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.

Friday, January 26, 2018

COCO


Miguel is a little Mexican boy who lives with his close-knit extended family, complete with seemingly ancient and senile great-grandma Mama Coco. His family are shoemakers but Miguel dreams of being a musician like his hero - the famous but now dead singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). The only problem is that Miguel's family are  against music of any kind and are determined not just to make Miguel a shoemaker in the family tradition, but to erase all memory of his Mama Coco's father - another wannabe musician who apparently abandoned his family.  The consequences of this are that his great grandpa's photo is not laid out with the rest of the ancestral portraits on the Day of the Dead, so that he cannot visit with his family.  Of course, this is just pre-amble. The story truly begins when Miguel is magicked into the world of the dead, and begins a quest to find Ernesto de la Cruz and get his blessing to return and to sing! Along the way he learns much about his family history, and also about the pride and love of coming from a large family.  

In COCO, director Lee Unkrich (TOY STORY 3) creates a truly wondrous, uplifting and profound film of the kind that only Pixar seems able to create.  The animation was bold, beautiful and kinetic - the music truly memorable - and the story well-paced and exciting. But what makes this film stand out is its nuanced and meaningful examination of the ties of family and the dangers of legacy and the power of memory. It'a film that resonated with me - coming from a large Asian family - and I'm pleased to see old grannies taking off their shoe to scold an impudent upstart is not just an Indian trope!  Most of all this film made me cry. And not the cheap deliberately engineered tears of a manipulative melodrama. But genuine, hard-won tears from investing in a little boy's story, in his family, and seeing a loving reconciliation. This is animated storytelling at its most ambitious, intelligent, and affecting.

COCO has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated PG. It is on global release. 

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. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is a cheesy obvious heart-on-its-sleeve film that shouldn't work but doesn't. It's as if it were cynically designed to capture the feel-good empowerment of FROZEN's "Let It Go" and does so with its relentlessly politically correct casting and story and a parade of empowering catchy tunes. That the product has been carefully honed does not detract from its effectiveness. I for one was utterly wrapped up in the two love stories at the heart of the film - and the idea that true love, entrepreneurial skill and a lack of prejudice will ultimately triumph. 

That the film works owes much to the on-screen charisma of Hugh Jackman, in the lead role of PT Barnum - the man who invented the modern circus and freak show.  What's amazing about this story is that it manages to turn something quite exploitative into an act of liberation. Poor Michelle Williams has less to do as his faithful suffering wife. Indeed, it's Rebecca Ferguson as real life famous opera singer Jenny Lind who has the most powerful moment as the woman hopelessly in love with a married man.  And then for the younger demographic we have teen heartthrob Zac Efron and the multi-talented Zendaya as a mixed race couple.  

Kudos to first time director Michael Gracey for giving this film such energy and joie-de-vivre - to long time Christopher Nolan collaborator, production designer Nathan Crowley for giving the film such a beautiful, fantastical and romantic look. He gives the tired faded concept of the circus real glamour.  But most of all kudos to the composers Joseph Trapanese and John Debney for producing genuinely catchy and uplifting songs.  This is truly a warm-hearted, wonderful film!

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated PG. It is on global release. 

Monday, January 08, 2018

CHURCHILL


With the forthcoming release of the THE DARKEST HOUR I thought I would go back and watch the other Churchill film released last year.  Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (THE RAILWAY MAN) with a script by historian Alex von Tunzelmann (INDIAN SUMMER), this version stars Brian Cox in the eponymous role, Miranda Richardson as his wife, MAD MEN's John Slattery as Eisenhower, Julian Wadham as Monty, James Purefoy as the stuttering King, and Ella Parnell as the obligatory pretty young secretary who exists in the script merely to show Churchill his humanity.  

