Thursday, 26 January 2017

Film Review - Manchester by the Sea (15)

I can't beat it. I can't beat it. I'm sorry.
In 2000 I saw a film at Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast, called You Can Count On Me. It was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starred Laura Linney and Mark Ruffolo as bickering siblings trying to iron out their relationship. Put simply, I loved it. And now Lonergan has more than delivered on the promise of that first film. Welcome to Manchester by the Sea

Both Lonergan's movies have a convincing 'slice of life' feel. The characters' faces here look lived-in the first time you see them, and there's a sense as the credits roll of lives that will continue. You've simply had the privilege of hanging out with them for a while. 
Manchester's Lee Chandler is a blue-collar guy working thanklessly as a janitor in Boston, as buttoned-up as the winter jacket he wears. A phone message calls him back to his native Manchester (the Massachusetts variety), to help arrange his older brother's funeral. There aside from the obvious grief, he must deal with an ex-wife, an estranged nephew and a very unexpected piece of news delivered in the will-reading. Lee is reeling from his situation, but the reasons aren't all immediately clear... 
Lonergan's writing and the performances he draws out are steeped in believability. He doesn't do cliche or caricature. What he does do is ordinary characters who are real to the bone, and who simmer with the emotions they often fail to express - whether love, anger or pain. At the heart of this is Casey Affleck, younger brother to Ben. As Lee he is repressed and emotionally inarticulate, but stumbling and groping to do the right thing in unenviable circumstances. If you don't like him from the start, you suspend your judgement nonetheless to see what is going on with this guy - and on that score the story does not let you down.
Also memorable is rising actor Lucas Hedges as Lee's nephew Patrick, his teen bravado undercut by the confusion of bereavement. Scenes of uncle and nephew awkwardly readjusting their relationship are moving and often funny to the point of laughter. As for Michelle Williams as Lee's ex, she's not in many scenes - but God does she make them count. Truth be told every faltering conversation and tiny character moment counts for something here. The minute details of community life are caught by the director's unerring eye and forged into something strikingly authentic. 
Manchester's funereal subject-matter is matched by the depth of the New England winter, but this is far from a cold film. Yes it's profoundly sad (listen to the melancholy of that score), but there is a degree of redemption in the humour, the humanity and the sheer class of the storytelling. Present glides subtly into past as we uncover characters' backstories, then back into the troubled repercussion-strewn present. 

This is a bleak movie for January, no two ways about it. But it grips you and makes you care about these struggling people. And yes, Casey Affleck deserves his shot at that Oscar. Watch and weep, even when poor old Lee cannot.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Film Review - Lion (PG)

I have to find my way back home.
(I'm trying to spoil as little as possible here of a unique and powerful film experience. If only the same could be said for the trailer...)

So - I've seen two films this week, either one of which is enough to make granite weep. And I'm so not granite. Time permitting I'll talk about the second one later in a few days' time while you can still catch it in cinemas. For now let's stick with Lion - a story that will wring your heart out like a sponge.  

Lion is based on real-life autobiography 'A Long Way Home' and tells the story of Saroo, a five-year-old boy in rural India, who due to a cruel fluke of fate is transported thousands of miles from his home district with no idea how to find his way back. Separated from his family he is forced to survive on his own in 1980s Calcutta - a daunting prospect for anyone, let alone a lost and homeless child. Saroo is played as a boy in the film by novice actor Sunny Pawar, and as an adult by Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel; the latter half of the story cuts between the two in memory flashes, creating a seamless sense of one character's life.  
For all its PG certificate, Lion is demanding subject matter and takes its audience into some tough, unsettling places. The opening half hour, charting young Saroo's scary odyssey through Calcutta, is moving and discomfiting by turns, and riveting throughout. Little Sunny Pawar (and he is truly tiny) is a dream of a child actor, his huge eyes catching all the wonder, fear and need of a boy flung into terrifying and bewildering circumstances. The telling of his story is shot and edited to an economic perfection, captured his child's point of view. This is never more powerful than when he is observed searching for a familiar face among the jostling urban masses, while hopelessly far from home.
As for Dev Patel, the promise of his performance in Slumdog is fully realised here. Skinny teenager has developed into strapping adult and Patel's acting has developed some serious muscle too. The grown-up version of the role calls on him to plumb deep emotional reserves and he does so truthfully at every turn. Adult Saroo is caught between the life he is living and emergent memories of the one from which he came, and his anguish at points is palpable. 
The movie's supporting performances are memorable too. Rooney Mara (Cate Blanchett's shop-girl love interest in Carol) adds welcome quirkiness and warmth to proceedings, David Wenham has a likeable charm and Nicole Kidman quietly takes your breath away in a understated yet heartfelt scene of confession. From start to finish the film maintains a sense of gritty emotional truth, blindsiding you time and again with how well it captures the central character's plight. 
Lion is a tale of one man's quest to resolve his own conflict of identity. It's also a testimony to the plight of India's lost children and for that reason alone will move you to tears. Combined with that it's an exquisitely crafted and inventive piece of storytelling, full of both tragedy and elation.

