Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Film Review - Their Finest (12A)

We need a story to inspire a nation.
It's refreshing amid the current slew of Hollywood genre movies to see a British film with a flavour all its own. Their Finest is a wartime comedy-drama that pretty much succeeds on both those fronts, not least due to its sharply-honed dialogue. And that's fitting - the heroine is a screen-writer and the film's main theme the power of the written (to-be-spoken) word.
Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a Welsh secretary drafted in by the Ministry of Information during World War Two, to write the so-called 'slop', i.e. women's dialogue in the propaganda films of the time. There she must deal with caustic attitude of fellow-writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and the chauvinism of the studio, while pitching a story for the inspiring feature they want to make. Her big idea: real-life twin sisters who set out in their father's fishing boat for Dunkirk during its evacuation. Lined up for a character part in their film is washed-up actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), a one-time leading man none too eager to embrace his unflattering role.
Their Finest is a movie of numerous strengths. For a start it looks magnificent. Blitz-ravaged London streets, Tube station bomb-shelters and Whitehall antechambers are all realised in the kind of detail at which Brit period dramas excel. The dialogue is much to which the wartime writing team aspire - smart, incisive and funny. And the story teases out multiple fascinating themes, from the manipulation of truth in shaping a narrative, to women's wartime emancipation and male resistance to it. Plus the comedy is tempered by persistent aerial bombardment, a sense of threat hanging literally above it.
Of course the primary aim is to entertain and on this the cast deliver. Arterton shines gently and steadily as 'Mrs Cole', her mild exterior belying a growing toughness of spirit. Star-in-the-ascendant Claflin is an enjoyable source of sardonic wit, and Rachael Stirling impresses as an openly feminist Ministry employee with a sharp tongue and sharper mind. But if this is anyone's finest hour, it's Nighy's. He's already built up a huge reserve of good favour with cinema-goers and here he trades on it to the full, as the precious but ultimately loveable fading actor. It's Bill at his Nighy-est and he snags most of the laugh-out-loud moments shamelessly.
If the film has one flaw it's one for which Catrin would have her screen-writing knuckles rapped. 'Too long', she's told of her early script attempts. 'Lose half.' The pacing of Their Finest is sluggish at times in its execution, but it doesn't need to lose anywhere near as much as fifty per cent. Ten/fifteen minutes' worth of hard editing would sharpen the whole piece. 

There's much to relish here even so, not least the manner in which the film-within-a-film comes together and how Catrin fights for female heroism to be represented within it. Whether or not our intrepid wartime propagandists make a film to stir the national blood I'll let you find out for yourself. Their Finest isn't quite that of British cinema - but it's still pretty damn fine.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Retro Review - Guardians of the Galaxy (12)

