Wednesday, 27 September 2017

DVD/Blu-ray Review - Moonlight (15)

At some point you've gotta decide who you wanna be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you.
Here's the problem about reviewing an award-winning film months after its release. On one hand there are numerous five-star poster comments telling you how much you should like it. On the other there are responses from some who've seen it post-plaudits and been utterly underwhelmed. It's had the hype and the backlash. I avoided Moonlight reviews until such times as I watched it, but even so I'd heard that it was beautiful and ponderous, artistic and pretentious, essential viewing and a waste of my time. So I did my best to push all that all aside and treat it like it was brand new - pre-reviews, pre-Oscar hoo-hah, pre-everything.

For the next two hours, film I have never seen, I am yours. Do with me as you will.
Well, I liked Moonlight. It was nothing to do with critics or Academy Awards or worthiness. I really deep-down-liked it on its own terms. Here's why.

If you haven't seen it, Moonlight is a coming-of-age story set in Miami, Florida. It observes the progress of Chiron, a sensitive and introverted African-American boy growing up in a culture that demands he be tough. His lone-parent mother, we quickly discover, is a crack addict, and while he is too young to understand his own sexuality, taunts of 'faggot' are hurled by the bullies who chase him. We watch him grow into adolescence and from there to young adulthood, played in turn by three actors. Throughout he is grappling with his sexual identity - the person he should be and the person circumstances dictate he must be.
The most involving aspect, in a film that defies expectations, is the boy himself. I cared about Chiron (or 'Little' as he is referred to in his earliest youth) from the start, largely because of young Alex Hibbert's vulnerable, near-silent portrayal. It's like the mirror opposite of Sunny Pawar's winning turn in Lion, but an equally authentic child performance. More than that, the actors who carry on his story (Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as the teen and adult versions respectively) do so seamlessly, holding onto the thread of a single troubled life. The mature Chiron may have filled out physically, but the same hurting child lurks at his core. 
There are other beautifully judged characterisations too. Naomie Harris plays Chiron's mother over the three time periods, convincing utterly as a damaged woman whose love for her son is compromised by addiction. Mahershala Ali (you may know him as the smooth Remy Denton in House of Cards) is similarly believable as a drug-dealing father figure. Hidden Figures' Janelle Monae provides much-needed maternal warmth. And Andre Holland, the adult incarnation of Chiron's friend Kevin, is understated but superb in the scenes he shares with Rhodes. 
This is a film of silences - understandably, since the protagonist is so muted. But it's also one of profound emotional moments. A beautifully shot swimming lesson, an awkward teen encounter on a beach, the attempt by a mother who knows she's failed to reach her child. The camera lingers a lot, searching for what the characters (chiefly Chiron) are trying and often failing to say. If the melancholy classical score seems at odds with the environment, it ultimately fits a story of a boy dislocated from the world around him by nature and sexuality. 
Moonlight is a story of painful self-discovery, with a problem-fraught love-story at its bruised, beating heart. It's the hood shot unashamedly through an artist's lens, so that beauty is found among the ugliness. Should it have beaten La La Land (or Lion for that matter) to the Best Picture award? I have no idea how to choose between different types of excellence. All I know is that Moonlight got to me, and that I'll watch it again.
Gut Reaction: It drew me in slowly and then hooked me with moments of intense poignancy. The closing scenes were a subtle kind of stunning.

Ed's Verdict: A director's passion project and three great performances combining into an authentic one. It's got a really good claim on my vote.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Film Review - Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15)