As for the significance of the title, you'll have to wait till the very end. And if you're like me, even that will render you into helpless little pieces. This is a film that very simply needs to be seen.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Film Review - La La Land (12A)

Here's to the ones who dream.
La La Land arrives in the UK with enough five-star reviews to light a summer-night Los Angeles sky and six Golden Globes to boot. That makes for a lot of expectation, all of which I tried to jettison on entering the cinema, so I could sit back and experience the film on its own terms. Five minutes in I was wearing a stupid grin and my feet were moving rhythmically beyond my control. Yes, it had me that early. 
The story is simple. Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress running the gauntlet of LA auditions. Ryan Gosling plays Seb, a jazz pianist reduced to playing Christmas jingles in a restaurant, instead of performing the music that he loves. They meet, they banter, romantic sparks light up the firmament. Both want love, along with success in their artistic field. Can they have it all?
La La Land feels real, even though it's filtered through the style of classic Hollywood musicals. The grainy realism of modern romantic drama meshes with glorious technicolour dance routines. Think Singin' in the Rain meets Woody Allen. If you've reservations about the style, the film doesn't. It sets out its stall in the opening minutes and lets you deal with it.

Director Damien Chazelle brought us the incendiary music-school film Whiplash and his daring shows even more here. Dance sequences are shot in apparent single takes, the camera's choreography as superb as that of the dancers. Showbiz pizazz ebbs into realism, before flowing back into full-blown Hollywood glamour, but all the tonal changes work perfectly. The editing is super-sharp too, spinning audience emotions on a dime. LA is made gorgeous - never more luminous than in the lovers' dance-duet overlooking the city. (Not a spoiler - that bit's on the poster.)
Credit is also due to the leads. Stone and Gosling's chemistry burns up the screen. Mia is sassy and vulnerable, a fine actress played by a fine actress. Seb has confidence and wit, undercut with earnestness. Together they're a joy to watch - you'll be rooting for them to succeed individually and as a couple. Gosling actually learned to play jazz piano for his role and that they both trained to sing and dance like Golden Era movie stars. If they don't quite scale the technical heights of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, they make up for it with buckets of charm and likability. 
I haven't even mentioned the music. There are three tunes vying for attention in my head as I write this, that's how well they stick. And the ending - this story is a ride, and the end-point is beautifully judged. I shall say no more. 

Is the film perfect? Technically pretty much, on every level. There are a few dots that needed joining in the subplots, but even saying that feels like nitpicking - I feel too good about this film to go looking for criticisms. So I'm going to chuck another five stars at this tale of love and artistic ambition for its sheer joy and accomplishment.

Now ignore this review along with all the others and go experience La La Land for yourself.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Film Review - Silence (15)

I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?
Director Martin Scorsese dealt with Christianity in his controversy-baiting The Last Temptation of Christ and with Buddhism in Kundun. Now he brings the two crashing together in a brutal and tortuous epic, which spares neither its audience nor its central protagonist Padre Rodrigues. Silence is a tough, demanding watch, but also a reminder of what a challenging and fearless director Scorsese can be.

Set largely in 17th Century Japan, the story is of Rodrigues and Garrpe, two young Catholic priests, whose mentor Father Feirrera (Liam Neeson) is rumoured to have recanted his beliefs while pursuing missionary work. Japan's Christians are suffering fierce persecution at the time, but Feirrera's former pupils refuse to accept that so godly a man could have been made to reject his religion. 
Thus the padres (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), set out across Japan to find him. Their guide is a drunken, shambling character of dubious motives named Kichijiro (rather reminiscent of Gollum leading hobbits to Mordor). The events that follow test both priests' faith to its limits, in ways neither could have imagined. 
Silence is a study of faith under pressure and of the doubts that inevitably result. It also wrestles, as do its protagonists, with issues of truth and with what happens when contrasting cultures and beliefs collide. This is grand and ambitious storytelling. Events play out on an often gorgeous backdrop, both natural and architectural, which does nothing to ease the cruelty on display. It's also intimate, dealing with seismic world events by focusing on the struggles of individual human experience.

