Friday, 30 September 2016

Film Review - Florence Foster Jenkins (PG)

People may say I couldn't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing.
I first read about Florence Foster Jenkins in Stephen Pile's The Book of Heroic Failures - true stories of individuals who proved spectacularly unsuccessful in their chosen field of endeavour. Jenkins was logged under 'The Worst Singer', and the account of her performances was a great source of mirth to me as a teen. Word that another Stephen  - Frears - had directed a film version of her story, with Meryl Streep as the aspiring diva, had me grinning instantly with anticipation.

Jenkins was a New York heiress and socialite, who treated her friends and acolytes to renditions of operatic arias, despite the fact that she possessed no singing ability whatsoever. Ten years' worth of X-Factor open auditions are a modern testament to the power of self-delusion, but Jenkins had no panel of judges to check her reality. In their place was a coterie of followers who praised her singing at every turn, not least because she was a generous patron of the arts throughout the city. Thus she recorded a number of records, eventually packing out Carnegie Hall, where she regaled astonished listeners with her uniquely dreadful vocal style.

Frears' version of her story is a tragi-comedy that makes the most of its ritzy setting - 1940s Manhattan. Meryl Streep has already proved her musical credentials in films such as Ricky and the Flash and (God help us) Mama Mia, but here she has to go one better - recreating Jenkins' singing voice by sailing close to the notes without ever actually landing on them and staying marginally off rhythm throughout. The exquisitely awful result is just one more facet of Streep's genius. Her portrayal of the deluded chanteuse, however, is also shot through with pathos, suggesting the depth of personal loss that lies behind the heiress' desire to sing. Jenkins may be absurd here, but she's no caricature.
Also delivering a nuanced performance is Hugh Grant as Jenkins' husband - a failed actor, who now lives to protect his wife from ridicule at her bizarre performances. The nature of his relationship with her is key to the film (is he leeching off his wealthy spouse, or acting out of genuine affection?) and ultimately provides it with its heart. Never has Grant's charm been put to better use, as he manoeuvres silkily to keep Jenkins' surreal musical world intact. At the piano is the singer's accompanist Cosme McMoon (real name), played with ill-concealed disbelief by The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg. Drawn into the plot of maintaining Jenkins' delusion, he provides us with the outsider's perspective, and his rehearsals with her, as he struggles to follow her erratic vocal delivery, are the film's comic high-points.
Ultimately, however, Florence Foster Jenkins surprised me by being much more touching than wildly comic. If we start off laughing at how ridiculous a figure she appears, by the end we have been drawn along with her hapless pianist into rooting for her. 

Set aside the moral question of whether or not she should have been encouraged in the first place and you'll fall in love with Jenkins' preposterous operatic squawking. You may even agree with the account of her in Stephen Pile's book - her earnest efforts to entertain were genuinely, movingly heroic.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Film Review - Captain America: Civil War (12A)

Compromise where you can. Where you can't, don't.
I came late to Marvel Studios' 'cinematic universe' late, but I'm glad to have hopped on the bandwagon. The opinion of some cineastes was that our multiplexes were being clogged up with an unwelcome slew of superhero films and without having seen Marvel's recent offerings, I tended to agree. Then I got caught up with their output and remembered how damned entertaining this genre of movie can be. Turns out you can't deny your inner geek. 

Captain America: Civil War is my favourite film to date from Marvel, a grand culmination of themes and story threads that have been evolving over numerous other movies. (Uniquely it serves as sequel to two earlier films, picking up plot strands from both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron). It also has more moral heft than you might expect for a daft big-fun popcorn flick. The plot ropes in most of the superhero characters who first united in 2012's Avengers Assemble, along with their besties, only to pit these comrades against each other in a massive no-punches-pulled super smack-down.  
Like so. 

If this sounds hugely contrived, then one of the film's great virtues is that it makes the inter-superhero conflict convincing, giving it space to develop organically during the first half of the running time, before things go critical. 

