Sunday, 26 February 2017

Film Review - Fences (12)

Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.
Fences is an adaptation of the Tony award-winning stage play by August Wilson, and clearly a passion project of Denzel Washington, who played the lead in a recent revival of the show. He brings it to the screen as director with all the adult cast from the theatre production intact, including himself as alpha-male Troy Maxson and Viola Davis as his loyal but long-suffering wife Rose. Both they and the film itself were Oscar-nominated, and as I write, Davis has just garnered a Best Supporting Actress statuette. It's well-deserved.
The film version of Fences threatens to be a one-man show, with the character of Troy towering over all else. He's a garbage disposal worker and one-time professional baseball hopeful, who parades his blue-collar credentials as a grim badge of pride. Here is a larger-than-life character - a blustering storm of hoary old stories, self-aggrandizement and chip-on-shoulder raging against his employers. His determination to be a more dependable father than his own ever was, laudable in itself, verges on tyranny. And for all his do-the-right-thing protestations, he struggles with demons that will threaten his family life before the story is done. 
Troy is described at one point as 'filling the house', and Washington's performance certainly fills the cinema screen with a power and velocity that seldom lets up. It's almost too big at points, and the more subdued performances of his fellow-actors provide a welcome counterpoint. Davis in particular does more with silence than Washington does with noise - and when she does finally let her feelings out, it'll remind you of why she gained that Oscar statue. There's a whole lot to be said for understatement.
England-born Jovan Adepo also impresses in a low-key role as Troy's younger son Cory, a boy seeking to establish himself in the world, despite his overshadowing father. Stephen Henderson is massively likable as Jim Bono, Troy's oldest friend and confidant, while Mykelti Williamson is never less than convincing as Gabe, Troy's mentally disabled brother. (This is the actor who played 'Bubba' in Forrest Gump - see how casting directors think?)
If this showcase of fine acting has one flaw, it's that it never takes flight from its stage play origins to work as a film. The screenplay keeps much of the action around the Maxson household, with an entire outside world alluded to, while seldom being shown. When Corey arrives home in his football gear, it feels like he's walked on set rather than from a sports field. Key characters only referred to, need to be shown. In truth the dialogue-heavy script, which no doubt works a treat in a theatre, needs chopping and rearranging, so that the world of the play can be thrown open for the screen.

Cinema needs to work in its own terms - and sadly, for all its strengths, this doesn't. See it however for a clutch of excellent actors at the top of their game - for Washington's grandstanding and Davis' dignified, award-winning tears. The latter alone are worth your ticket price.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Film Review - Hidden Figures (PG)

Al: So do you think we'll get to the moon?
Katherine: We're already there, sir.
Hidden Figures, based on remarkable real-life events, combines two very different struggles. Firstly it's a film in the tradition of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, dealing with America's endeavours in the space race. On top of that it engages in a fresh and unexpected way with the efforts of African American women to achieve equal footing in a society that discriminates against them twice over. It's a determinedly old-fashioned piece of storytelling and avoids being corny by virtue of strong, restrained writing and a clutch of excellent central performances. 

The year is 1962 and astronaut Scott Glenn in months away from his historic space flight around the globe in the Friendship 7 capsule. But he can only get there courtesy of the numbers produced by NASA's mathematicians. A significant proportion of these, amazingly for the era, is a pool of highly educated black women, who nonetheless are cordoned off to work in a 'colored' section of the Space Agency. And in this struggle between progressive and reactionary thinking lies much of the film's tension.
The story centres on the travails of three friends in the 'pool', each of whom fights hard to make an impact in her field. Mary Jackson , the youngest of the three (played by recording artist Janelle Monae), is all glamour and sass, but with a steely determination when it comes to pursuing her goal of becoming an engineer. Dorothy Vaughn (The Help's Octavia Spencer) is the big sister of the group - her no-nonsense approach challenging all who enter her orbit. And Katherine Goble (bona fide TV star Taraji P. Henson) threatens to eclipse all the rest, when she is brought into the heart of NASA operations to calculating the mission's flight path. 

As individuals and as a trio, these three drive the narrative - fighting petty rules and ingrained prejudices on a daily working basis. Henson is particularly impressive - occasionally flustered by the indignities thrust upon her, but ploughing ahead nonetheless with geeky intensity. A romantic subplot does nothing to detract from the woman's achievements, her scientific and social breakthroughs providing several of the movie's dramatic high-points.
Support is refreshingly supplied by the men this time around. As mission controller Al Harrison, Kevin Costner exudes quiet authority. Moonlight's Mahershala Ali is a warm and dignified beau for the widowed Katherine. And Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory fame sheds all his Sheldon-isms to portray a scientist who's genuinely difficult to like. 
This is the women's show, however, and a tribute to pioneers in gender and racial politics, as well as in science. The film turns out to be grounded satisfyingly in real-life events too, some of the more Hollywood-seeming flourishes proving from a little research to be perfectly true. Take John Glenn's reaction to Katherine's brilliance - that's genuinely what he said of her.
All kinds of frontiers are being pushed back in a tale that's funny, infuriating and moving in turns, but which ultimately inspires. Hidden Figures may break no new ground in the style, but the genre-mashing subject-matter is original through and through - a story that demanded to be told.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Film Review - T2 Trainspotting (18)

It's nostalgia. You're a tourist in your own youth.
You remember the first time you saw it, don't you? A shaven-headed Ewan McGregor legging it down that Edinburgh street laden with stolen goods, Iggy Pop's Lust for Life his driving accompaniment. Trainspotting, adapted from Irving Welsh's novel of young lives supercharged then stymied by heroin addiction, provided a very different shot in the arm for British cinema. The film was vibrant, amoral and darkly humorous - and at points quite devastating. It also became iconic. A sequel could only serve to diminish the original, right?