In contrast to many more blustering biopics, this one shows Churchill exhausted and troubled at the end of World War Two.  It opens with him imagining bloody waters washing up on the shore of a beach, and the film's conceit is that he is so traumatised by his failure at Gallipoli that he is irrationally against another amphibious landing  - Operation Overlord - that we, with the benefit of hindsight, will be a massive success.  The resulting film is thus one that shows us a Churchill who is vulnerable, admirably guilt-ridden by his mistakes and mindful of the human cost of war, and physically exhausted.  It also gives us a Churchill frustrated at being a mere politician rather than a commander, facing danger with his troops. Accordingly, he comes across as similar to the Queen, in The Crown season one, frustrated that his role is to NOT go to the frontline or put himself in danger, but to exist, to survive.

Brian Cox is convincing in the role, giving his Churchill a nuance we rarely see on screen.  Miranda Richardson has less to do in the trademark Clemmie hairdo and poor Ella Parnell in that sexist role of wide-eyed naive girl.  I very much liked the direction and the landscape photography of the beach in particular.  

But as much as I liked this newly shabby, troubled Churchill, the whole thing is guff.  And that cuts it off at the knees.  It's shocking that a female writer would create such a thankless role for the secretary, but even more shocking that an historian who takes other films to task for their historical inaccuracy should commit such gaffes in her own film. I have no doubt that Churchill, thinking of preserving the Empire rather than just winning the war, had different tactical preferences to Eisenhower. And I have no doubt that he was ashamed of Gallipoli.  But to argue that he was against Overlord and that the king and a pretty secretary had to screw his courage to the sticking place is bizarre.  And in her defense of this approach Tunzelmann seems to rely on an out of context quote that Churchill was hardening against the operation. He wasn't.  He wrote on 11 March, 1944, makes clear that he was hardening in favour of a decisive strike:

"I have presided at a series of meetings at which either Ike or Bedell has been present, and I am satisfied that everything is going on well. Ike and Bedell will probably tell you they are well pleased. I am hardening very much on this operation as the time approaches, in the sense of wishing to strike if humanly possible, even if the limiting conditions we laid down at Moscow are not exactly fulfilled. I hope a chance may come for us to have a talk before long. Every good wish."

So CHURCHILL is an interesting film about a vulnerable man. Whether or not you enjoy it depends on how far you care that it's not true.

CHURCHILL has a running time of 105 minutes. It was released last year and is now available to rent and own.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD



Ridley Scott's new movie is a true life thriller about the kidnapping of the 16 year old oil heir John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) and his billionaire grandfather's refusal to pay the ransom.  There were many sensible reasons not to do this - such as not encouraging or indeed financing further terrorist acts, but as played by Christopher Plummer, Getty I's primary motive seems to be miserliness. There's no shade, no colour. He claims to love his grandchild but we see no evidence of it. Indeed, in Plummer's hands this becomes one of the most convincing and frightening depictions of greed on screen - when Mark Wahlberg's ex CIA fixer asks Getty how much money he would need to feel secure, he roars "more", and we believe him.  I won't spoil the consequences of this miserly response, but suffice to say that it pits Getty against his ex daughter-in-law Gail (Michelle Williams). She is seen as the voice of reason, familial love, and frustration. She's also, thankfully, not without her own smarts in going up against the oil tycoon.

There's lots to like in this thriller - and I genuinely didn't know how it would turn out for poor JPGIII.   Ridley Scott avails himself of some superb location photography, from LA DOLCE VITA recreated Rome, to sunrise in Marrakesh, to the menacing, claustrophobic, winding streets of a Calabrian hilltop town.  Williams and Christopher Plummer give excellent performances, Romain Duris is also superb in a supporting role in the kidnapper with a heart, and this offsets the somewhat banal presence of both Wahlberg and Charlie Plummer.  I also liked the screenwriter's willingness to mix up the linear timeline early on, and show us a younger version of Grandpa Getty and how ruthless he was.   That said, this movie is not without its flaws. It suffers from a lack of pace in its middle section, Scott is clearly not interested in the victim's experience, Wahlberg is just miscast, and Williams, whose performance is good, chooses to adopt a Katherine Hepburn style mid-atlantic accent that kept on pulling me out of the film.  

