Friday, 30 December 2016

Film Review - Passengers (12)

We were woken too soon - ninety years too soon.
I'm going to have to tiptoe like a prima ballerina around the plot of this, my final review film of 2016, to avoid spoilers. Passengers has been on the receiving end of some lukewarm write-ups, but I thought it provided solid holiday entertainment, enough to make me studiously avoid giving the game away. I mean the trailer didn't (for once), so why should I?

Passengers assumes a future where we haven't destroyed ourselves as a species (now there's a stretch for the imagination) and are instead starting to colonise space. The Avalon is a spacecraft transporting five thousand colonists to a planet so distant the journey will take 120 years, everyone stowed safely in hypersleep pods. 
That's until two passengers (Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as Jim and Aurora) find themselves woken up 30 years into the journey, with no way of returning to their suspended state and the prospect of spending the rest of their lives on a great cavernous space vessel. Their only other company is an android barman called Arthur, played with vaguely unsettling charm by Michael Sheen. There's also the question of why each was woken up (neither has a clue) and what implications the truth might have for them and the ship as a whole. 
Let me focus largely on the film's positives - hey, I'm a glass-half-full kind of reviewer! 

For someone who enjoys his deep-space science fiction, the film looks absolutely gorgeous; watching its great corkscrew of a spaceship spiralling through the cosmos is a joy. The ship's interiors are stunning too, all of the vast vessel's technology and architecture created with love. And Sheen's lounge-bar has a borderline-creepy ambiance. All of this contributes to the film's central horror conceit - of being trapped in this beautiful but sterile environment for a lifetime. It's claustrophobia and agoraphobia combined, and stretches of the film capture the feeling perfectly. (I'm stuck at Aldergrove Airport as I write this, so I'm feeling some of that pain.)
That's not to say Passengers is all existential angst (had this been a European film it might have been, but that's a whole other movie). The film is sharply edited, moving pacily through each plot development and capturing the characters' wide-ranging responses to their situation with empathy and humour. Pratt and Lawrence both bring depth of feeling, with Sheen a fun but slightly eerie counterpoint. When the thriller elements of the film kick in fully, you're invested enough to really feel the jeopardy. 
Now the negatives. Some elements of the plot don't bear too much post-cinema analysis. Others are a tad too convenient. And as for the ending... It's one of those instances where the possibilities are diverging like the roads in the Robert Frost poem. Does the film take the right one? Wellllllll.... 

To sum up - I went into this film with lowish expectations and was pleasantly surprised. It's glossy and compelling science fiction with a spooky premise and some psychological edge. It's also pretty daft if you think about it too much, so my advice is DON'T. 
There. I shimmied through all of that without even hinting at the major plot twist. And that's how I intend to keep it all through 2017.

Happy New Year from Ed's Filmic Forays. See you on the other side!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Feature - Films I Missed in 2016 (and some I saw)

I always enjoy reading film Top Ten (and Bottom Ten) lists at the end of the year. Much as I'd love to add my own, however, I got back into this reviewing lark much too late in the day to produce the full deal. Here's what we'll do instead...

I'll submit five films I really enjoyed, then list ten I totally failed to see, along with brief descriptions of why I want to catch up with them. Then if you've seen any on the list, you can let me know whether or not, in your opinion, they're worth my time. Sounds good? It totally does. Let's go.

Five I Loved

1. Creed
This could have been nothing more than a Rocky rip-off. Instead it had heart, depth and a Sly Stallone who looked so hang-dog you wanted to hug him. He might have punched you though, if you tried.

2. Captain America: Civil War
A super-hero movie with wit, style and superb direction, where the protagonists are each other's main antagonist. They did the same thing in Batman Versus Superman, but not, so I've been told, to anywhere near as good effect. 

3. Nocturnal Animals
It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, swathed in total darkness. But it's also written and directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, so it looks amazing throughout. I was kind of uplifted and depressed at the same time, but never less than engrossed.

4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
This one just uplifted me, as on the wings of a thunderbird. J K Rowling's imagination is back on screen and this time she's writing her own screenplays. Her characters are funny and endearing, and as for those beasts... They're pretty damn fantastic.

5. Arrival 
Not everyone loved this story of close alien encounters as much as I did. However let me put it this way - in a year of global insanity, this is a visually powerful story about the importance of communication, perspective and love. 2016 needed this film more than any other. It reminds us what's important.

Ten I Missed

1. I, Daniel Blake
Apparently it's Ken Loach (now in his 80s) being as politically provocative as ever. This film got name-checked several times in Parliamentary debates. It looks like one robust piece of social drama.

2. Hell or High Water
Contemporary crime-thriller-cum-Western with a reputation for having real grit. It also has real Jeff Bridges.

3. Midnight Special
Science fiction film that sounds a bit X-Files-y. My regular reader Dave Thomas (who frankly knows a lot more than I do about cinema) says I should see it. Good enough for me, my friend.