Let me allay those fears. T2 Trainspotting acts as a dynamic companion piece to the first movie, with unique reasons for its own existence. 
Twenty years have passed since Mark Renton (McGregor) ran off with the proceeds of the drug deal he carried out with his mates, enraging Sick Boy and the psychotic Begbie, but having tossed Spud a consolation prize of several grand. T2 Trainspotting's opening sequence brings us swiftly up to speed with where two decades have taken our dubious heroes. 
Renton has spent the intervening years clean and sober in Amsterdam, but a change in circumstances brings him home to Edinburgh and the friends he betrayed. Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) is running a seedy blackmailing scam with his much younger partner Veronika. Francis Begbie (the hilarious yet genuinely frightening Robert Carlyle) is predictably spending time at Her Majesty's Pleasure, but with no intention of staying there long. And poor tragic Spud has lost everything from the drug habit he never managed to defeat. What transpires when these old associates reconnect is consistently surprising and entertaining, and has greater power to move than their escapades back in 1996.
There are several reasons for the success of this follow-up. For starters it contains the DNA of the first film like they've shared a needle. Along with the four leads and a smattering of the old secondary characters, Danny Boyle is back directing, providing a similarly edgy sensibility and sense of the unexpected to the one he achieved before; the dark and the outrageously funny are as tightly woven, with moments to make you wince, laugh and curl up defensively in your cinema seat. All at once.
McGregor and co invest totally in the older but not necessarily wiser versions of their characters. Renton is smart and charming, but with life's tough lessons weighing on his soul. Sick Boy is desperate to retain the cool persona of his twenty-something days. Begbie still has power to terrify, with unexpected chinks of humanity glinting from under his hard-boiled exterior. And Spud is a masterclass in tragi-comedy, Bremner all but stealing the film from his fellow-actors. 
The thing that makes T2 Trainspotting more than 'more of the same' is the twenty-year time lapse. This is a film about the perspective provided by middle-age on the mistakes of youth, and how getting older does not always result in maturity. The ghosts of the first movie haunt the protagonists throughout, even as they embark on new adventures, but whether or not any atonement can be made for the missteps of the past remains in doubt. You'll hope that Mark can make some kind of peace and that Spud is more than simply doomed, but only watching till the end will bring any kind of resolution to those questions.
There are good and bad reasons for creating a sequel to a loved film twenty years on. The reasons behind T2 Trainspotting are sound - and the result comes close to cinema gold.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Film Review - Hacksaw Ridge (15)

Help me get one more.
Mel Gibson is back in the director's chair and he's in brutal, hard-hitting form. If last week's Manchester by the Sea was all frozen emotions, Hacksaw Ridge wears its bloody heart on its sleeve. Love and loss, fear and rage, faith and sacrifice - this film pulses with them from its opening frames. War is hell, and it can strangle a man's better nature - but not, apparently, if your name is Private Desmond Doss.
Hacksaw Ridge tells an obscure story from World War Two history of a Seventh Day Adventist from rural Virginia (played in the film by Andrew Garfield), who wanted to serve as a medic in the US Army, without ever bearing a weapon. Doss's pacifism is a strange fit in the military, subject to wrath and ridicule, but it belies a unique kind of courage. The film's early stages establish the roots of Desmond's beliefs (a war-traumatised father and devout Christian mother) and follow his problematic army training, where a Conscientious Objector with a desire to serve is viewed as bizarre at best, and at its worst deeply offensive. 
How Doss overcomes those prejudices leads us into the dark and violent final act of the film - his platoon's near-suicidal assault on the vertiginous Hacksaw Ridge, during the Battle of Okinawa. The precept of saving life when all others are taking is his guiding light, and the result is an astonishing story of hope and the power of faith amid war's insanity. The phrase 'you wouldn't believe it if it wasn't true' has never been more apt.
Hacksaw Ridge holds two very distinct styles of film in tension. The early scenes - Doss's rough-and-tumble family life, his romance with an Army nurse, even aspects of his training - have an old-fashioned Hollywood quality to them, replete with moments of sweetness and humour. When the clash of war occurs, however, it does so with a ferocity unsurpassed even in the likes of Saving Private Ryan or Gibson's own Braveheart. The violence is vivid and unsparing - visceral in a very literal way - and the terror of its combatants on both sides is tangible. The shocking power of these sequences, however, only serves to highlight the humanity and valour of the film's hero.
As Doss, Garfield is simply superb, portraying the lad as a guileless romantic early on and then quietly revealing the depth of his conviction, as it comes under all manner of attack. His army comrades are sufficiently sketched for us to care about them when they are plunged into battle and Vince Vaughn conveys harsh wit with a hint of compassion as the platoon's drill sergeant. There's complexity too in Doss's father - pain amid his sometimes abusive anger - as played by Hugo Weaving. 
This film will be remembered, however, for it portrayal of compassion amid stunningly realised carnage. Hacksaw Ridge never succeeds in resolving the moral contradiction between Doss's version of pacifism and the bloodier form of bravery shown by his fellow-soldiers, nor could it. What it does, however, is celebrate one man's commitment to his principles, and remind us that courage comes in some unusual guises.
Mel Gibson remains a complex and controversial figure. For this movie, however, he deserves a firm handshake.