We're from the Kingsman tailor's shop in London. Maybe you've heard of us?
2014 brought us Kingsman: The Secret Service, a comedy spy thriller based on the British Kingsman comic books. It introduced us to Gary 'Eggsy' Unwin (Taron Egerton), a track-suited petty criminal, who was effectively adopted by Colin Firth's dapper secret agent Harry Hart (code name 'Galahad'). He was then trained as one of the 'Kingsmen', an ancient and clandestine spy organisation operating from a Savile Row tailor's. It was daft, cartoony fun, like Pierce Brosnan's James Bond on steroids and even more tongue-in-cheek. It also had the enjoyable conceit of a chavvy hero made over into a pinstripe-wearing gentleman. 'Manners maketh man,' Eggsy was advised by his classy mentor, who saw past the baseball cap and bling to the potential 'Kingsman' beneath.
In Kingsman: The Golden Circle the franchise is firmly established, Eggsy having completed his training and more than proven his worth in the field. The result is an opening that plunges us straight into wild, splendidly choreographed action that takes in most of Central London. Egerton is tailored to the nines and fighting for his life against an unexpected opponent in seconds. Soon after, a certain seismic event has Eggsy and the Kingsmen's gadget guru Merlin (the always welcome Mark Strong) flying out to the USA to team up with their American counterparts the Statesmen, so they can pit themselves against a threat of global proportions. Julianne Moore is the demented master-villain of the piece, and her insane plan is already in motion. 
It's all preposterous fun, and any doubts I had about the wisdom of revisiting the world were rapidly dispelled. This is largely to do with the script, that like the first film invest proceedings with a huge amount of (sometimes dubious) wit and charm. Director Matthew Vaughn co-wrote once more with Jane Goldman (who also did great things with The Limehouse Golem) and they're an impressive proven team. Their greatest call is to hook up our London heroes with their American cousins, broadening the storytelling canvas and revisiting the UK/US culture clash in a fresh and entertaining way. Everything down to the code-names of their Kentucky-based comrades-in-arms is a delight.
Eggsy is even more likeable second time around, Egerton's performance served by a script that makes him all-round loyal - to colleagues, old friends, girlfriend - rather than a casual Bond-style player. He has strong back-up from the suave Brits, while Pedro Pascal is the standout of the US crowd (Game of Thrones devotees will know him as the vengeful Oberyn Martell), wielding an electronically enhanced lasso as his weapon of choice.
All these novelties are welcome, as the tropes of the Kingsman franchise are already firmly established. The tech is total science fiction, the action both balletic and lethal and the villains gleefully flamboyant. The movie risks sameness with its original, but is kept fresh at every point by attention to detail and by pushing each ludicrous premise to busting point. Take Julianne Moore's villain's lair - a garish theme-park tribute to classic Americana. More silly than sinister, even when the most vicious acts are being carried out there.
Ultimately this Kingsman sequel was much more enjoyable than it had any right to be. It certainly pressed all the buttons of a first-night audience, who judging by their laughs and gasps of recognition were largely well-acquainted with the original. Cram it and then go see the new one. As wastes of time go, it's a really good one.
Gut Reaction: A lot of smiles and quite a few lols, including some guilty ones. And surprisingly one or two moments that moved. Oh, and I want Eggsy's tangerine DJ.

Ed's Verdict: An evening of good, daft, throwaway fun - no more, no less. And while I'm not proud of it, a certain extended celebrity cameo made me laugh.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Film Review - Mother! (18)

Please. Please make them go.
It's surely the biggest cinematic prank of this or any year... Audiences assemble at their local multiplex to see a major Paramount Studios release starring Jennifer Lawrence (you know, from The Hunger Games, Best Actress Oscar, wears swanky frocks on the red carpet every year, call her Mainstream Jen)... and get smacked full in the face by the insanity that is Mother! Yes - the film really earns that exclamation mark in its title.
There was no warning. The trailer, despite all my recent grumbling on that subject, totally misdirects. You'd think you were about to watch a standard 'something-nasty-in-the-cellar'-type horror movie. But nothing is ever standard about a film by writer/director Darren Aronovsky. And here he achieves a whole new level of crazy.