4. The Revenant
Leonardo de Caprio wrestles a bear and the American wilderness. He wins an Oscar for his trouble.

5. Room
The story behind Room does sound scarily reminiscent of the Josef Fritzl case, but word is it's much more about the power and imagination of a mother's love for her child.

6. Deadpool
Another Dave Thomas recommendation. Super hero movie of the year, he insists, but I sense it's rather less family-friendly than Captain America: Civil War.

7. Love and Friendship
It's got Kate Beckinsale being as outrageous as one can be in a Jane Austen adaptation. Sexy.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane
I know this is linked at some obscure level to 2008 found-footage horror film Cloverfield. The trailer suggests a scary John Goodman and lots of sweaty paranoia.

9. Julieta
It's Pedro Almodovar's best since his 2006 Volver, so they say, and 'they' include Mark Kermode. Plus I really liked Volver.

10. Under the Shadow
An Iranian horror film with depth, I am assured. I like my Iranian horror films to have depth. (I've never actually seen an Iranian horror film - but if I did, I'd definitely want it to have depth.)

One I Dread

Son of Saul
So the word on this Holocaust drama is that it goes to the dark places from which Schindler's List shied away. Supposedly it's very good indeed, making it one of those films I feel I should watch, rather than want to.

That's all from me regarding UK film releases in 2016. Let me know if you've seen any on my lists and what you thought. Also, if I've missed out any must-sees, let me know that too! And did you have any bad movie experiences? Those are always fun to hear about. Over to you.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Feature - My Favourite Christmas Films

I'm cutting this fine. In three days' time people's appetite for all things Yuletide will start to diminish rapidly, so let's enjoy it while the seasonal spirit is upon us. I've made a rule: the only titles to make this (brief) list are ones which have stood the test of several viewings. I'm leaving out The Nightmare Before Christmas and Die Hard by the way. The former is more a celebration of Halloween at its heart (and a joyous one, I should add), 

while the latter is a bit too grimly murderous for this time of year. Its Christmas trappings and even its use of Vaughn Monroe singing Let It Snow over the closing credits can't quite push it into the festive bracket.

Bearing all that in mind, here are my five favourite Christmas-oriented films, a collection so diverse that they defy any particular numerical order. 

1. It's a Wonderful Life
Yes, parts of it are overly quaint and I have a bit of an issue with the villain being wheelchair-bound for no better reason than possibly to explain his bitterness (has my political correctness gone mad???). However Frank Capra's film still packs a weighty emotional punch, with Jimmy Stewart being pulled back from the edge of despair by Clarence the Angel and seeing how dire people's lives would have become had he never been born. The movie has enough grit to make the sentiment work, and you've got to admire how it combines small-town values with liberal politics in a way that would surely annoy the hell out of certain Presidents-elect. We need a bit of that to round off 2016.

2. Bad Santa
I know someone who'll want to smack me around the head for including this one. Here's the thing about Bad Santa - yes, it's as piss-soaked as Die Hard is drenched in blood, yes it reeks of cigarette ash and bad taste for most of its running time... but at its ailing heart, BS as much a redemption story as It's a Wonderful Life. Really. I wouldn't lie to you. Billy Bob Thornton is utterly objectionable as the self-hating alcoholic Santa of the title (he puts the 'grot' in Santa's grotto), with nary a redeeming feature - except, that is, the glimmer of feeling he has for Thurman Merman, the snotty but guileless kid on the poster. That boy delivers the funniest, most moving child performance I've ever seen, by the way. This film brought me to tears twice, the fist time I watched it - once with pure laughter, once with that elusive amused-and-moved-all-at-once combo. Watch it (if you have the stomach) and guess which bits I'm talking about. Oh, and consign Bad Santa 2 to the 'Pretend It Was Never Made' file. It's a cynical cash-in with all the original's crudity and little of its heart. 

3. Elf
If you haven't seen it... how did that happen? If you have, which bit are you remembering right now? The sequence where Buddy, the only human in Santa's workshop, realises he's not actually an elf? The bit where he attempts to hug the raccoon? The montage where he arrives in New York? That incident with the taxi? The one with the Christmas tree? His demonstration of how to sing? His reaction to the phony department store Santa? His breakfast with his new family? His first date? His encounter with Peter Dinklage's pretentious children's author? ('He's an angry elf.') Some other sensational bit that momentarily escapes me? Elf is the most delightfully silly Christmas film ever, bar none, with Will Ferrell supremely funny as Buddy and James Caan the antidote as his Scrooge-lite curmudgeon of a father. You might need this film as a cleanser after Bad Santa, I should add.