We're just like Kevin Bacon.
The first five minutes of Guardians of the Galaxy encapsulate the spirit of the whole film. They involve a scene of heart-rending pathos, quickly swallowed up in a moment of cartoon sci-fi craziness. It's going to be a ride, we're assured - thrilling, recklessly silly and tear-jerking by unexpected turns. What follows more than lives up to those opening moments.
Guardians was the Marvel Studios wild card - no Iron Man, Hulk or Thor in sight, just a ragtag bunch of misfits no one other than hardcore comic book fans had heard of. Chris Pratt in the lead role had yet to prove himself as a leading man, so the whole enterprise sold itself on the energy and humour of its trailer. It didn't mis-sell either. Audiences loved the finished product, making it arguably the biggest cinematic surprise of 2014.
Pratt plays Peter Quill, cheerfully amoral space mercenary (think a more upbeat Han Solo) and self-styled 'Starlord', who will steal and sell any item that'll fetch a decent profit. In this case it's a mysterious orb, for which everyone, including some very unsavoury bright-blue characters, is searching. Quill's attempts to hold possession of said orb land him in prison and in the company of the aforementioned motley associates - a green-skinned female assassin called Gamora, a tattooed man-mountain on a revenge mission, a genetically engineered wise-cracking raccoon and a giant sentient tree with a comically limited vocabulary. 
Why they stay together and how they attain the 'guardians of the galaxy' label would involve way too much tedious recounting of plot - and plot is not primarily why this film works. The orb is a classic Macguffin as Alfred Hitchcock termed it, i.e. the object that serves as an excuse for all the running about and dodging of danger. What matters primarily here is the character interaction as they run, duck and fight - incessant well-honed comedy bickering, rapid-fire and consistently funny. Our heroes are clumped together out of necessity, have nothing (obvious) in common and can't wait to be rid of each other. And we all know how that's going to end. 
Guardians of the Galaxy takes the much-vaunted 'fun' of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and cranks up its volume to near deafening. This film is colourful in more senses than its characters' rainbow skin-tones and the bright pastels of its numerous settings. It's as vivid and bizarrely populated a galaxy as that in Star Wars, with an added Hitch-Hiker's Guide sense of lunacy. It also finds a good pretext in Peter Quill's Earthly origins to pepper the soundtrack with 70s/80s soft-rock and disco classics, to massively crowd-pleasing effect.
Pratt and a spiky Zoe Saldana are splendid as the male and female leads, ex-wrestler Dave Bautista entertainingly po-faced as the good-hearted but vengeance-driven Drax and Michael Rooker wickedly funny as Quill's one-time mentor Yondu. But it's a coin-toss between Rocket and Groot (the raccoon and his tree-bodyguard) as to who steals the film. In fact the heroes are such an entertaining bunch, that the actual villains can't quite match up. Maybe in the sequel...
For sequel there will be, and its arrival on a screen near all of us is imminent. So if you feel like a double-dose of action-comedy space-opera with added touchy-feely moments, catch up with the original now. 

People assured me I should do just that. People were right.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Film Review - Get Out (12A)

It's all good, right?
Get Out is a striking horror/thriller and the directorial debut of actor and writer Jordan Peele. It's also as provocative a social satire as you're likely to see in 2017. While the film is rooted in a well-established genre and plays to all the horror tropes you'd expect, it also tackles issues of race and cultural insensitivity with the force of a quarterback. 
Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young freelance photographer about to venture to Alabama to meet his white girlfriend's parents for the first time. They're liberal-minded, she assures him, fans of Barack Obama, who'll be more than cool regarding their daughter's black boyfriend. So it seems, with a parental welcome almost over-the-top in its enthusiasm. But something feels off-kilter from the start, not least the curiously vacant expressions of this privileged white couple's African-American groundsman and housemaid. Chris's initial reservations gradually intensify into out-and-out paranoia as the weekend progresses. Something, although he can't quite identify its exact nature, is very wrong here indeed.
The most impressive aspect of Get Out is the extent to which it refreshes and has (decidedly wicked) fun with the horror cliches on which it is built. Even the title references the advice audiences have been giving to hapless horror protagonists for decades - Don't stand there gawping, just get out! 
From the unexpected choice of music in the film's memorable opening sequences everything seems a little bit disconcerting, a little bit off. The central interracial relationship is warm and reassuring, but every other aspect - performances, soundscape, camerawork - strikes a dissonant note, and the cumulative effect has you cringing in your seat. Tension is built up with well-paced craft, so that the occasional jump-scares do what they're meant to. They scare, you jump. Cinema-going strangers then look around at each other to acknowledge Yes, it's okay - that scared the crap out of me too. You've got to love it when a film succeeds on that level.