The plot - what to tell you? J-Law is living with her older poet husband (Javier Bardem) in an isolated country pile, which she's helping renovate while he struggles with his writer's block. A stranger (Ed Harris) knocks on the door and is ushered in, soon followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer!). Their behaviour is oddly intrusive. J-Law's husband is strangely accepting. She is feeling alienated in her own home. And there is something nasty in the cellar as it happens. And something even nastier in our minds as viewers. Because we sense that the peculiar home invasions and the weirdness are only just beginning.
This is an unsettlingly surreal experience, where our trust in all we see and hear is steadily undermined along with that of the protagonist. Aronovsky proved how freaky a soundscape could be in psychological ballet thriller (there aren't many of those) Black Swan; here he ups the ante, intensifying every noise in the house to match the increasingly bizarre occurrences and unnerving symbolism of the visuals. The young wife is an innocent, whose life is unaccountably turning into a (possibly literal) nightmare. We're perturbed along with her, as the camera lingers on her face or follows close behind, ramping up the sense of claustrophobia. The house that is supposed to be her haven from the world is under a very different kind of attack than anything you could possibly imagine. 
Lawrence is strong here, in an unforgiving role. She soaks up all the house's troubling secrets and events along with us, only occasionally blinking into the exterior sunlight. Bardem brings all the ambiguity you'd expect from him - empathetic at points, infuriating at other, with hints of a writer's preening self-regard. And every other face - including one or two which really surprise - are just there to mess further with your head.

Mother! is a film that builds incrementally but relentlessly into disconcerting strangeness and worse. It seems to plateau two thirds of the way in, and then you find it was just catching its breath at base camp, before a rapid ascent to the absolute summit of Mount Batshit. I was almost smirking at it for pretentiousness, before the final half hour took revenge and battered me into silence. 
If Aronovsky's Requiem for a Dream was despairing, this is full of anger - burning rage in fact. Mother! suggests a film-maker with one hell of a dark worldview right now, one who has the creative gift to let it all out in an astonishing, divisive way. To say more (if I had sufficient powers of description) would be to reveal too much. And that assumes you want to take on the craziest, most disorienting studio film of the season. Mother! may fill you with love or hate, but forgetting it simply won't be an option. You, if not those early audiences, have been warned.
Gut Reaction: I actually laughed at the end credits out of sheer relief. One of the cinema staff asked me if I liked it. I replied, 'I have no idea.' Then I stumbled home for a much-needed shot of single malt.

Ed's Verdict: It's bizarre, disturbing, brutal, baffling, symbolical, metaphorical, allegorical... and if you enjoy boundary-pushing cinema it's a must-see. Did I understand it? Bits. Did I like it? Give me another six months on that one.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Film Review - Victoria and Abdul (PG)

What CAN they be talking about?
Here we go - one more beautifully-embalmed heritage film to sell abroad, was my uncharitable reaction when I saw the trailer for Victoria and Abdul. But then the film upended my prejudices rather effectively, and entertained me into the bargain. It does have Judi Dench in it after all. How could I have doubted? 