The bad feeling starts off as head-butting between Tony Stark, aka Ironman (Robert Downey Jr) and Captain America (Chris Evans), the ostensible leaders of the group, over whether or not the Avengers should bow to some form of governmental control. Stark, wrestling with his conscience over issues of collateral damage during the group's recent forays, feels that some form of accountability is required. 'Cap', however, does not want the Avengers to be beholden to the whims of politicians, when they can and should trust to their own moral compass. There are further complications involving royal assassinations and renegade brainwashed super-soldiers (well of course there are!), until our heroes are pushed to the point of choosing teams, with neither camp possessing a monopoly on truth and righteousness. Yes - you'll see both sides and be hard-pressed to pick one.

Dramatically this is good-versus-likewise-good is refreshing. Even the sneaky antagonist introduced into the piece has his own plausible reasons for angling to pit Avenger against Avenger. (The impulse for vengeance is a running theme here, although personal guilt also plays a major part.) And if you expect the film to pull out an easy 'reunited in the face of a common enemy' plot twist in the final act, think again. Marvel's screen writers are too cunning a bunch for something quite so simplistic. 'Civil war' is what's been promised, and it's what this story delivers.
All this sounds overly heavy for a comic-book entertainment, I know, but the film achieves on all fronts, leavening the weightier themes with the studio's trademark humour and with exhilarating action sequences. (The mass super showdown is but one of these - albeit a fan-pleasing doozy). Yes there's a multitude of old-favourite characters to follow and a working knowledge of the earlier films will be useful. The script, however, has enough lightness of touch to keep all the plots bubbling, while daring to throw several newbies into the franchise, one of whom shoots webs from his wrists. (British actor Tom Holland is the youngest, most exuberant incarnation of Spiderman ever to grace the cinema screen, and one of this film's greatest joys.)  
It wasn't my intention when I began this blog (two weeks ago) to feature many blockbuster films. They get enough press without me adding my ten pence' worth and tend to take up too many of the UK's multiplex screens. (Go indie cinema!!!) When the blockbuster in question is as well-constructed, inventive and downright entertaining as Captain America: Civil War, however, expect me to make an exception. Choose a side and get suited up for battle.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Film Review: The Babadook (15)

If it's in a word or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook.
The Babadook is a 2014 Australian horror film and the strikingly accomplished first feature by writer-director Jennifer Kent. If you shy away from horror as a genre, however, be reassured this is as much psychological drama as monster movie - a film to engross, even as it unnerves. Although at points it is deeply unnerving.

The story focuses on Amelia (played by Essie Davis) and her relationship with Samuel, the son who was born to her on the day the boy's father died, en route to the delivery. Seven years later Amelia's sense of bereavement and loneliness is still tangible. Samuel, meanwhile, is fixated more than the average youngster on monsters under the bed, turning out an impressive line in improvised weaponry as protection and driving his mother to the edge of reason with his hyper-active paranoia. 
Things turn darker still, when Amelia discovers and shares a mysterious pop-up book - 'Mister Babadook' - a contender for least appropriate children's story ever set to paper. The 'Babadook' of the storybook's title is a spindle-limbed ghoul in a top-hat, which once invited into your home, so the book promises, will never leave. While Samuel's monster obsession intensifies in response, the sleep-deprived Amelia develops fears of her own. Her reassurances to her son that the Babadook is only a fiction ring increasingly hollow, as signs of a malevolent presence register all around her.
What evolves from this premise is one of the most satisfyingly grown-up horror stories I've seen in years, a tale rooted as much in deep-seated parental fears as in the threat posed by shadowy supernatural creatures. This is a story about a troubled mother-and-son relationship, as well as the long-term effects of grief. The nature of the Babadook remains tantalizingly ambiguous, but the notion that its existence might be rooted in one or both of the characters' psyches only serves to make it more terrifying.