4. Gremlins
Okay - to some extent we're back in Die Hard territory here, in that the film is not actually about Christmas - it's just set around the holiday. Also there's quite a lot of off-camera slaughter and the festive setting mainly serves as a contrast to the dark comedy mayhem. (The bleakest laugh in the whole film is the heroine's story of how she discovered there was no Santa - you'll cringe or guffaw, depending on your sense of humour.) Gremlins is the funniest monster movie I've ever seen - and its titular critters lay waste to tinsel-wrapped small-town America with cackling glee. My favourite scene? When hero Billy's mother tackles the gremlins who have invaded her kitchen - putting both blender and microwave oven to memorable use. Oh, and Gremlins represents the only time I've ever had a snog during a cinema visit - so for me this film will always feel Christmassy.

5. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
Never heard of it? I wouldn't have either, but for a friend with a more encyclopedic knowledge of cinema than I will ever have. I thank him to this day for his recommendation. Preston Sturges wrote and directed this 1944 screwball comedy classic, bringing to life a wonderful cast of characters including the inept Norval Jones and the woman he adores, Trudy Kockenlocker. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek goes places plotwise you wouldn't believe of a 1940s comedy. It's fast-talking, massively irreverent, shockingly cynical, wildly funny and sweetly romantic - with an ending to warm your heart like the mulled wine you're drinking as accompaniment, and then laugh so hard you snort said mulled wine out of your nose. 

And that, my film-loving friends, is surely what Christmas is all about. Here's wishing you a merry one.

PS The Muppet Christmas Carol is great as well, before people start giving me a hard time.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Film Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)

Rebellions are built on hope.
If Star Wars: The Force Awakens was made to create a new generation of junior Jedi, Rogue One is squarely aimed at long-term fans. Yes it's a war movie with a Dirty Dozen-esque suicide mission element, but chiefly it's there to have the Star Wars faithful squirming with recognition of the familiar. And this it does much better than the lamentable prequel trilogy ever did. 

Rogue One is set right bang before the events of the original 1977 Star Wars movie (the one that became A New Hope when George Lucas began tinkering with his own vision). Remember that bit from the opening text about how 'Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Death Star'?
This is the story of said spies.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a loner rebel against the Empire and the daughter of the brilliant scientist, who was commandeered to lead the construction of the Empire's planet-killing mega-weapon. Her dad is the Robert Oppenheimer of the piece, appalled at the destructive nature of what he's been helping create. When Jyn is picked up by Rebel Command and made to work directly with them, she discovers that her father is trying to sabotage the operation from inside. The Death Star has a weakness and if the Rebellion can only get hold of the plans, they'll have a shot at destroying it. Literally.
Rogue One is grungy and low-tech from the start, refreshingly so, after the unwelcome gloss of the other prequels. It's an out-and-out war movie, with hardly a lightsaber to be seen. The whole look is one of industrial grime, and the various fight scenes are as gritty as it's possible to get while still retaining your PG certificate. If last Christmas's offering was joyful, it's replaced this time around with something much darker in tone.

This is a story of guerilla warfare in messy settings reminiscent of Kabul and of Vietnam-style beach landings under heavy fire. While space fighter pilots zip around doing their usual video-game thing against Empire craft, down below something much more like real conflict is going on. This is Star Wars for sure, but not entirely as we know it.
The 'rebel spies' in question turn out a satisfyingly motley band, as multi-ethnic as it should be in the Star Wars universe. Jyn is initially paired with Cassian (Diego Luna), a one-time boy soldier, who has been brutalised through his battle experience. To them add a blind martial arts expect who thinks he channels the Force, his sharp-shooting warrior buddy, an Imperial pilot who's swapped sides and a gangly reprogrammed Imperial robot - a kind of sardonic opposite to C-3PO, who calls it like he finds it (and is much funnier). It takes a while for them to band into an effective fighting unit - but when they do, it's worth it. You'll like these guys and the girl who ends up leading them.
As for the baddies, Ben Mendelsohn drips malice as Krennic, the man in charge of the Death Star project. His black-helmeted asthmatic line manager (you know the one) also makes a satisfying cameo. 
Yes, and there's one more key antagonist who makes this year's (and any year's) most surprising appearance. Prepare to gasp and say 'Ehhh.... What? How the hell did he get there?' It's the biggest surprise in a film that packs quite a few.

Rogue One could easily be viewed as Disney milking the franchise for our Yuletide pennies and - well yes, of course it is. On the plus side it's superbly made throughout, has a dynamic story that's worth the telling and is willing to go some daringly dark places. It's okay that it's there to fill in backstory, since it does it in so entertaining a fashion.

Let's hope, however, that next year's film takes us somewhere new and totally unexpected. Somewhere that doesn't involve the attempted dismantling of Death Stars.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Film Review - Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A)

Chewie, we're home.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me a fan. 

