be baggy where a conventional studio would have demanded a sub-180 minute cut.  Still, this is a Netflix release so I guess people will watch this at home over a few evenings. If so, that's a shame because Scorsese is at the top of his game when it comes to his visual style, choice of music, kinetic editing, and brilliant evocation of mood and era.  This film really does deserve to be seen on a big screen, for all the physical discomfort that arises.

Of course, no-one really cares who killed Jimmy Hoffa anymore.  I don't know many people of my generation who know how powerful he was in 1960s America, or the mystery surrounding his death, let alone those younger than me.  Scorsese's screenwriter Steve Zaillian seems to acknowledge the problem a couple of times in his screenplay, as aged up versions of characters try to explain to younger interlocuters that Hoffa was the second most powerful man behind the President - a powerful Union leader who could make or break a political campaign, and whose multi-billion pension fund could and did bankroll the mafia. He disappeared in 1975.  Everyone acknowledges it was a mafia hit.  You don't threaten mafia funding and survive. But the precise facts around who did the job remain unsolved. The Feds have their suspicions. But we'll never know. This film, however, posits a theory based on the late-in-life confession of long-term mafia hitman Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran.

And so this film tells us the story of The Irishman, beginning with not one but two framing devices. The outer device shows us Sheeran (an aged up Robert de Niro) narrating his sins to what we'll later find out is a Catholic priest - his sole visitor in a nursing home, given that Sheeran has alienated his family.  This reminded me a bit of AMADEUS - having the murderer confess, but not particularly seek atonement, to murdering a man who was purportedly his friend.  Because Sheeran wasn't just a mob hitman - he was also sent by the mob to be Hoffa's protection. Their relationship was one of trust and intimacy, even sleeping in twin beds like Burt and Ernie. It certainly makes the killing emotionally brutal.

The framing device within the framing device is watching Sheeran on a road-trip from Philly to Detroit with his mentor, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives. This is meant to be a trip to a wedding, but it becomes apparent in the final third of the film that Bufalino is going to call on Sheeran's higher loyalty to him than to Hoffa, by making him kill Hoffa personally. "I have to put you in this" he says.  

And then finally, we get to the meat of the film, which is a linear re-telling of Sheeran's story from the time he met Bufalino to his life in the nursing home. He starts of as a truck driver who steals for the mafiosi, then starts driving for them, then "painting walls" aka murdering people, and providing protection for Hoffa. The fact that Sheeran even makes it to the nursing home is already a gag, as time and again, we see darkly humorous subtitles telling us how various mafiosi were brutally killed shortly after the action we're witnessing. Sheeran is literally the last man standing.

The resulting story is - as I said - baggy in its first and especially final hour - but when it's solidly in the meat of its 1960s and 1970s storyline it's as pacy and compelling and stunningly put together as anything Scorsese has ever done.  The way in which he frames a shot, or explicitly moves a lens as if its our eye panning a room, or jump cuts from a violent shot to a stylish lounge scene - the way in which he uses incidental music - it's just another league from the other films at this festival, or on release, period.  The performances are also tremendous, and I have to say the subtle use of CGI de-ageing tech is an absolute success.

For me, the star of the show is Joe Pesci. His performance is so quiet, so powerful, so menacing, and so controlled.  He can condemn a man to death with the slightest, barely noticeable, nod of his head. It's also interesting to compare him with Harvey Keitel as the even more powerful Angelo Bruno. He barely says a word in the entire movie. The two characters are quiet, understated and petrifying.  Contrast this with Al Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa - perfect casting as Hoffa needs to be (at times) bombastic, to contrast with the mafiosi's quiet menace. Hoffa's problem is a complete lack of self-awareness. Even when they're all turning on him, he just doesn't get it. He still obsesses over "my union".  He doesn't understand he sold it to the mafia years prior.  But this isn't one of those pastiche Pacino large performance. Sure, Hoffa has elements of that. But he can also be quiet and fragile. There's also a lovely contrast between Hoffa, who's downfall is that he's so emotional, seeing the benefits of that in a beautiful family life. He's even close to Sheeran's daughter Peggy (lovely facial acting in an almost wordless and thankless role).  By contrast, Peggy instinctively withdraws from her father and Bufalino.  They are left alone.  As for De Niro, his performance is strong, as we come to expect, but his character is in some ways the least interesting of the "big three". I would nominate Pesci for the awards, every time.

In smaller roles, and I really can't state this highly enough, can we get some awards love for Stephen Graham as the dangerously explosive mafiosi Tony Pro?  There are a couple of scenes where he has to go toe to toe with Pacino's Hoffa at his most powerful and domineering and my god, Graham's Tony Pro gives as good as he gets.  Graham is in no way outclassed by Pacino, and Pacino is pretty fucking classy.  Best Supporting Actor? No doubt.

THE IRISHMAN is rated R and has a running time of 209 minutes. The movie played New York and London 2019. It opens in cinemas on limited release on November 1st in the USA and November 8th in the UK, and will be released globally on Netflix on November 27th.