However it's not Dame Judi's input, superb though she is, that initially impressed me. This is a fine-looking movie, but the finery only serves to emphasise how deeply satirical it is. 
Based on Shrabani Basu's novel of the same name, Victoria and Abdul digs out one of those previously lost, too-weird-to-be-true nuggets of history and tells it with style. Abdul Karim is a lowly young clerk in the Indian city of Agra, when he is plucked from his job and sent overseas to England to carry out a single function at Queen Victoria's golden jubilee celebration. But the queen is taken with Abdul, an unlikely friendship sparks, and he becomes drawn steadily further into her life and confidence. Such a relationship (and you'll know this if you've seen Dench's original outing as Victoria in Mrs Brown) can only cause disapproval in the wider royal household, and dissent begins to brew...
More than anything this film is deeply funny, much of the humour stemming from the po-faced commitment with which the royal servants carry out their duties. Even before the Queen makes her first appearance we see the vast machinery of the monarchy in operation, the visiting 'Hindu' delegation caught up in it with utter bewilderment. The director/cinematographer team of Stephen Frears and Danny Cohen create the same lavish feel as they did in Florence Foster Jenkins, once again underlining the absurd pomposity of what is actually going on. 
At the centre of proceedings is Dench as Victoria - cantankerous and deeply bored by all that surrounds her. As in Mrs Brown, to which this film acts as a kind of sequel, her face and voice are magnificently expressive, suggesting great wells of emotion beneath. When the script allows her to cut loose with irony and self-knowledge, it's a joy to watch.
The story's central relationship is charming in its simplicity, Ali Fazal playing Abdul as wise yet curiously guileless, and unflinchingly stoic in the face of prejudice. The friendship's bizarre nature is stressed further by being set within the context of the anti-British sentiment simmering back in India. Meanwhile an array of great supporting performances (Olivia Williams, the late Tim Pigott-Smith, The Thick of It's Paul Higgins) convey the ill-concealed horror with which these new best pals are viewed. Eddie Izzard is particularly enjoyable as Victoria's disgruntled son Bertie, the Prince of Wales. And stirring the pot is the always wonderful Adeel Akhtar (The Big Sick), as Abdul's bitter, put-upon friend Mohammed. 
Victoria and Abdul turns out to be a smart and subversive film, its period gloss doing little to disguise how much it laughs at the entire concepts of monarchy and empire. Virtually the entire royal entourage is portrayed as envious and petty. It's also (like The King's Speech) a hymn to friendship, demonstrating that the real thing can cut through all kinds of barrier - in this case social status, race, religion, age and gender. Full of heartbreak and humour, this is a film likely to surprise. It certainly surprised me.
Gut Reaction: Laughter, anger and - unexpectedly - moistening of the eyes.

Ed's Verdict: Full of genuinely savage mockery, this is also a film with a tender and unusual love story at its heart.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Feature - Movie Love (Filmic Forays 1-Year Anniversary)

Everything I learned I learned from the movies. Audrey Hepburn
Chin chin! That's Jessica Chastain leading the toast, not Audrey. Yes - it's one year to the day that I brought 'Filmic Forays' into being with a maniacal cry of 'It's alive!!!' And while I don't entirely agree with the lovely Ms Hepburn, films have made quite the impact on my life - hence this blog. So to celebrate EFF making it to One (it'll be wearing big-boy pants before you know it), here are a few highlights from my own movie-going experience - the kind that made me want to talk about film in the first place. 

Escape from the Dark - 1976
The first cinema excursion that I remember took place during my summer holidays, 1976. My parents had taken me to see a short called Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, but we were late and I only saw Pooh's final ten minutes. I was gutted and had no interest in sticking around for some feature about kids rescuing pit ponies, but this forgotten Disney film hooked me with ease. I loved it so much that to this day I remember the main theme (jaunty number played by a Yorkshire brass ensemble). It's full of adventure and friendship and has a happy-sad ending. You see, the oldest of the pit ponies has been down there so long that he's lost his sight, and... No, sorry, I can't even talk about it all these years later. Anyway, it now goes under the title of The Littlest Horse Thieves, in case you want to hunt it out and have a good cry. 

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial - 1982
You know those near-transcendent moment of cinema, the ones where your spirits rise and all your vital signs speed up and you know you're going to leave the cinema on a natural high? Well the first of those I ever experienced was during E.T. It was specifically the moment where Elliott and his friends all lift off the ground on board their bikes due to E.T.'s telekinetic powers and escaped from their pursuers. I'd gone in that evening knowing that I liked cinema - but I exited knowing I loved it.

Footloose - 1984
Footloose isn't the best teen movie, the best dance movie, or the best Kevin Bacon movie ever made. It is, however, the film my friends and I went to see at the Iveagh cinema, Banbridge, on the evening after we'd finished our O-levels. And it summed up how we all felt. Like we wanted to dance forever. Lose - your blues. Everybody cut footloose. Timeless, I think you'll agree.

Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast - 1986-2005
I took out QFT membership on starting university in 1986 and kept it up for almost twenty years. I've probably seen more films in that venue than at any other (Thursday night was this film fan's arthouse night), including world cinema and lots of classics made before I was born. QFT wasn't always as salubrious as in the photo; their motto in the '90s was 'We're doing our best', which as advertising slogans go doesn't inspire huge confidence. ('We know we're a bit crap but bear with us' would have been no less effective.) However I loved the place, particularly their seasons of late-night black and white films with a complimentary half of Guinness. King Kong has never tasted so good.

Watershed, Bristol - 2000-2003
In the early Noughties I visited a friend in Bristol on several occasions, each time taking in a film at the Watershed cultural centre. It seemed a charmed place for me, because I never saw a dud there. In fact I kept taking in bona fide classics like Donnie Darko and Memento. They also serve great nachos in the cafe - or at least they did a decade and a half ago. Maybe it's the same chef today. Good times.

 The Lord of the Rings trilogy - Christmas 2001/02/03
It's not cool and it's doubtless not the mark of a true cinephile, etc. etc. - but I bloody love these films and they made Christmas special all over again for three beautiful festive seasons. I missed what had become a Yuletide event in 2004, but happily director Peter Jackson and his extended team provided more seasonal joy in 2005 with their magnificent King Kong remake. Ian McKellen facing off with the balrog, an army of marching trees, Sam's devotion to Frodo - precious memories. Precious. No?

Chatham Odeon 2013 - present
Yes I know it's got slightly more romance than Rosemary's Baby, but it's where my ongoing affair with cinema chiefly plays out these days. It's where I saw Lincoln, The Martian, Nocturnal Animals and most recently IT. The staff are lovely and if you're feeling extravagant they put Oreos in the popcorn. There's comfortable seating too, so you can have a nap during the likes of The Hitman's Bodyguard. Can't say fairer than that. 

It's been a splendid cinema-going twelve months, all the better for getting to share it with you. Yes, you. And with Mother!, The Death of Stalin and Star Wars: The Last Jedi all on the way, well - we've only just begun. 

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Film Review - IT (15)

We all float down here...
I read Stephen King's It in my twenties - a great big thousand-page wallow that I completed in a matter of weeks, so pure was its entertainment value. The TV mini-series of 1990 had its joys, but ultimately failed to capture the book's epic physical and emotional scope. There was room for a new, definitive version, and this could be - well - it.
King's mega-novel switched back and forth between the adult and childhood experiences of a group of friends, who first encountered the IT of the title in their early teens. This new film makes the smart move of telling only the childhood portion of the story, giving its teenage actors space to flesh out their world in all its adolescent turmoil. It also updates these scenes three decades, depositing the characters to clever effect in the cine-literate 1980s.
Our protagonists, seven of them, live in the New England town of Derry, a place plagued by child disappearances. They discern what the adults could never comprehend - that the children of Derry are being terrorised by an entity that manifests itself to each as his or her deepest fear. If you're freaked out by zombie movies or an image from a painting or a trauma from your past, that's the form in which IT will come after you. IT has a default identity too - a malevolent clown called Pennywise, who first appears in an iconic scene from the novel involving a paper boat and a storm drain. Everyone, we soon learn, floats down there...
There are many ways in which a retelling of a story this huge could trip up, and the new IT avoids them all. This is chiefly due to a well-crafted, intelligent and funny script provided for a great bunch of kid actors. 'The Losers Club', as our group of teen misfits knowingly term themselves, have a wonderful, infectious chemistry from the off, and you thoroughly enjoy being a part of their beleaguered gang. These youngsters represents a catalogue of adolescent problems - abuse, neglect, bullying, hypochondria, illness, body issues... In short they're a great banquet of fear and insecurity, which sets IT's mouth watering. But they also have humour, spirit and loyalty, and therefore a shot, however slim, at coming out as more than victims. 
Grown-ups in this movie are peripheral figures - ineffectual at best, and at their worst downright sinister. The result is that we're immersed in the kids' world, as they struggle to survive multiple terrifying encounters with IT with no recourse to adult aid. 