Jennifer Kent's first-timer film-making is assured on every level, starting with the production design; Amelia and Samuel's world is a rambling home cast in a shadowy blue-grey that reflects the mother's bleak state of mind. The Babadook pop-up book has a macabre Gothic beauty that will make you want to own a copy (alright, possibly), while Mister Babadook himself (think the 1922 version of Nosferatu by way of the Brothers Grimm) appears with the less-is-more economy of the best monster flicks. As for the film's chill-quotient, Kent rejects cheap jump-scares and gore in favour of shrewd editing and eerie sound design, which combine to create a steadily escalating sense of menace.
Driving the film throughout, however, is Australian actor Essie Davis. Her performance as Amelia towers to Oscar-winning levels, or would do if the Academy paid attention to low-budget Aussie genre pics. Low-key desperation builds incrementally into frantic psychosis, every nuance of Amelia's fraying sanity playing out with a gruelling conviction, before culminating in something truly volcanic. Matching her admirably is young Noah Wiseman, with one of the more impressive child performances you're ever likely to watch. Samuel is successively winsome, excruciating and deeply vulnerable, the other half of a riveting double-act.
The Babadook is compelling from the off - intelligent and moving, yet unsettling and weird to its dark core. Its shows off its influences with pride - the Expressionist horror of the '20s and The Exorcist are both referenced, while the plot treads into the taboo territory of We Need To Talk About Kevin, with its complex mother-son dynamic. Everything is melded, however, into director Davis' own uniquely frightening fairytale, for an experience that stays with you long after viewing. 

The Mister Babadook storybook isn't lying. I first watched the film months ago and I still haven't got rid. Go on, let him in.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Ed's Filmic Forays - Welcome

Twenty-five years ago (Dear Lord, really?) I could be heard providing features for the Kevin Lewis radio show on Belfast Community Radio. One such feature was a film review slot, where, due to the religious nature of the show, I attempted to wrestle spiritual meaning from disparate titles like The War of the Roses and Twelve Monkeys. Whether or not I succeeded in this endeavour is lost to posterity, unless Kevin has kept any recordings. I like to think he hasn't.

Scroll on ten years, when I fell into conversation with Downtown Radio's Lisa Flavelle and ended up providing film features on her show, with no brief other than to talk about whether or not new releases were any good. We tended to discuss quirky independent films though, only occasionally venturing into the mainstream. I took part on Lisa's afternoon show for around five years, until life and adventure took me across the Irish Sea to Blighty. Good times they were.

I recall, however, an occasion when one of Lisa's fellow-presenters referred to the film reviewer who appeared on his own programme as 'the real thing, as opposed to reviewers on certain other shows'. Ouch. Bit unnecessary, mate. True I hadn't done a day's worth of film studies and was talking in a bit of a vacuum when it came to the breadth of cinematic history, but cut the novice movie reviewer some slack, I thought. I was and remain the enthusiastic amateur when it comes to film (although since then I have read a book by Mark Kermode - that has to count for something, no?).

All of that said, welcome to my new blog. The internet has democratised reviewing, so I'm going to share all my lay-person's dubious opinions on a weekly (maybe twice-weekly) basis and naysayers be damned. There'll be commentary on new film and DVD releases as well as a harking back to old favourites. I'm not ruling out reviews on TV shows or books either. Hell, I bought some of Burt's Guinness-flavoured crisps in Aldi last week, and may provide feedback on them.

As for my tastes in film, they're eclectic - so in the spirit of John Cusack's High Fidelity character, here's a list of five films I find massively rewatchable. It's in no order and very far from exhaustive. Read it and you'll know better know how much common ground we're likely to share as I proceed over weeks to come.

1. The Shawshank Redemption
It's been no. 1 on's 'Top Rated Movies' list forever, which doesn't make it the best film of all time, just a major people-pleaser. I'm one of those people.

2. The Ladykillers   (1955 original)
The final, darkest and funniest film made by Ealing Studios and possibly Alec Guinness's finest hour (apologies to all Star Wars fans, but face it, he phoned it in as Obi-Wan).

3. Magnolia   
It's a sprawlingly ambitious and (arguably) flawed masterpiece. I'll review it on this blog sometime for sure.

4. The Big Lebowski   
It makes me laugh more every time I watch it. If this pattern continues, then one day it may possibly kill me.

5. Twelfth Night   
The 1996 Trevor Nunn version. Poignant and funny and - well - Shakespearian. 

Enough listing. Next time there'll be an actual full review.

Burt's Guinness-flavoured crisps are excellent by the way, second only to Tayto cheese and onion. You should know this.