At the core of the film are a clutch of heartfelt performances. Driver is tempestuous as Garrpe and Garfield excels as the earnest Rodrigues. His dark, arduous night of the soul is reminiscent of Christ's passion, and he portrays it with depth and conviction. By the end of the film you'll have gone through it with him.
The Japanese cast is impressive too. The Christian characters are moving, while the Buddhism-embracing authorities are never caricatured, despite the cruelty of their actions. As an ageing Inquisitor and his translator, Issei Ogata and Tadanobu Asano are both inscrutable and fascinating. The debates between them and Rodrigues are some of the movie's most intriguing scenes - unnerving, philosophical and even bizarrely funny at points.
Silence is not flawless. At times the sheer length of Scorsese's film can be felt. The lingering camerawork is more appropriate here than The Wolf of Wall Street's rapid-fire editing, but at times the pacing is a bit too languid. The religious symbolism of Rodrigues' story is also hammered home more than necessary by the script. 

None of that takes away from the film's harsh beauty however, or its thematic depth. Yes there are distressing scenes, but there's also a sense of a writer/director grappling with very personal issues of belief and doubt in an unforgiving world. In more ways than one this is a passion project. And like last week's A Monster Calls, it doesn't flinch when dealing with tough questions. 
(Okay, maybe a bit too tough. I promised reviews of cinematic treats in 2017. I think next we need a visit to La La Land soon. What do you think?)

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Film Review - A Monster Calls (12A)

How does this story begin? With a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man.
Now here's a true original to start the year - a fantasy film with more struggle and heartbreak than many dramas that limit themselves to pure realism. Question is, for all that it's marketed as a family film, who's it really aimed at in the end? I'm still not sure.

A Monster Calls tells the story of twelve-year-old Conor O'Malley, a lad who we learn early on is struggling to cope with his mother's devastating illness. Dad is nowhere to be seen, Grandma is austere and distant, and school has traumas of its own, so Conor conjures up a friend from his young artist's imagination - a giant fearsome tree-man. As imaginary friends go, the tree monster is terrifying, voiced with Liam Neeson's growly lower register and sharing some decidedly comfort-free stories with the boy. So begins Conor's tough journey towards understanding and some kind of hope at the hands of his unsettling, self-uprooted mentor.
For a children's story involving a talking tree, A Monster Calls is unflinching in its portrayal of a boy's pain. Young actor Lewis MacDougall has a natural pathos as Conor, whether when he's brooding silently or raging against the demands life has placed upon his schoolboy shoulders. Equally affecting is Rogue One's Felicity Jones as Conor's ailing mother, conveying bravery and compassion, tinged with fear more for her boy than for herself. The situation they portray is quietly heart-rending.
The supporting performances are good here too. Sigourney Weaver is strong and brittle as Gran (try to get past her wonky Brit accent), and Toby Kebbell plays Conor's absentee dad as likeable, if rendered utterly helpless. Neeson meanwhile rumbles with authority and menace as the 'monster', while Conor either quails in fear or rails against the lessons he must learn. All the cast tackle the subject matter squarely - too squarely perhaps for younger viewers. The screenplay's grimness is unleavened by much humour and even the magical elements can prove as dark as the reality.

Ultimately it's the film's sheer physical beauty, along with its compassion, that redeems it from despair. Director J.A.Bayona (of Asian tsunami drama The Impossible) selects and frames every shot to perfection and the cinematography is glorious throughout. Both mother and son are artistic, the sketches and water-colours they have created evolving into vivid animations as the monster tells his stories. The monster himself is spectacularly realised, volcanic fire glowering beneath the creature's gnarly frame, and every movement suggesting his awesome power. Stirring stuff, particularly when monster and boy join forces in carrying out some cathartic destruction.
A Monster Calls is a fascinating, difficult film. The story from which it was adapted stemmed from writer Siobhan Dowd, who was as gravely ill as Conor's mother when she conceived the tale, perhaps explaining its striking honesty and psychological weight. Hope is hard-earned here, and older cinema-goers with a love of gorgeously crafted film might be a more natural audience than children of Conor's age. Unless, that it, those children are unlucky enough to know what he's going through. 