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD has a running time of 132 minutes and is rated R. In the UK it is rated 15 for strong violence, injury detail, threat and language.

The film was released in 2017 in the USA, Greece, Israel, Canada, Belgium. France, Malaysia and Estonia. It opened earlier this year in Australia, Italy, Bulgaria, the UK, Ireland, Lithuania and Romania.  It opens on Jan 11th in the Netherlands, on Jan 12th in Finland, Jan 18th in Hong Kong, Jan 25th in Brazil, Denmark, Hungary, Portugal, Singapore, Norway, Poland and Sweden, on Feb 1st in South Korea, on Feb 15th in Germany, on Feb 22nd in Russia, and on Feb 23rd in Spain and Turkey. 

MOLLY'S GAME


Molly Bloom is a real life criminal who ran an illegal high stakes poker game in Hollywood and then New York. She raked the game, laundered money for the Russian mob, and if not illegally then unethically, exploited men with a gambling addiction to enrich herself. Eventually she was caught up in a Federal investigation into the mob and without spoiling the ending, this film sees her battling those charges while recounting her history.  

Bloom is played by a characteristically high class Jessica Chastain, more or less reprising her role in the superb MISS SLOANE. Her Bloom is smart, no-nonsense, and unsympathetic - a woman whose profession is clearly both illegal and unethical - and the game is to guess whether underneath all that selfishness they're a moral compass. Bloom's lawyer, played by Idris Elba, and the director/writer Aaron Sorkin, are convinced.  They give us a film in which Bloom is portrayed as a heroine who refused to sell out her players and ruin their lives by giving the Feds her records. This might be more convincing if played with some nuance - if we didn't have bombastic TWELVE ANGRY MEN speeches from Elba - and if it didn't contradict everything we see of Molly in the film. Yes, she might offer to get a player help with his addiction, but only after she's soaked him for days on end.  Sorkin shows us someone who is a predator on the weak - but he tells us that after all, she really cares about their families. We're also asked to believe that Bloom, as smart as she is, as rapier-fast and witty as her Sorkin dialogue is, didn't realise that when Russian mafiosi turned up with cash in satchels that they weren't money laundering - that she wasn't aiding and abetting pretty nasty crimes from happening. Sorry I'm just not buying it.  The other thing that jarred was Sorkin's trademark mansplaining. We get both the lawyer character and Bloom's father (Kevin Costner) try to explain to her and us why she did what she did. There Sorkin goes again - setting up a smart female character only to cut her off at the knees.

Thus, for all the brilliant acting and snappy dialogue, I just couldn't get into a film whose central character premise I didn't buy in to. I just didn't believe in Sorkin's version of Molly.  And that made the film a long - too long - dull slog through the legal machinations, and an ending that felt unearned. If you want to see Chastain playing a strong female character who actually owns her fate, doesn't need men to explain it to her, in a tightly paced, beautifully photographed movie, check out MISS SLOANE instead. 

MOLLY'S GAME has a running time of 140 minutes and is rated R. In the UK it is rated 15 for strong language, drug misuse and brief violence.

The film played Toronto 2016 and was released last year in Croatia, the Netherlands and the USA. It opened earlier this year in the UK, Ireland, France, Argentina, Greece, Hungary, Kuwait, Portugal, Singapore, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and the USA. It opens on January 11th in Russia, on Jan 19th in Sweden, on Jan 25th in Australia, on Jan 26th in Finland, on Jan 27th in Mexico, on Feb 2nd in Taiwan, on Feb 22nd in Brazil, Denmark, Thailand and Norway, on March 1st in Hong Kong and on March 8th in Germany.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