The central horror conceit of the movie takes some selling - this story starts off like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner but hits Stepford Wives territory before too long - and a host of good performances are key. Kaluuya is a strong lead (you may recognise him from one of numerous British TV appearances), his determinedly-polite-boyfriend routine gradually fraying as he grasps the bizarre nature of his situation. Allison Williams is sympathetic too as his fiercely loyal girlfriend, while Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener will creep you out from the get-go as her smiling parents. Neither is quite as creepy, though, as Walter and Georgina, the zombie-esque household servants. 
There's also welcome comic relief in the form of Chris's best buddy Rob (comedian LilRel Howery), whose end-of-phone-line presence is infectiously funny. Rather than detract from the film's menace, however, it serves as a real-world reminder of how messed up Chris's claustrophobic situation really is. Our likeable hero really ought to get packing.
The theme of racism and how it manifests itself in modern American culture (and no doubt beyond) is served well here throughout. Nor are any punches pulled in the movie's insane latter stages; this is a story that dares to push its audience's buttons and to challenge their preconceptions. It's also a big old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, crafted to have that same audience gasping, laughing and clutching their arm-rests from one moment to the next. It's an assured debut from Peele - a writer with much to say and, it turns out, the directorial nous to say it with style. Expect to hear from him again, and don't expect it to be comfortable.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Film Review - Ghost in the Shell (12)

We cling to our memories as if they define us, but they don't. What we do is what defines us.
I'm no aficionado of manga comic books, but I do like a good dystopian vision of the future (even if it all looks worryingly possible). Ghost in the Shell, whatever else it does, presents a fascinating twisted future-scape that never lets up on stunning visual detail.
The film is a live-action version of a 1995 Japanese animation, which in turn is based on a series of manga comics. In short this Ghost is a franchise phenomenon, beloved by manga buffs worldwide, so that the new movie bears the weight of huge fan expectations. Even prior to release it had ruffled feathers due to accusations of 'white-washing', main Oriental characters having been replaced by Caucasian actors (including Scarlett Johannsen in the lead role). Ironically a move to broaden the film's appeal internationally may now be harming its performance at the box-office, as disgruntled fans stay away.
That aside - what's it about, and is it much good?

The story has an intriguing science-fiction set-up, depicting a future where cyborgs (part human, part robot) are close to the norm. Johannsen plays Major Motoko Kusanagi, a woman so physically maimed in what she's told was a terrorist attack, that her brain has been transplanted within a purely synthetic body. Her consciousness is, therefore, the 'ghost in the shell' of the film's title. Now she works as a supremely able and cyber-enhanced counter-terrorism operative, working on behalf of a cybernetics corporation. We join her in the thick of operations, striving to hunt down a terrorist who can successfully hack the human mind, and shortly before she makes a shattering discovery regarding her own true identity.
Scarlet's visual appeal aside, I entered the screening with no great enthusiasm. This was, after all, a CGI-heavy action-fest in a world of which I had no prior knowledge. Plus it was Friday and sleep was threatening. Scarjo and co took their time to claim my full interest, but it got me in the end.

Aesthetically the film is a thing of beauty from start to finish. Futuristic Hong Kong (and the long-time HK resident with whom I watched the movie assured me it was an imaginative future vision of the city he loves) has been given the Blade Runner treatment, crowding every frame with giant holographic advertisements and advanced transport networks - a thrumming neon cityscape. The tech is all realised to perfection and the action sequences are similarly seamless, taking Matrix-influenced effects and pushing them into sequences of stylised wonder. One way or another, you're never short of stuff to look at.
My initial problem was how much I cared about any of the high-octane shenanigans going on. Characterisation happens on the hoof and Johannsen's 'Major' is cold and elusive - like her Avengers Black Widow character, only with even more emotion cyber-engineered out of her. Her driving physicality in the role is striking, as is her 'mission-look' - a synthetic form of strangely asexual nudity, like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth. It's only later on when she is confronted by her past and starts to betray emotion that the story lands any real emotional hooks. The connections she has with fellow operative Batou and the scientist who constructed her cyborg self (the always excellent Juliette Binoche) were touching. By the end I was genuinely engaged.
Ghost in the Shell comes dogged with controversy and its style triumphs somewhat over the substance. That style, however, is undeniably impressive, and there's enough philosophical weight to make the whole enterprise worthwhile. If last week's Life doesn't make it into my DVD science fiction section, this one will.