Then of course there's Pennywise. Originally played by Tim Curry, he was most people's favourite part of the TV adaptation, a vicious face-painted child catcher with a line in gleefully wicked humour. Here he's less the joker and more a gurgling baby-faced horror - a twisted relic from a olde-worlde carnival. It's a different, and no less chilling source of fun, played masterfully by Bill Skarsgard. Those who suffer from coulrophobia (yes, fear of clowns has a name) will have a tricky time here. The rest of us will thoroughly enjoy Pennywise, along with all the other deliciously Gothic visuals on display.
As for my personal fear factor, there were shocks and sustained tension. However this experience is more akin to a thrilling, beautifully executed ghost-train ride than an exercise in real dread. Think the camaraderie of Stand By Me and the excitement of The Goonies, with sharper teeth and much more blood. Every visual and audio trick in the horror book is used here, but used well. This movie is thumping good entertainment, as funny as it is macabre. You'll love the Losers, feel their fear and pain and root for them to the last. 
Now - if the film-makers can do the adult sections of King's novel with similar imagination and psychological insight, our definitive screen IT will be complete. Here's hoping.
Gut Reaction: Lost my chocolate bar due to jumping in the film's early stages. The rest was tension broken up with bursts of laughter.

Ed's Verdict: At the funhouse end of the horror spectrum, this film still has genuinely creepy moments. It's also a terrific coming-of-age story, full of humour and heart. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

Film Review - The Limehouse Golem (15)

Even madness has its own logic.
The Limehouse Golem was promoted as a Jack the Ripper-style murder mystery set in 1880s London, but turns out to be a story of much greater depth. Based on Peter Ackroyd's 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, it lingers more in the music halls of the day and among the stacks of the British Library than around gory crime scenes, (thought the latter get plenty of screen time too). Lovers of blood-soaked costume melodrama will not be short-changed, but neither will those who like something a bit more cerebral.
The film is structured initially like a conventional detective drama. The brooding Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) is drafted in to investigate a batch of murders in East London's Limehouse district, so gruesome that locals are attributing them to a supernatural source - the mythical 'golem'. His investigations swiftly tie in with an ongoing murder trial - a hapless young woman called Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), who faces execution if convicted. Uncovering the truth behind the golem killings and the crime of which Elizabeth stands accused becomes Kildare's joint obsession.
Those expecting (like me) a linear Sherlock Holmes-style investigation will experience something surprisingly different. Screenwriter Jane Goldman is as much interested in Victorian music hall, and the film recreates this in all its seedy glory. The theatre and backstage areas are populated with vivid, bickering characters, not least Dan Leno - the renowned stage comedian of the era. 
Played by Douglas Booth he's one of several real-life characters woven into the complex tapestry of the plot. He's also the most vibrantly portrayed. This is a story about reality and artifice after all - about false personas and alter-egos and what brews beneath the surface. About the kind of deep-seated passions that result in vicious blood-letting.
The film's greatest success, perhaps, is incorporating the original novel's fascination with historical London. Ackroyd is chiefly known as a biographer - of Dickens, Blake and the City itself - and his knowledge is brought to bear here visually. London Town looks magnificent and squalid by turns, its buildings and costumes realised in all their detail, however tawdry or beautiful. Its personalities are vivid too, as played by a wonderful cast of character actors - Daniel Mays as the earnest copper aiding the Inspector, or Eddie Marsan as 'Uncle', the affable manager of the theatre troupe, to pick out two from the colourful bunch.
The Limehouse Golem is an intricate puzzle of a film, full of characters you think you know, but very possibly don't. Long after the story's final revelations the ambiguities will stay with you, as will the 1880s London in its filthy beauty. It's a movie that frustrates and fascinates at the same time and I recommend that you see it with a friend. There'll be a lot to talk about.
Gut Reaction: Absorbed at all points - leaning forward to take in all that delicious visual detail.

Ed's Verdict: Despite its stately pace, this is a gorgeously made film with much more going on than you might expect going in...