I should have been on board with Star Wars long ago - the first film was released when I was nine, so I was target audience! But the Iveagh cinema was a distant nine miles away in Banbridge, and we weren't a cinema-going family, so the whole phenomenon passed me by. I was in my twenties by the time I watched the original trilogy on VCR. By then Star Wars was such a part of popular culture that I knew who was going to die and all about the Skywalkers' complex family dynamics. It was a fine way to pass a few hours, but the real magic was sadly lost on me. 
And then there were the prequels. What can I say about the prequels?
They were really, really bad, and in so many ways.

Nonetheless I went to the cinema last Christmas with hope of something better. The trailers were intriguing, the buzz was positive and the fans were positively foaming with expectation. At least, I figured, I'd bathe vicariously in the enjoyment of those who'd watched Star Wars as kids, and in the enjoyment of their kids.

And then something miraculous happened. 

It began with a frisson when Luke Skywalker got a mention in the traditional scrolling prologue at the film's opening. Then the new young leads were introduced - a devil-may-care rebel fighter pilot called Poe, a conflicted storm-trooper who adopted 'Finn' as his name and Rey, a feisty scavenger with a knack for self-preservation. They were energetic and funny, sparking with chemistry and thus igniting the story for a whole new Star Wars audience and for me. 
As for the chief villain, he was young and prone to fits of psychotic rage, but also had an interesting streak of vulnerability. This guy was much more than Darth Vader 2.0, in other words.
That was all before Han Solo's famous spacecraft made its first appearance. As John Williams' original theme soared, I was thinking, Look! It's the Millennium Falcon! like it finally mattered to me. The newbies were taking control of the franchise along with the ship, getting into all kinds of scrapes in their commandeered vehicle... and then they were joined by members of the old-guard, who looked grizzled (Han) and matted (Chewbacca), but like life-long friends returned. I was sold. This film franchise mattered to me. And from there it only got better - and sadder, and more thrilling, right to the perfect final shot.
The Force Awakens gets so much right that the abominable prequels didn't. The Star Wars universe looks solid again - big studio sets, along with real forests and actual deserts. The cast are interacting with stuff, not swimming in a great soup of computer-generated images. The fight scenes have heft and the jeopardy is real. The script is playful rather than ponderous. The protagonist is female and rescues herself. Even the new robot is properly endearing. 
Basically the whole thing is old-school Saturday matinee fun, with an new injection of life and surprising emotional weight. It retreads all the story beats of the original films, it's true - but somehow that doesn't matter. It's executed beautifully, this cowboys-in-space tale, and with love. So much so that I got it. I understood.

For the first time I watched Star Wars not as a cynical adult, but as that nine-year-old boy who missed it the first time around. And that's an experience to cherish.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Film Review - Allied (15)

They're watching us. Now kiss me.
Allied saddles itself with a problem from the start. This wartime romantic thriller sets its first act in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, thereby conjuring up memories of the most famous wartime romantic thriller in Hollywood history. It's a daring move - but when you deliberately set your tale in the same time and location as the Bogart/Bergman classic, you'd better come within shouting distance of that film's glories. And sadly Allied doesn't. Not by some way. Which doesn't mean it's not worth a viewing - just one with managed expectations.
Brad Pitt stars as Max Vatan, an American secret agent parachuting into Nazi-occupied Morocco on a mission so dangerous it might well be his last. There he meets up with his French counterpart Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cottilard at her most inscrutable), so that as pretend husband and wife they can close in with deadly intent on a German ambassador. Sparks fly - both romantic and literal - as they carry out their mission, and inevitably these good-looking spies get all kinds of unprofessional. Relationships that start in the field, Max is warned, are doomed - but the advice of course goes ignored. 
It's a classic set-up, and this movie is not without its pleasures, but the script and occasionally even the plotting let it down. You're being invited to make comparisons with Casablanca, for heaven's sake - the latter film's scintillating dialogue and tight storytelling make Allied seem crass at points and just plain daft at others. And Brad Pitt, for all his sterling work elsewhere, is surprisingly wooden here as the romantic lead. 
That said, this movie still manages to engage. It's gorgeous to look at for more reasons than its two leads, 1940s Morocco and England having been recreated with impressive levels of period detail. The thriller elements work well, with moments of sweaty paranoia throughout, and the pacing carries you through the more dodgy plot developments before you have time to think about them. 

The stand-out reason to watch it, however, is Marion Cottilard. She shines in every moment of her screen time, convincing as both spy and lover. Even the cheesier lines can move to tears (surprisingly I can testify to that), because she sells them so well. She at least is channeling the spirit of Ingrid Bergman here, with a bit of a saucy twist.
All in all Allied is a fun night out at the cinema - glossy and entertaining, with each twist piling onto the last. But it's a one-off watch, not a keeper. For that, go back for a drink at Rick's place with Sam playing piano, in the 1942 all-time great. 

Casablanca of course. What do you mean you've never seen it???