This film is no cheap tear-jerker. It feels, and it feels with depth. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Feature - 2017: (Filmic) Reasons to be Cheerful

I was partaking of a delicious and urgently required breakfast on New Year's morning together with friends, when what should pop up on the playlist than Ian Dury and the Blockheads' Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3. It was a reminder (thank you to my very solicitous host) of what we need at the beginning of 2017, a year already fraught with uncertainty and potential gloom. That'd be things to look forward to. Pleasures to help us live in the moment, while not giving up on the future. Reasons, in short, to be cheerful.

Well let me assure you there are plenty of cinematic ones on the way. In those terms, if in no other, 2017 promises to be a very good year indeed. So let me contribute to your personal 'cheerful list' by suggesting one film to be released in the UK each month that you might want to investigate. It's very far from exhaustive, but allow yourself to be tantalized. 

January - La La Land
This month is a complete embarrassment of riches in cinema terms, so much so that I'll have to go the the flicks twice a week every week to cover everything essential. But let me choose this one - the much talked-about musical by the director of the riveting Whiplash. Supposedly it can convert even the most ardent hater of musicals. This could be the perfect antidote to your January blues.

February - Moonlight
Receiving great reviews in the US, this tells the story of young black American Chiron. Three actors chart his journey from childhood in a Miami ghetto to young adulthood. It'll be a much tougher view of America than La La Land, but fingers crossed the uplift comes through great film-making.

March - Beauty and the Beast 
Disney make a live-action version of their animated classic. Emma Watson is Belle, while Ewan McGregor is the talking candlestick. A bit of a departure from his return as Renton in January's T2 Trainspotting. Is the House of Mouse wise in reworking one of their most successful features? Tag along with your children/nephews/nieces to find out.

April - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Donald Trump will have been President for three months by the time of this release. We may need something this big, this daft and this much fun. (There'll be three Marvel Studio releases this year, including adventures for Spiderman and Thor. Let's hope they're all massively entertaining to distract us, if only for an evening.)

May - The Zookeeper's Wife
From the trailer we know that it looks ravishing and has lots of furry critters. But it's also a Schindler-esque tale of survival in Nazi-occupied Poland. Jessica Chastain stars. She tends to be very good. 

June - My Cousin Rachel
Rachel Weisz plays Rachel Ashley in what should be a spooky Daphne du Maurier adaptation. It'll have revenge, mystery, romance and a Cornish setting for those suffering from Poldark withdrawal.

July - War for the Planet of the Apes
Rise of was far better than anyone expected it to be. Dawn of was pretty damn stunning, with Andy Serkis superb as ape-protagonist Caesar. Can War for bring it home as a great prequel trilogy? Come on. Come on!!!!!

August - Baby Driver
Edgar Wright should be one of the biggest-name directors by now after the trio of genre comedies that kicked off with Shaun of the Dead. However audiences haven't flocked to see his more recent stuff. This crime thriller with a sizzling-hot cast might just set him back on track. (I promise never to use the phrase 'sizzling hot cast' again.)

September - It
It is my favourite Stephen King novel - and while Tim Curry was great as Pennywise the Clown in the 1990 TV adaptation, as a whole that version simply didn't capture the imagination and menace of the book. Maybe this time around it will all come good. Expect grisliness, dark humour and intensity, along with a clutch of hopefully strong child performances.

October - Blade Runner 2049
Harrison Ford revisits his role (he's doing that a lot these days) as replicant-hunter Deckard, in this sequel to the 1982 science fiction dystopian classic. Ryan Gosling takes the lead. This could be a really good idea. Or not. October will tell.

November - Murder on the Orient Express
Kenneth Branagh directs this re-imagining of the Agatha Christie novel. He also plays Hercule Poirot. It boasts an impressive cast including Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Penelope Cruz. This could be a really good idea. Or not. November will tell.

December - Star Wars Episode VIII
It's the one after VII and the one before IX. It's also Carrie Fisher's swansong. For that alone you'll go see it, right? It might also (and really should) take the franchise into new, unexpected territory. May the Force take us through to the end of the year unscathed.

Okay - my one-film-per-month conceit hasn't scratched the surface of all the cinematic delight on offer this year. January alone is stupid with movies to make your mouth water (such as Silence and Jackie and Manchester by the Sea). I'll do my best to keep you up to speed with it all in a fresh and spoiler-free fashion. So be cheerful, be positive, and seek out great films in 2017. I'll be with you every step of the way.