Monday, 10 April 2017

TV Feature - Line of Duty (15)

The one thing we both know: the easiest way to get away with killing somebody? Be a police officer.
And here's a quotation from me as opposed to the show: 'Line of Duty is the most consistently gripping crime drama since season one of 24. Fact.'
Ah, the joy of the box-set. It's twofold in my opinion. Firstly you can field TV recommendations from your friends and commit to a show, avoiding evenings of grim channel-trawling; it's the ultimate in selective viewing. Secondly it provides instant resolution of cliffhangers - none of this waiting a week (and sometimes the guts of a year) to find out whether that gunshot wound proves fatal to your favourite character. To hell with delayed gratification, let's watch the next episode now - because we've got it right here!

Take Line of Duty. I've been literally pedalling through the first three series on my exercise bike, timing things so I can slam the whole of series four while it's still available on BBC iPlayer. Mind you if they stretch to a fifth, and I really hope they do, I'll commit to the week-by-week plod of old. Yes - Line of Duty is that good.
What's the gist? It's all set around AC12, a fictional anti-corruption unit within the UK police force. Headed up by Adrian Dunbar's Ted Hastings, these are the terriers sniffing out officers who take bribes, plant evidence and carry out unlawful killings. Each series centers on one such internal investigation, although as the show progresses longer-term story threads unspool, webs of conspiracy expand and familiar faces return to haunt and provoke. It grabs hold of viewers early and the clutch only tightens. At this rate series four might asphyxiate. 

The reasons for the tight grip are manifold, but chief is the oversight of writer/producer Jed Mercurio. Ten years ago he brought us Bodies, a saga of medical malpractice in a gynaecology and obstetrics ward, which was simultaneously unmissable and unwatchable (a combination that does terrible things to the human brain, let me tell you). There he honed his mastery of tight-squeezing tension, a skill that Line of Duty makes use of to the full. 
The show is rooted deep in police procedure, giving it a sense of realism even through its most jolting plot twists. It's never more engrossing than during its extended police interview sequences, when cornered coppers spar verbally with their AC12 interrogators, trying to protect guilty secrets at every turn. This is daring, nuanced stuff - strewn with police rule-book jargon, but more like a high-stakes poker game between well-matched opponents. Scintillating throughout. Then from the interview room and covert office conversations it bursts into occasional bloody violence. AC12 prod some dangerous animals in their investigations, ones well capable of biting back, and the consequences can steal your breath.
The main reason I love the show, however, is that it foregoes black and white, dwelling instead in the murky gray of moral compromise. Few characters are easy to like, including our ostensible heroes. The AC12 regulars are snoops after all, delving into the secrets of their police colleagues, gaining trust in the name of exposing secrets - and they're not without failings of their own. You'll warm to Detective Sergeants Steve Arnott and Kate Fleming, while still slapping your forehead at the sometimes dubious choices they make. And if you're like me you'll love Dunbar as Hastings - a rock of integrity with an ironic twist to his mouth and a grim hatred of corruption in the force, but not beyond making mistakes in his own life.
As for those being investigated, each series has its own flawed protagonist at the story's core. In series one it's Lennie James as a fascinating study in how bad choices affect a good man. Then the spotlight falls on Keeley Hawes in series two. Times past I've seen her sympathetic and vulnerable or stone-cold bitch. Here she's both wrapped up into one complex bundle, leaving viewers guessing where she sits on the line between guilt and innocence. Daniel Mays is brutal yet strangely touching in the third outing of the show, and who knows what complexities have been woven into Thandie Newton's character in the current series? (That'd be anyone who's already watching it.)
Such is the nature of the show. It deals in human failings and degrees of culpability, within a context of suspense that ratchets up to explosive levels. Towards the end of each episode the main theme builds 24-style, relentless and compelling, as events spiral out of control, often concluding in a moment of flabbergasting shock.

And it's in those moments - those perfect 'What in hell just happened?' moments - you're glad you've got the box-set.