THE DISASTER ARTIST


THE DISASTER ARTIST is the story of a cult character called Tommy Wiseau and the cult film he accidentally made, called The Room.  I'd not heard of or seen the former before James Franco championed their cause with this film.  It turns out that Wiseau was and remains a deeply shady figure - no-one knows his age, origin, or where he got his money. As the film opens Wiseau (James Franco) is attending acting classes in San Francisco. He's rich, thickly accented, and delusional about his talent. Nonetheless, he takes up with his friend Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) and they move to LA to find work.  Being talentless, and for Wiseau, also creepily weird, unsurprisingly no-one hires them. And there the story should've ended. Except that Wiseau is delusional and rich, so he decides to make his own movie! The wastefulness is extreme - he buys both film and digital cameras, builds sets unnecessarily, and starts work on a film that he truly believes is going to be great. Except that it's appalling, hampered in no small measure by his own awful script and acting. And this goes hand in hand with increasingly dictatorial and mean-tempered behaviour on set. Still, the juggernaut moves toward its opening night and when the audience laughs AT rather than WITH the film, Wiseau chooses to believe that he was making a comedy all along. He keeps the film in cinemas for two weeks on his own dime, hoping to qualify for the academy awards. Of course, it doesn't make money or get any awards, but sinks into obscurity until it gains a "so bad it's good" rep at midnight screenings.

I had a good time watching THE DISASTER ARTIST until I didn't. By that I mean that Wiseau is a weird enough character, and James Franco's impression is so superb, that it's truly captivating. But about half way through the film, I realised that there was nothing else in this film for me. The painstaking recreation of seminal scenes in The Room didn't interest me. It's a bad film being made badly! So the overall verdict is - THE DISASTER ARTIST is worth seeing for Franco's impression of Wiseau - but as it doesn't actually dig behind that persona - or give us anything but a cliched friends falling out narrative arc - it outstays its welcome.

THE DISASTER ARTIST has a running time of 104 minutes and is rated R. It is rated 15 in the UK for strong language.  

The film played SXSW and Toronto 2017 and opened last year in Australia, Canada, the UK, Ireland, the USA, Philippines, UAE, Argentina, Netherlands, Norway, Iceland and Spain. It opens on Jan 4th in Portugal; on Jan 11th in Hong Kong; on Jan 12th in Finland and Romania; on Jan 19th in Mexico and Taiwan; on Jan 25th in Brazil and Greece; on Feb 1st in Germany and Denmark; on Feb 9th in Poland and Sweden and on March 7th in France. 

Monday, January 01, 2018

I, TONYA


I, TONYA is a gripping, deeply moving, and beautifully put together account of the infamous Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and the events that led to her ex-husband hiring a goon to knife Tonya's rival Nancy Kerrigan. Those of us of a certain age will remember the circus and the ensuing drama of Tonya's Lillehammer performance.  It was a massive trashy story told with no nuance - a true tabloid scandal.  It pitted a nasty, white-trash, jealous cheat against an all-American princess - the kind of elegant, pretty figure that figure skating touts as the perfection of womanhood. This long overdue retelling focuses firmly on Tonya and tries to give some shade and context and sympathy to her story.  Along the way we get some laughs, but I found this to be less of a dark comedy than a pathetic tragedy.  Those laughs mostly come from Bobby Canavale's cynical journalist, commenting on events with the benefit of time, and providing much of the sporting world context. The tragedy comes from the central character and strong performance of Margot Robbie as Tonya. 

As the movie opens, we see a four year old Tonya with a genuine passion and talent for skating pushed to excel by her emotionally and physically abusive  alcoholic white trash mother LaVona. LaVona justifies her behaviour by telling herself she's toughening her daughter up, and pouring every hard earned cent into skating.  She's played with a Cruella DeVille nastiness by Allison Janney and is the most terrifying and brilliantly performed screen mother since Livia Soprano. No amount of superbly hilariously ugly 1980s hairstyling can obscure the sheer malevolent selfishness of her character. Unsurprisingly, the victimised Tonya takes the first path of escape she can find, but jumps out of the frying pan into the fire with her feckless, physically abusive husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).  What's so scary about this character is how quickly Stan can take this fairly innocuous man from calm incompetence to violence and back.  The film doesn't shy away from showing the abuse, and it's truly horrible to watch.